No horse race has had a more extraordinary effect on an entire nation as the running of Australia’s 2002 Melbourne Cup. The Cup follows the true story of jockey Damien Oliver who must overcome tragedy to triumph. We had the chance to speak with director Simon Wincer (Free Willy) about what drove him to bring this inspirational tale to the big screen.
When I first heard about this film, I knew I had to see it. You see, I had been living in Australia, in Sydney, in 2001-2002 as a study abroad student and remember when this story struck a chord with the nation. I had also been overseas during September 11th the prior fall. Perhaps it was the outpouring of Australian affection during this difficult time (when I was so far away from my home, NYC, a home under attack) that first secured my attachment to the nation. But by the time the Melbourne Cup came around, I felt practically part Aussie.
So when I heard the story was being translated to film, I had to meet the man behind the project, director Simon Wincer. The Cup tells the true story of Damien Oliver, a talented young jockey who loses his brother Jason in a tragic racing accident just days before the Melbourne Cup. The accident is a mirror of an accident that took the life of the boys’ father, also a jockey, years before. Damien must decide whether to race or give up on his dreams. We go on this journey with him as he struggles with his emotions and a humiliating series of losses in the racing trials. This film is a tale about sportsmanship, the importance of family, and faith in the human spirit.
Q & A with Simon Wincer
Q: What made you decide to take on this project?
A: It’s such a good story and sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction I suppose. If it was fictional, people would go ‘Oh yeah’ that’s a nice moment’, but it really was such a big moment of Australian pride. You start to look into the story and you think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that actually happened’. When Damien rode that day, and I think there were 105,000 people at the track, every one of them cried because they had seen him lose all these races (even riding favorites) and then lose his brother. People thought it was just too much to bare. But then you get this magic moment! The other thing that most people didn’t know is that the horse, Media Puzzle, hadn’t raced for about 18 months due to a broken pelvis. But Damien had such faith in this horse. He felt that it had this staying ability, and so they did it together.
Q: It’s almost as much an inspirational story for the animal as it was for the family involved. Why do you think the story of Media Puzzle captures the audience just as much as the tale of the Oliver family?
A: The thing about human beings is that you can kill 1000 people on film and no one gives a shit (laughs), but if you injure one animal on screen, people get very emotional. We all have cats or dogs or horses or whatever as pets, and we all grow to love them. So this story was such a beautiful thing to the public. The story is a bit innocent in a way. Damien had quickly developed an affinity with this horse, even though it wasn’t an easy animal. It was actually a very difficult horse. I asked Damien why he ultimately decided to ride that day and stuck with Media Puzzle. He said two things. “First, I felt I had to honor Jason and secondly, I didn’t think another jockey coming in could know the horse well enough- the way I knew it.” From the second time he galloped on that horse, Damien told me he just thought, “Wow, this is an incredible machine!”
Q: Did the actors get to spend much time with the Oliver family, meeting and getting to know the real life people they were to play?
A: Yes, I introduced actor Brendan Gleeson to Dermot Weld (the owner of Media Puzzle) in Dublin and they got to know each other very well. I had a lovely phone message from Dermot earlier that said he’d heard wonderful things about the film and how it was doing in the U.S. since it hasn’t been released in Europe yet. Actor Stephen Curry and Damien Oliver went to the track and race meetings together regularly. Stephen couldn’t believe how on race days these guys have a bottle of water and jelly babies (jelly beans to us Americans!) just to make their weight for racing.
Q: In the film, you get a real look at what the horse racing industry is like. I didn’t know they made the horses swim! But seriously, I didn’t realize how intense and dangerous a sport it is. Was it always your intention to show this?
A: You know with DVD’s you see all these behind the scenes clips nowadays, but I wanted to put that in the film and go behind the doors on the modern world of racing. I wanted to show what elite athletes these guys really are because that occupation is rated the most dangerous in the world.
Q: The film does a great job of showing the heartbreak this family must face with the almost identical father-son tragedies. You made a nice aesthetic choice to flip between color and black & white during these flashbacks, particularly in the hospital. As an audience, you really empathize with the mother, Pat Oliver, who must bury both her husband and son. How involved was she in the filmmaking process?
A: She’s extraordinary. She’s a very strong and stoic lady and what she said to me was that she loved the film but she only saw it once. She said, “I can’t see it again because it’s just so emotional for me.” All the input on the film came from Damien and his manager, Neil Pinner, because they were the most involved. Neil sheltered Damien from a lot of stuff that was happening at that time. For example, something I didn’t even go into in the film, because it would have just been too complicated, is that Jason’s stepbrother, Noel Rudland, was riding beside him when he had that tragic accident. We don’t even address that in the film but Neil told me that when they had to look at the film of the race, it was just awful to watch.
Q: A lot American audience members are familiar with your hit film Free Willy which also deals with a bond between a person and an animal and deals with triumph in the face of adversity. Why is this such a strong theme for you?
A: I suppose I’m drawn to stories with strong emotional through lines, extraordinary characters, and beautiful dialogue.
Wincer goes on to recommend some of his favorites to me including Lonesome Dove and The Man from Snow River and describes why each is well worth a look.
Q: How do you think this story will translate to an American audience? The theme is universal but the story is unfamiliar to us.
A: It may appeal more, at least that’s what I’m hoping. It may just strike a chord because, “Oh my god! That actually happened, wow!”. It’s something not so known here in the United States. In Australia, the whole nation cried when it happened.
Q: Do you think viewers will draw comparisons to the popular film Seabiscuit, also based on a true story about a horse whose race uplifted a nation during the Depression?
A: That’s a wonderful story too, actually made by friends of mine Gary Ross, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy. I did another film for them and we were all running mates for years. Kathy did a marathon and I ran the same one! Anyway, it’s a wonderful story. I made another film that could also be compared to this tale called Phar lap. If you like horse movies, it’s a great story about a winning racehorse. The title means lighting and it was released by Fox.
Q: You have both directing and producing credits under your belt. On this film, you wrote, produced, and directed, why do you prefer directing?
A: Directing is at the top of the creative pyramid and to me it’s much more rewarding. There’s nothing wrong with producing. There are producers that call themselves producers but they aren’t, and then there are producers like Frank and Kathy who are fabulous producers. They’ve grown up with it. They both started working with Spielberg in their early careers.
Q: What’s your directing style? How do you work with your actors to get the best possible performances?
A: We talk about it long before we start filming. We have a little rehearsal period where we get together and sit around a table and just talk about each character. What happens is when an actor latches on to a character, they end up knowing more about it than you do! So you end up being more of a conductor I suppose. It’s funny, Brendan Gleeson mentioned having some concerns about the Irish dialogue and I told him that dialogue is how an Australian and a Texan (The Cup co-writer Eric O’Keefe) think the Irish talk, please feel free to change it (laughs). By the time you get on-camera, it’s all really set. Of course if someone comes up with a good ad lib we might try it. But usually once you have it set and you’ve nailed it, the dialogue is pretty much the same.
Q: The cast is mostly unknown to the U.S. audience? How did you decide to cast these particular actors?
A: Quite a few of them are well-known Australian actors. Daniel Macpherson who plays Jason Oliver had the lead in a couple of TV series and he is also on DWTS in Australia so the moms love him of course! He’s a very charming guy and he loves live television. He comes up here for the holidays because no one knows who he is over here. Stephen Curry is the same; he’s a very well known actor and he’s actually more of a comedian. People know him as a comedian. But you know, comic actors make great dramatic actors. Look at Robin Williams, Jim Carrey…comedy is the most difficult thing to play because of the timing. So for them, drama is easy. Mel Brooks said something years ago in a favorite interview of mine that is true; he said, “Comedy is a serious business”.
Q: What projects do you have lined up next?
A: I have a big live show called the Australian Outback Spectacular taking place on the Gold Coast. I write and direct that and it’s a live show. We do a new show about every two and a half years. It’s a spectacular dinner show in an arena with horses… you’ve seen nothing like it! The current show is called Spirit of the Horse and it’s the history of the horse in Australia. There is a tribute to the horse Phar lap and it’s just a great family show. It’s run by Village Roadshow (an Australian film company).
Seems I have another reason to go back! The Cup was a truly moving film that is sure to find an audience here and abroad.
Watch the trailer here. The film opens today, May 11th.