Read an interview with writer-director Randall Wallace
THE MAKINGS OF A MOVIE
Everyone needed a hero. They got two. One is a massive, chestnut-colored horse, known to his friends and family as Big Red. Everyone else will call him Secretariat. The other, a self-described Denver housewife, is less recognized, but she is as gallant and charismatic as her steed. Her name is Penny Chenery Tweedy, and her faith in this horse will galvanize the nation, revolutionize horse racing and, ultimately, change her life's course entirely.
Based on the remarkable true story, "Secretariat" chronicles the spectacular journey of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Housewife and mother Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) agrees to take over her ailing father's Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing experience. Against all odds, with the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), she manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and what may be the greatest racehorse of all time.
"Secretariat" also stars Dylan Walsh as Jack Tweedy, Penny's very traditional and highly skeptical husband; Dylan Baker as Chenery's brother; Margo Martindale as Chenery's assistant; Nelsan Ellis as Secretariat's groom; and real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth as Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte. The film features James Cromwell as Ogden Phipps, a wealthy financier and an integral figure in the racing community in the '70s; Fred Dalton Thompson as Bull Hancock, owner of Claiborne Farms; Kevin Connolly and Eric Lange, as reporters who initially recognize Secretariat's potential; Scott Glenn as Penny's father; and AJ Michalka as her daughter Kate.
"The story is about heart -- Secretariat's and the heart of the woman who owned him. Both were greater than anyone imagined," says director Randall Wallace, who is the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter of the global hit "Braveheart." "I believe that when Secretariat was running the last of his races, he was no longer running against other horses; he was running for the joy in becoming who he was meant to be."
Filmmakers tried not to veer from the facts of the story, but Wallace makes clear that he didn't want to make a documentary account of Chenery's life. "I have worked on many historical subjects as a filmmaker and I have a saying: Let's not let the facts get in the way of the truth. The way I see that is, in making a movie, you are making an impressionistic painting. You are choosing which facts to highlight and which facts to omit. Inevitably, by making that choice, you are writing a story from the stark facts of journalism to the vivid majesty of myth. So in this story, what people are going to feel is the deeper truth of what Secretariat and Penny accomplished."
Big Red to the Big Screen
FILLING THEIR SHOES
Known as a "superhorse," Secretariat captured the imagination of people around the world -- not just horse-racing enthusiasts; his powers transcended anything that had been seen before, winning the holy grail of racing, the Triple Crown, in heart-pounding fashion. A triumvirate of races open only to 3-year-old horses, the Triple Crown begins with the famed Kentucky Derby, a 1 1/4-mile "Run for the Roses." The "middle jewel" in the Crown is the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes, the "final jewel," the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. Secretariat didn't make it easy on himself. He lost the Wood Memorial, the last big race before the Kentucky Derby, causing supporters and detractors to doubt his prospects. He took the lead at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness only after running dead last for most of those contests. Finally, at Belmont, he literally hit his stride, winning by a record-pulverizing 31 lengths.
"ESPN compiled a list of the 100 top athletes of the 20th century and Secretariat was 35th -- and the only non-human on that list," says producer Mark Ciardi. "That's how unbelievable his presence was. What makes it really interesting is going underneath that story. We knew we had the ending, but not many people know about Penny's story, and that was incredibly compelling to us."
Ciardi and producer Gordon Gray, who collectively form Mayhem Pictures, have a history of chronicling iconic and uplifting sports events in movies, from "The Rookie" to "Miracle" and "Invincible." "Secretariat" began when screenwriter Mike Rich, who wrote "The Rookie" and "Miracle," approached Mayhem about the legendary thoroughbred.
"He is a big fan of horse racing, and he approached us with the idea of doing a film about Big Red, and of course, we loved the story and thought it was a great idea," Ciardi says. "Mike felt like he had found a way in, which was through Penny's story. Sports movies typically follow the journey of an underdog, but with Secretariat, on the surface, that element didn't exist as much, though certainly the horse had some issues to overcome to win the Triple Crown. But, really, it's her story as much as the horse's, and she definitely had to overcome steep odds to succeed."
Of course, in order to bring the tale to the big screen, Ciardi and Gray needed Chenery's blessing. Known as The First Lady of Horse Racing, Chenery had been approached before and she had turned them all down.
"Many, many people approached Penny and tried to make this story, but she held on to her rights for a long time," Ciardi says. "We got very lucky. She liked Disney and the team we put together. And she was very involved in the movie, from the early conversations through production. To have her be a part of it was very important to us, and she was tremendously excited about it."
Chenery was so supportive, in fact, that she agreed to be an extra in the film during the scene in which Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, filmed at Churchill Downs.
The producers turned to director Randall Wallace to tackle the film's mixed bag of action and emotion. "We feel very fortunate that we got in Randy, not only a fantastic director who only does projects he is very passionate about but also an A-plus screenwriter. I mean, he wrote 'Braveheart.' His clear, real enthusiasm for this story was evident from the start and only increased throughout production," Ciardi says.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A COIN TOSS
The fact that Secretariat's story began with a coin toss is extraordinary enough. But the real irony is that the woman who became the owner of the world's greatest racehorse actually lost the fabled flip. Lucky for her.
Christopher Chenery had struck a deal with Ogden Phipps, the preeminent, wealthy horse owner and breeder. A coin toss would determine who'd get first pick of two foals produced by Phipps' stallion Bold Ruler and Chenery's mares Hasty Matilda and Somethingroyal. By the time of the all-important toss, Penny Chenery was in charge. Phipps won the toss, making what most deemed the obvious choice, leaving Chenery with the yet-unborn horse that would become Secretariat. She'd had her eye on that foal all along, and time would prove her right.
James Cromwell, who portrayed Phipps, says he was outsmarted by Chenery. "He was damn sure of himself, in terms of the decision he'd made in that coin toss. These guys who had the best advice and the most money, basically, they got suckered by a housewife. She made a great choice, took a risk but had a better understanding of the bloodlines than he did."
FINDING THE EMOTION
"What was so brilliant [about the movie] was the portrayal of the real people," says Chenery, "the hope and humor we had on this adventure with this amazing horse. I feel like everyone involved told our story with warmth and intelligence."
It was the emotional core of Penny and Secretariat's story that attracted Wallace. And there was definitely a richness of emotional terrain to plumb. "Horses speak to our primal nature," says the director. "When all is said and done, this is a story about a tremendous horse. But, beyond that, I wanted to understand and experience the way this unique animal had affected people who themselves were special. All my life, I have been intrigued by the mechanism and the moment of transformation: What happens when what we call a miracle occurs? What happens when someone, in this case a horse, does something that no one else has ever done or that they themselves have never done? What happens when someone stops doubting and starts believing? And this story is full of those moments."
Specifically, he adds, Penny Chenery undergoes a remarkable transformation that is just as magnificent, bold and inspirational as her horse Secretariat's. "What's at stake in the story of Secretariat is something that is fundamental to everybody. Destiny comes knocking on the door of Penny Tweedy. She had given up her dreams of a career. She had become a mother of four, a wife, a prominent member of her community. But when her father becomes ill and her mother dies, destiny knocks on her door and says, 'Penny, here is an opportunity to do something.' And it was something that nobody else believed that she could do. That was something else that inspired me about this tale -- that time and again, she is told that she can't do this, that this isn't her identity, that she's a housewife. And she keeps reinventing herself, tackling issues in a manner that allows her to make her way in what was a man's world at the time. She's a mastermind financially, but most of all, she's a leader," Wallace says.
Chenery demurs. "It didn't occur to me that I was a woman in a man's field. I just thought I had the best horse," she says.
Indeed, Chenery was more prepared than most women in the 1970s to take over the family business and step into the Byzantine world of horse racing. She attended Smith College and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, but it was her father who encouraged her to continue her education -- and not just for learning's sake. "I had been brought up as part of a family that was meant to take over Dad's business, and I was equipped to do it," says Chenery. "After college, I wasn't married and wasn't working in the horse business and my father said, 'Well, you need to go to school and learn something that will help you get a job.' I went to the Graduate School of Business Administration at Columbia. You really have to have a product you believe in and the resolve that you can do it. I worked very hard and was very determined -- and I didn't really look at what the men thought of it."
"Secretariat" brings that spirit to the big screen, showcasing the power of the human (and animal) spirit. But according to Wallace, "Secretariat" has an even greater significance. "I think this movie is about transcendence, about people and animals achieving more than anyone thought possible," he says. "It has an inspiring theme and story -- it's the powerful story of a horse and a woman who did what no one believed could be done. And it reminds us of the miracle of life, how life is bigger than we believe it can be."
Filmmakers Tap Veteran Actors -- Human and Equine -- to Tell the Tale
The filmmakers kept the spirit of the story top of mind when it came to casting "Secretariat." Says producer Gordon Gray, "We were very lucky to assemble an amazing cast that helped bring the story of Secretariat to life." Read moreOFF TO THE RACES
Filmmakers Take Audience for a Ride
When it came to recreating Secretariat's infamous races, director Randall Wallace did not want to merely restage the storied races; he wanted to bring audiences onto the track, inside the races themselves. To make this happen, he called on cinematographer Dean Semler's ingenious camerawork and wrangler Rusty Hendrickson's tireless choreography of horses and jockeys. ON LOCATION IN KENTUCKY AND LOUISIANA
"Horses are so romantic that it's tempting to film them in a romantic and remote way," says Wallace. "Our intention from the very beginning of this movie was for the audience to experience the races as a participant, rather than a spectator. I want audiences to feel that they are in the races, experiencing the thunder, the excitement, the chaos and the violence. Read more
Behind-the-Scenes Team Hits Its Stride
"Secretariat" was filmed in three different cities: Lexington and Louisville, Ky., and Lafayette, La. All three towns, at various points, stood in for Virginia, New York and Denver and collectively became the Aqueduct, Saratoga, Pimlico and Belmont racetracks. Only Churchill Downs, home of the famed Kentucky Derby, played itself. Read moreCUE THE MUSIC
Orchestral Score, Emotional End-Credit Song Provide the Finishing Touches
Wallace called on Nick Glennie-Smith to create the score for "Secretariat." "The music ranges from big and warlike -- almost tribal -- for the races," says Glennie-Smith, "to very small and intimate to follow the story." According to the composer, the 32-cue score was recorded with an 80-piece orchestra. "I write everything on a computer, and it's always such a thrill to hear the music come alive with real players."Read moreABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
RANDALL WALLACE (Director) is the Oscar-nominated creative force behind the epic storytelling of such critical and box-office hits as "Braveheart," "We Were Soldiers" and "Pearl Harbor."
Wallace's skill with uncommon yet true tales of loyalty, courage and commitment from throughout human history has set him apart in Hollywood. His films have earned more than $1 billion dollars at the box office, but he is most sought after for something even more rare: a visual storytelling style that can make the past feel completely alive and screen characters from any time period compellingly real. He turned a forgotten Scottish warrior into a contemporary film hero in the screenplay for Braveheart"; adapted a classic Alexandre Dumas novel into an all-star adventure of palace intrigue with his directorial debut "The Man in the Iron Mask"; examined the sacrifices of American soldiers with one of the best-reviewed war movies of the last two decades, "We Were Soldiers"; and forged a blockbuster tale of friendship and romance against the backdrop of an America under attack in the script for "Pearl Harbor."
With "Secretariat," Wallace brings those skills to bear on a spectacular story for all ages. Wallace immediately had a personal vision for the film, one that hones in on themes he found irresistible and makes the action heart-pounding and immediate. He turned the tale of the ultimate long-shot horse--and a woman who refused to give up--into a powerful depiction of the American zeitgeist at a time when the country was in search of hope. "Penny and her horse captured a part of my heart, and you've got to bring your heart to a story to tell it right. That's my only compass," says Wallace. Read more
MIKE RICH (Written By/Executive Producer) collaborated with producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray on the movies "The Rookie" and "Miracle." Other films include "Radio," starring Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr., "Finding Forrester" and "The Nativity Story," which he also executive-produced.
Rich was born in Los Angeles but spent the majority of his childhood growing up in eastern Oregon. He became interested in radio broadcasting during his high school years and used his on-air abilities to help pay his college tuition at Oregon State University.
Rich began his news-anchor career at KREM-FM in Spokane and worked his way to KGW in Portland before settling at KINK-FM, also in Portland. It was three years into that stint that he began dabbling with a screenplay idea that was sparked by an on-air interview dealing with America's classic authors. The result was Gus Van Sant's drama "Finding Forrester," starring Sean Connery.
THE ART OF ADAPTATION