Seabiscuit, An American Legend
You don't throw a whole life away just cause its banged up a little.
It is a story that inspired a nation...and one that almost didn't happen. It is the story of a country whose dreams had been shattered...and the people who found a hero in an average horse that could achieve the unthinkable.
It is the story of three lost men-Johnny "Red" Pollard (TOBEY MAGUIRE), a young man whose spirit had been broken; Charles Howard (four-time Oscar nominee JEFF BRIDGES), a millionaire who lost everything; and Tom Smith (Academy Award~ winner CHRIS COOPER), a cowboy whose world was vanishing-who found each other and discovered hope in an unlikely place. The odds were incredible.
The dream was impossible...
And somehow, it actually happened.
From Academy Award-nominated filmmaker GARY ROSS (Pleasantville, Dave) comes the motion picture adaptation of the story that transfixed a nation from one of the most beloved and widely-read non fiction books of the past decade: Seabiseuit. To film the tale of the down-and-out racehorse that took the entire nation on the ride of a lifetime, screenwriter/director/producer Ross has assembled an impressive list of seasoned and accomplished filmmaking talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Joining Maguire, Bridges and Cooper in the cast are ELIZABETH BANKS (Catch Me If You Can, Spider-Man) as Marcela Howard, Charles Howard's wife; Hall of Fame Jockey GARY STEVENS (in his motion picture debut) as George "The Iceman" Woolf; and Academy Award nominee WILLIAM H. MACY (Fargo, Boogie Nights) as reporter "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin.
Producing, along with Gary Ross, are prolific and Oscar~-nominated filmmakers KATHLEEN KENNEDY (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Sixth Sense) and FRANK MARSHALL (Signs, The Bourne Identity), and JANE SINDELL. The film is b~ased on the best-selling book by LAURA HILLENBRAND. GARY BARBER (Bruce Almighty, Shanghai Knights), ROGER BIRNBAUM (Bruce Almighty, The Recruit), the film's Tobey Maguire, ALLISON THOMAS (Pleasantville) and ROBIN BISSELL (Pleasantville) serve as executive producers.
Collaborating with Ross to re-create the world of the first decades of the 20th Century are director of photography JOHN SCHWARTZMAN, A.S.C. ( The Rookie, Armageddon); two-time Oscar~-nominated production designer JEANNINE OPPEWALL (L.A. Conf dential, Pleasantville); Academy Award~ nominated film editor WILLIAM GOLDENBERG, A.C.E. (Ali, The Insider); double Oscar~-nominated costume designer JUDIANNA MAKOVSKY (Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Pleasantville); and Academy Award-winning composer RANDY NEWMAN (Monsters, Inc., Toy Story).
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In 1996, while working on an article on an unrelated subject, writer Laura Hillenbrand came across some material about the owner and the trainer of a Depression-era racehorse named Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand, who got on her first horse at the age of five, had brought together her love of horses and history by writing for Equus and a variety of other publications. She first read about Seabiscuit as a child and encountered him again and again in her work as a fan and chronicler of horseracing. While she knew the story of the knobby-kneed horse and his strange and inspiring career, she knew little about the people around him-the owner, the trainer and the jockey. She had little idea that her discovery that day would lead to a publishing phenomenon.
Four years later, Hillenbrand submitted the book for publication. From the beginning, her expectations were modest. "I was thinking," remembers Hillenbrand, "'If I can sell 5000 copies out of the trunk of my car, I'll be happy.' I just wanted to tell the story."
So the author wasn't prepared for the call she received from her editor informing her that after only five days on sale, the book had already made it onto the best-seller list, debuting at No. 8. The following week it rose to No. 2 and, the week after that, Seabiscuit, An American Legend topped the list at No. 1.
The response to the book from critics and the public was overwhelming. Named one of the best books of the year by more than twenty publi~ations- including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, People, USA Today, and The Economist- Seabiscuit was also honored as the BookSense Nonfiction Book of the Year and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. The hardcover edition remained on The New York Times Best-Seller List for 30 weeks; the paperback edition debuted on the list the week of April 14, 2002, and hasn't left since (remaining there for more than 60 weeks).
In addition to being one of Hollywood's most gifted storytellers, director and screenwriter Gary Ross is also a long-time fan of horseracing. Ross' love for racing started early on-he asked his parents if he could have his bar mitzvah at the racetrack. He and his wife, executive producer Allison Thomas, had spent a fair amount of time at the track before they came across an article about three men and an unlikely racehorse named Seabiscuit entitled "Four Good Legs Between Us" in a little-known publication called American Heritage. The author was Laura Hillenbrand.
A heavy bidding war for the film rights to the proposed book ensued and then Ross decided to make a call to Hillenbrand.
"I talked to her about horseracing," recalls Ross, who spent two hours on the phone with the author, "and specifically about Secretariat's Belmont, which to me is still the most amazing athletic achievement ever."
Hillenbrand sensed Ross' enthusiasm for horseracing. But more importantly, she believed that he loved the story for the same reasons she did.
The forgotten and almost discarded horse that rose to become the most popular and winning-est horse of its time was compelling, but Hillenbrand says the focus of her interest lay elsewhere.
She explains, "Lots of my readers say 'I've never been to a horse race' or 'I don't like horses,' but they say they liked the story. I think that's because of the people in it-and that was always my focus, these three men. That's why the cover of the book doesn't have the horse's head on it. I made a very deliberate decision to focus on the faces of the people so that you know this is a human story."
Behind the story of a famous racehorse was indeed a phenomenally human story, writ large across the dramatic landscape of a momentous period in American history and told with all of the thrill and excitement of Thoroughbred racing in its heyday.
It was the beginning of the 20'h Century. Charles Howard, the young owner of a bicycle shop in San Francisco, was startled by a loud rumbling. When he went to investigate the source of the noise, he saw the future-the strange contraption they called an automobile was barreling down the street toward him, leaving the hoof prints and wheel marks of horse-driven carriages in its dusty wake. And within a few years, Charles Howard owned the most successful Buick dealership in the West. But the cars that had brought him success and fortune ended up stealing the thing he loved most. After his son was killed in an automobile accident, Howard's life spiraled downward, his marriage dissolved and he was left empty and alone.
Hundreds of miles away, a cowboy named Tom Smith rode horses across a boundless and beautiful region that seemed to stretch out forever in every direction. But the boundlessness gave way to barbed wire and railroad tracks, covering the landscape like spiders' webs. The cowboy became obsolete and Tom Smith was a walking relic in the New World.
John Pollard was born into a lively and pr~osperous family of Irish immigrants, a home filled with books '1 and songs. But the Pollards were hit by hard times; the family lost everything. At a makeshift racetrack Johnny Pollard, barely a young man, was left to make his way in the world doing the one thing he could-ride a horse. What he couldn't make racing he scraped together by boxing. Beaten down but determined, Johnny "Red" Pollard learned to look out for himself and to trust no one.
In 1932, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited the leadership of a country with a jobless rate as high as fifty percent in some cities, where two million people wandered the country without homes or employment. Never before had America faced such great poverty and desperation. The hope of a young nation was slipping away behind bolted bank doors and at the end of ever-increasing breadlines.
A few years later, Charles Howard remarried a beautiful young woman named Marcela Zabala-the two had met at the track. Together the newlywed couple decided to buy a horse. Howard had hired a peculiarly quiet and idiosyncratic trainer named Tom Smith, who spied a spark of promise in a difficult and awkward plain bay named Seabiscuit-the son of Hardtack, descendent of the great Man-O-War. Beaten up and beaten down, the horse had grown stubborn and reckless and was on his way to being discarded.
But Smith saw something in the knobby-kneed bay, just as Charles Howard had seen something in Smith. Tom saw the same inner spirit in a troubled jockey and in 193G, on a beautiful fall day at the track in Saratoga, the Howards were introduced by their trainer to a young jockey named "Red" Pollard.
In the hands of Howard, his trainer and his new jockey, the indomitable spirit sensed in Seabiscuit that first morning took hold of the horse. He transformed from the unruly, ungraceful animal to a head-turning record breaker. With an instinctual faith in Smith, Pollard and Seabiscuit, Charles Howard, a consummate showman, challenged the (current) Triple Crown winner, a powerful, stunning black horse named War Admiral, to a match race. The resulting race became much more than a competition between two champion animals and their riders-it grew into a contest between two worlds: the East Coast establishment of bankers and their beautiful horses versus a nation of downtrodden but spirited have-nots who championed a ragtag team of three displaced men and their unlikely challenger.
Seabiscuit won the match race and went on to be named 1938 Horse of the Year. The victory, however, was bittersweet. Just before that race, Pollard had been seriously injured in an accident on another horse. When told Red would possibly never walk again, Howard was ready to cancel the race. But Pollard insisted that it go on and that his friend and fellow jockey, George "The Iceman" Woolf, ride Seabiscuit, which he did-to victory.
Months later, Seabiscuit was injured in a race. Howard brought both Red and Seabiscuit to his sprawling ranch in Northern California so the two friends could convalesce together. Red spent his days reading and taking the horse on walks under the California Oaks. Slowly, the impossible started to happen; walks turned into canters and canters into gallops and soon Seabiscuit and Red were racing through the grass-covered hills of Howard's home.
In 1940, F.D.R. was re-elected for an unprecedented third term. On a chalkboard at the Santa Anita Handicap, a man wrote "Seabiscuit" under the list of race entries and the crowd roared. The people's hero had returned, beating all the odds, to race once again- this time with an equally miraculous Red Pollard holding the reins. Together, horse and jockey crossed the finish line first, with retirement for both waiting on the other side.
Filmmaker Gary Ross was immediately attracted to the three-sided story as related by Hillenbrand. "I was knocked out by it," he says, "by these wonderfully heroic characters and this horse that became a folk hero."
Hillenbrand loved the story of this horse and these three men. She loved horseracing and she worked very hard to bring that love to the page. But she knew there could be more. "There were things that I couldn't do as a writer," says the author, "I can tell the story, but I can't show you the story. As soon as I spoke to Gary Ross I knew this was the man for it. I clicked with him immediately. I understood that he saw horseracing as I did, that he was somebody who was enthralled by the speed and the danger and the beauty of it, and that he would convey that on the screen, and I love the work he's done. I think my faith in him has been borne out, he wrote a brilliant screenplay and the movie is terrific."
The jockey, the owner and the trainer were at the core of the story Hillenbrand wanted to tell. "My loyalties lie with my subjects, and in selling the film rights to my book, my priority was to find a director who would be true to who they were," says the author, "portraying them in a way that was consistent with their personalities and their circumstances. What sold me on Gary Ross was his dedication-bordering on obsession-to portraying these men, this horse, their era and their story as they were. He went out of his way to adhere to events as they occurred, but when he reached a part of the story where he needed to fictionalize or compress events, he invariably called me and described each scene to ensure that he was being true to his subjects."
Adapting a book for the screen is always a challenge; it means facing the difficult choices of what to keep in and what to leave out. As Ross sat down to write the script, he faced the daunting task of distilling the author's exhaustive and detailed 400-page account. One of his first steps was to outline the story. "When you are adapting a story for the screen," says Ross, " you extract the key elements of the story, the high points, what it is that attracted you to it in the first place."
What caught Ross' attention were these three men and their struggle to overcome incredible hardship and loss and their willingness to come together to find the courage to rebuild their lives. "Red lost his family, Howard lost a son and Smith lost his way of life," explains Ross. "How do you transcend that kind of pain, overcome the grief?
"What I discovered in the story," continues Ross, "were three characters all broken that could have quit. Instead they reached out to each other and formed a unique nuclear family."
"In any good adaptation," Ross explains, "what you're really being faithful to is the spirit of the book; that was my compass, that's what I wanted to make sure I was honoring. Of course I would change details and would fictionalize parts. That way, I could capture the impact of the story, the meaning of the book. So every change I made I cleared with Laura, who was wonderfully open. It was like having a great collaborator. Every time I needed to fictionalize something I could just pick up the phone, call Laura, and say, 'How does this feel?"'
A book is like a child to an author and handing it over to someone else is a difficult task. "I was always a little worried about what was going to happen with the screenplay," Hillenbrand confesses, "there's no way to tell the story exactly the way you do in a book. It's a 400-page book and things have to be condensed and things have to be fictionalized and there's a lot that needs to happen to craft this into a movie that's a watchable length."
Then Ross sent Hillenbrand the script for her comments. "Right away when I started reading it, I was just filled with rapture," says Hillenbrand, "it's so lyrical and beautiful, and he has taken what is a wonderful story and infused it with his creativity and his visual sense. The final product is just fantastic."
For both Hillenbrand and Ross, the key to the story was the strange and unlikely relationship between the three men-Seabiscuit's jockey, Johnny "Red" Pollard; the trainer, Tom Smith; and the owner, Charles Howard. Each man had his own story that began before their paths converged because of one amazing animal.
"It's about three journeys," comments screenwriter/director Ross. "These were men who were broken, each for different reasons; they were like pieces and they needed each other to become whole again."
In many ways, the convergence of the main characters of the story mirrored the assembly of the filmmakers who were likewise drawn to the moving and memorable story.
Ross remembers, "I met with Kathleen Kennedy to talk about another project, and she had asked me about Seabiscuit. I didn't really know her at the time, but she had a huge amount of enthusiasm and she'd produced some enormous projects. Kennedy and Ross began a dialogue about the project and found that they were "kindred spirits" in the way they viewed the filmic telling of the story, especially with their agreement on the human relationships at the core.
"Tom Smith was down-and-out as a trainer and nobody really thought he was worth hiring anymore," explains producer Kennedy. "Charles Howard had gone through an extraordinarily sad experience in his life with the loss of a son and eventually the dissolution of his marriage. Red Pollard had suffered his losses, being left on his own at such a young age. And the fact that Pollard, Howard and Smith and this funny looking little racehorse came together and basically re-built their lives while creating a legend -those are the elements of a wonderful story."
Ross and the filmmakers then turned their attentions to bringing Ross' screenplay to life by putting actors' (and horses') faces to the historic names involved in Seabiseuit.
While the many of the roles in the film were open for casting, Ross had specifically created three parts for three specific actors-starting with Tobey Maguire as the jockey Red Pollard. Ross and Maguire had known each other since the filmmaker had cast him in Pleasantville as a teenage boy nostalgic for a time that never was.
"I ran into Gary," Maguire recalls, "and he said 'Why don't you pick up a copy of Seabiseuit and have a read?,' which is exactly what I did. I read the book and I thought it was fantastic. I just loved it."
Johnny "Red" Pollard had lived a hardscrabble life; abandoned at a track when he was still a boy, he struggled to make his way in a difficult world. Money he earned from amateur and often brutal boxing matches supplemented the meager income he made doing the one thing he loved-racing a horse.
Pollard was an anomaly, even among jockeys. In spite of his vagabond life, he always carried a bag of books, spun fantastic tales and quoted Shakespeare in the jockey's room. The too-tall jockey with a shock of crimson hair was a bundle of contradictions, a complex and enigmatic man.
Ross saw similarities in Maguire and Poilard and explains, "I knew Tobey. He has lived a difficult life and I knew he had a fire in him-a complexity and an innate toughness."
"I think Tobey is a De Niro of the new generation," notes Kennedy. "There is an edge to him as well as a vulnerability, and I think that's what Gary was looking for in casting the role of Pollard. There's a lot of rage and anger in Red, and at the same time, his connection with Seabiscuit was like no other jockey that came in contact with this horse. When the two of them came together, they kind of calmed each other down... enough for Red to discover who he was as a jockey and Seabiscuit to transform into a championship race horse."
Maguire's list of roles in varied films like Pleasant?Jille, The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules have earned him the respect and admiration of critics and the public alike. Coming off the tremendous success of Spider-Man and gearing up for the sequel, Maguire says Seabiscuit was a perfect opportunity for him.
"This is a great role for me," explains the young actor. "I want to challenge myself and find different things to play. I think this is a great next step for me. It's funny because Gary Ross knows me so well. He knew this would appeal to me."
"I think Tobey is immensely talented," adds Ross, "and I love working with him. He is street-smart and yet there is an incredible kind of compassion and wisdom in him. There is an understanding and a generosity of spirit that he has for his friends and loved ones that is very touching. And those were a lot of the contradictions that I saw in the character of Red Pollard."
"I think what's interesting," continues Maguire, "is that all three of the characters isolate themselves. They are lonely characters who have shut themselves off for various reasons. Tom Smith is in a new world that he doesn't belong in, Charles Howard loses his son and my character loses his family home. Seabiscuit is the unlikely charm that brings the three of us together."
In addition to being a self-made man and a spirited entrepreneur, Charles Howard was an incredible showman. As producer Kennedy notes, "He exemplifies that kind of corporate P.T. Barnum, a larger-than-life character. Howard went from bicycle repairman to changing the landscape of the West, opening the first Buick dealership, popularizing the automobile and becoming a wealthy man."
Four-time Academy Award~ nominee Jeff Bridges was signed to play Charles Howard, a role he inhabits with charismatic authority. "Charles Howard is the linchpin in this group of people," notes Ross. "I was so lucky to have Jeff. He's such a great actor, with such a long career and so many unbelievable roles. He brings the solid legs of a patriarch."
Bridges, it turned out, had a personal connection to the story. The actor recalls, "I became aware of the book shortly after it came out. My cousin Kathy Simpson called me up and she said, 'I've just read a book, and you've got to play the part of Charles Howard.' And I said, 'You're kidding, who is Charles Howard?' She said, 'He owned Seabiscuit.' And part of the reason why my cousin was so excited was that our grandfather, Fred Simpson, used to go to the races three or four times a week. As a teenager, I remember driving him to the races at Santa Anita. Some time in his life, he probably bet on Seabiscuit. While we were shooting the picture, I could kind of feel his spirit smiling up there in heaven and looking down on us."
Producer Frank Marshall succinctly says, "Jeff Bridges is Charles Howard. He embodies that character."
"It's rare when you find a movie that is really the story of three people," Bridges observes, "and, in this case, this amazing horse, interwoven so beautifully, allowing the audience to care about each story. Laura certainly did that in the book and Gary Ross did a really terrific job carrying that right over into the script."
"Sometimes there are parts that fit like a glove," says actor Chris Cooper who plays Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer. Smith was a man displaced by a rapidly changing world, a man who was more comfortable with horses than people. He was dubbed "Silent Tom" by a pesky and persistent racing press whom he took pleasure in dodging.
"Chris Cooper has had an extraordinary career," notes Kennedy. "He's managed to be very much a chameleon with the roles he has done. I think both Gary and I were really taken with the work that he had done in American Beauty. We had an early look at Adaptation and saw the character that he played, which won him the Oscar. His extraordinary work in that film really convinced us that Chris was more than capable of getting inside Tom Smith."
Cooper raised cattle with his father for twenty years and came to the part with a good idea of what kind of man Smith was. Cooper offers, "The director has an enormous weight on his shoulders. I want to come in with something and take that burden off his shoulders. I came prepared, I came with this character in mind and Gary liked what I created."
"Chris brings a piece of the West with him," says Ross. "It's in his walk, his voice, his physicality. Even when we were shooting at a racetrack or a church or some fancy eastern barn, he made sure he never lost it. In every scene with Chris Cooper, you still feel the range-it's very much alive and you feel where he came from. That's just a great actor."
The woman who brings Charles Howard back from the brink of despair and helps him find a new life is a dark beauty named Marcela Zabala. "Marcela came into Charles Howard's life at a time when he wasn't really looking for anyone," explains Kennedy. "He was very much alone at that point because he was just getting over the death of his son. Marcela offered a little ray of hope."
Marcela Howard was half her husband's age and a graceful and fearless adventurer. While on safari, she took out a lion that had threatened their camp. At one point, she smuggled a blue monkey into the Waldorf Astoria.
Recalls executive producer Robin Bissell, "We read a lot of people for Marcela. Elizabeth came in and we read the last scene in the movie between her and Jeff Bridges, which is with the child's game. She brought something so real to it, and it hammered us in the room."
"Elizabeth has the qualities of an old movie star," Bissell adds "like Lauren Bacall-there's a beauty and a grace about her, and she can also be one of the boys, which is exactly what Marcela was. She was one of the guys, she fit right in."
For Banks, the role of Marcela posed challenges for a woman accustomed to the stronger role of women in the 21S' Century compared to her early 20'h Century counterparts.
The actress offers, "Some of my preparation consisted of becoming familiar with the physical world of Marcela-the clothes, her makeup and hair, her posture. It was really illuminating reading about the etiquette of male/female relationships back then. As a wife in the '30s, I doh't actually speak as much as I am present. You let your husband take care of things. In one scene in the hospital, as a modern woman, I had the urge to walk up to the actor playing the doctor. But back then, a wife stood back, and waited for her husband to tell her about the situation.
And so Marcela is a nice balance-a good combination of being this eccentric wild woman who had a way of pulling things out of men and getting her way...but in a very quiet, very behind-the-scenes way."
"The casting of Gary Stevens was probably the most spontaneously correct bit of casting I have ever experienced," comments Kennedy of Ross' decision to hire Hall of Fame jockey Stevens to play another famous jockey, George Woolf. "I mean literally, Gary Ross walked through the jockey's room, saw Gary, looked at him and said, 'You know what? How would you like to play George Woolf?"'
Even though Ross had never spent anytime with Stevens, he and the producers felt that the champion jockey, one of the finest riding today, was capable of acting. "Sometimes you just get hit with an instinct," Ross explains. "He looks like a movie star, and there was a cocky bravado, a kind of confidence."
With a lot to be confident about, Stevens is arguably one of the sport's greatest living riders. A Hall of Fame jockey with more than 4,700 wins in his career, he has eight Triple Crown victories (three Kentucky Derbys, two Preakness and three Belmonts). Additionally, he's won eight Breeders' Cup Classics and his horses have earned more than $200 million in combined earnings.
Stevens wasn't sure Ross was serious when he offered him the part. "I thought it was a joke at first, but after the Kentucky Derby, I went ahead and agreed to play the part. At that time I had no idea how big it was going to be."
The filmmakers sent Stevens for a few days of training with respected acting coach Larry Moss. But Moss sent Stevens home after a day.
Despite his filmmakers' opinions, Stevens downplays his skills as an actor. "Fortunately for me, I don't have to do a lot of acting," he quips. "George Woolf is very similar to me-I mean, he was a top-class rider and he liked to have a good time. His nickname was 'The Iceman.' They said he had ice water running through his veins. Nothing bothered him, he thrived on the big races and it's just a character that I feel very, very comfortable playing."
But Ross, who studied acting with famed teacher Stella Adler, knows there's a little more to acting than simply being yourself. "Every scene Gary has done he has been prepared, he has totally understood what to do," says the director. "I don't know where this came from, he just has a natural ability. It was one of the biggest surprises for me, how good an actor he turned out to be."
Of the parts written specifically for a particular actor, the role of Tick-Tock McGlaughlin was the second for Ross. And for him, only William H. Macy, another Pleasantville alum, would do.
Ross created the role of the fast-talking radio announcer. He recalls, "Tick-Tock McGlaughlin just hit me while I was in the middle of the script. I knew I was going to need a track reporter once the story shifted to Santa Anita. I'd seen those kinds of touts. But the character, his sense of humor, his rapid-fire delivery and play on words, his boozing and carousing, all just came to me in real time while I was writing. I think I'd written one monologue of it when I realized, 'Oh, this is Macy.' I normally don't have such happy accidents."
Macy was thrilled to play the part he describes as a cross between radio legend Walter Winchell and a carnival barker. "Gary is a great writer," says the actor. "In order to tell the story, he needed a bit of a Greek chorus, someone to move it along and to tell us what we were seeing. And secondly, I think he just landed on the idea of spicing up this story with this insane character. So he created this great character for me, who has all of these hysterical speeches, which I deliver as fast as I can humanly speak."
Lastly, the screenwriter/director/ producer created a third role for a very different kind of voice: noted historian David McCullough. Ross states that one of the draws of Hillenbrand's book was her ability to bring the history of the period alive. To replicate that, he chose to incorporate a narrator. The Depression was a story in itself, dramatic and complex, and Ross believed it needed to be told.
He observes, "It was a time when people from all different walks of life were thrown together. So, one of the first decisions I made was to have McCullough narrate the film. I wrote the lead for Tobey, I created Tick-Tock for Bill Macy, and I wanted David McCullough as the narrator."
"We wanted to be able to tell the story of these three men and the horse," adds executive producer Allison Thomas, "but in order to get the full impact of their lives you really had to have a broader understanding of the Depression."
"There were two ways I could think of to do that," continues Ross. "I could try to establish the historical context dramatically or force it into the movie in a way that the movie may not be able to hold. But I thought the better way would be just to tell it. Why do I have to be a slave to the dramatic devices of creating a bunch of characters to reveal something when it could be so exciting to shatter the fourth wall, using something unique like documentary filmmaking techniques, use somebody as iconic vocally as David McCullough and give the audience a sense of realism that would be much more compelling than anything I could possibly dramatize? I felt that that was a much more interesting way to go.
"When I read the screenplay," recalls historian
McCullough, "I just thought, 'This is wonderful, this is really a great story. And if I can help tell it, I would be delighted to do so."'
"Anything David McCullough says you tend to believe," observes Frank Marshall. "There's just something about the credibility behind that voice that works on so many levels, whether it's a PBS documentary or in this case, narrating the film."
Behind the voice is one of the country's most respected historical writers. With two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards, the former President of the American Society of Historians has been called a master of the art of narrative history. In addition to his best sellers, Truman and John Adams, McCullough has authored books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal and Teddy Roosevelt. He has been an editor, essayist, and lecturer and has appeared on Smithsonian World and The American Experience. He has narrated numerous documentaries, but Seabiscuit is the first feature film to which he has lent his voice.
"Feature films very rarely use a narrator," McCullough explains, "but in this case, it's so important to understand the background, understand what was happening in the country at that time. And ~llat is hard to do if you're just doing it through dialogue. It's a very significant and important passage in our story as a country and as a people. That's why it's so wonderful when a film like this comes along, which not only captures the spirit of the time, and the setting and the context of what was happening, but does so with a great story, a real story."
McCullough's success lies in part in his understanding of an essential human impulse. "We want to go back in time," says the historian, "and I think it's part of human nature. Almost every fairy tale begins with 'Once upon a time, long, long ago.' And very often 'once upon a time, long, long ago' was not an easy time."
Even while filmmakers were hard at work filling the roles of Seabiscuit's two-legged actors, they were highly concerned with making sure that the best horses available would be slotted for the equine rolls-for all of the scenes involving the illustrious racehorse and his competitors scripted to take place in locations that varied from racetrack to horse farm to open countryside.
Rusty Hendrickson, a renowned motion picture horse wrangler responsible for spectacular horse sequences in dozens of films like Dances with Wolves and The Patriot, was brought on board .by the filmmakers to secure and train the horses that would be used in the filming.
The Montana native had previously worked with all three of the leading actors-with Tobey Maguire on Ride with the Devil, Chris Cooper in The Horse Whisperer and Jeff Bridges on Hendrickson's first film, Heavens Gate. Seabiscuit proved to be a different kind of project for the motion picture veteran who was used to working on Westerns and he welcomed the challenge of working with racehorses.
"We knew that we were going to be putting real jockeys on these horses," explains Kathleen Kennedy. "We knew that we had to make sure that the horses were sound and we knew that they would have to be running many, many different races in order to tell the story, so we came to the conclusion pretty early that we would buy these horses and we would create our own racing stable."
Hendrickson worked with the company to purchase more than 50 horses from around the country to participate in the film's numerous racing scenes. For the safety of the horses, any set of horses grouped for a particular race could only run a few takes and the animals were limited to racing only every other day. To make this rotating schedule possible, the production needed Thoroughbreds in a variety of colors. For the sake of not only the animals but the jockeys riding them, it was imperative that the horses were able bodied and sound. Each horse was brought on only after it passed a thorough examination by the production's veterinarian.
"Rusty did a marvelous job securing all the horses," says Hall of Fame jockey and Seabiscuit race designer, Chris McCarron, who worked closely with Hendrickson throughout the production. "These horses have played an immeasurable role in our success."
There was, of course, one particular horse role that required particular attention. Director Ross observes, "A Seabiscuit comes along once in a century. Here was a horse that had amazing character and intelligence and a very idiosyncratic personality. He used to sleep much of the day-but he was also very fierce, very competitive. And he could be playful or lazy."
Seabiscuit was a one-of-kind horse and the filmmakers never imagined they could find his twin. Instead, they sought several horses that could embody a variety of traits that, when subjected to the magic of movie making, would emerge on the screen as a single horse.
"When you pick a horse," explains Hendrickson, "you don't know what his capabilities are. So we have several horses to cover the different personality traits of Seabiscuit." Hendrickson went looking for horses that resembled Seabiscuit, a thankfully unremarkable bay horse. "He was not particularly attractive," Hendrickson continues. "He was a small horse, about 15 hands, weighing about 1,150 pounds. He was a bright blood bay with dark points and no white markings. It was lucky for us that he was a very ordinary looking horse."
Seabiscuit's looks, however, were the only ordinary thing about him. In order to portray this strange and special horse, over the course of seven years of his life, the production needed a wide variety of horses: they needed a horse that would stand still; a horse that could angrily rear; a horse that would bite; a horse that would lie down (alongside another horse and a dog at the same time); a horse that could be ridden with multiple cameras close by; a horse that actors, trained to ride, but novices nevertheless, could ride without risk of being thrown. On top of all of that, they needed a horse that could win and they needed a horse that could lose.
Ultimately, five horses raced regularly as Seabiscuit (with two more filling in on occasion), plus another three "trick" horses, making it a grand total of ten "Biscuits." While there was never any intention of creating a star, as the production progressed, one horse emerged as the "hero" horse. Fighting Furrarri was the animal used primarily with the cast, in such important scenes as Red Pollard in the winner's circle, George Woolf in front of the cheering crowds at Pimlico, and Pollard and horse recuperating at Ridgewood.
No matter how outstanding the animal, it takes an equally outstanding jockey to guide the animal around the track-they don't ride themselves.
"These guys are truly professional athletes," says Tobey Maguire, who underwent rigorous training to prepare for his role as jockey Red Pollard.