The man behind Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard, famed Hollywood producer Jim Wilson, took the creative plunge recently by both co-writing and directing the true life story of Mine That Bird, a racehorse that won the Kentucky Derby in what the horse racing industry considers to be one of the greatest upsets in the history of the race. The film was called 50 to 1 and starred Skeet Ulrich and William Devane, plus real-life jockey Calvin Borel, the man who rode Mine That Bird to win.
50 to 1 was given a limited release throughout the country earlier this year, and to Wilson’s surprise the film was given the warmest of receptions in Arizona. In fact, the film’s valley popularity was enough to ensure a second visit: 50 to 1 returns to Arizona theatres this holiday weekend.
Earlier I had the opportunity of talking to Wilson about 50 to 1 from his Hollywood office and I began by asking him to explain the initial appeal of making a horse racing picture.
“Well, I love horse racing,” Wilson began. “I’ve had a barn for twenty-five years, so I ride horses. I’ve always loved that union between sport, man and animal; there’s nothing quite like it. When I saw that race visually it was so stunning. I went right on You Tube afterwards to watch it again and again and it was so extraordinary what that horse did on that given day. Then I went down to New Mexico and spent time with the real cowboys and the trainer, and the two owners, and I found them to be such colorful characters, full of these brilliant flaws that we’ve all got, I just wanted a great sports, underdog story, and this was it.”
I had read that another producer had wanted to make a film telling Mine That Bird’s story, but the rumor was that the deal fell through; was that true? “Yeah, that happens often,” Wilson explained. “The financing fell through on the first go round and I said I think I can launch this, so let me have a shot at it.”
In order to find the right horse to play Mine That Bird, Jim Wilson waded through more than four hundred horses until he found what he was looking for. It was a horse called Sunday Rest. “Usually in a film like Seabiscuit you’ll have seven or eight horses playing the one,” Wilson stated, “And I can always tell, oops, look, they’ve got another horse. The great thing is Sunday Rest does all his own work. I mean, he does everything. He races at Churchill Downs, he’s in the gate, he’s on the track, he’s got all the crazy antics that Mine That Bird did, so we lucked out and found a three year old thoroughbred who had racing experience to play the lead. Found him up in Canada.”
I pointed out to Wilson that coincidentally I’d discovered that Sunday Rest had some local valley history having run at Turf Paradise. “Yeah,” Wilson replied, “He was racing there in 2011. He had four races at Turf Paradise and wasn’t much of a racehorse but he ended up being a great actor. He’s ended up having a couple of great parts since then, so, I think he’s going to end up having a bigger career than most of us.”
Did Wilson think that audiences who know next to nothing about horse racing will get a better glimpse of the allure of the sport after seeing 50 to 1? “I think so,” Wilson said. “I mean, I’ve done it for twenty-five years, so I think in terms of it being authentic – I shot it at forty locations, I’m at the real barns, I’ve even intercut a little of real footage – so I do think they’ll get a little more out of this.”
How about the horse racing industry? Did it give a lot of support during the making of the film? “We got a tremendous amount,” Wilson explained. “Churchill Downs is not easy to break down back in Kentucky but they gave me two weeks to shoot anything I’d like. So, I’m on their track, I’m recreating portions of the race, and I’m in the jock’s room, the gate, you name it. We shot down in New Mexico where Mine That Bird ran a couple of races. We even shot here in LA and shot a portion of the Breeders Cup, so we were true to the story, so, yeah, it’s quite authentic.”
Skeet Ulrich plays the part of Chip Woolley and word was that the actor’s audition tended to be somewhat creative. What happened there? “I had pretty much cast the entire film,” Wilson said, “But I was without my leading man. I’m on my computer late at night in New Mexico scouting locations just a couple of weeks before shooting began and all of a sudden up on my computer it said Skeet Ulrich, and I don’t know Skeet personally; I knew his acting a bit. I pulled up his video and he had actually put three scenes down for me. He shot them, cut them; he was in full attire with a little bit of a mustache that the character he was portraying had and it was an amazing audition. It was about seven minutes long and I looked at it and said, that’s the guy I’m looking for. Without meeting Skeet Ulrich ever – I was In New Mexico, he was in L.A. – I hired him over the phone. I called him the next morning and said, I think you got it down, buddy, so let’s go to work.”
I pointed out that unlike Wilson’s earlier films, with 50 to 1 he was wearing three hats instead of the one. Wilson agreed and explained the usual role of a producer. “A producer is responsible for the delivery of the entire project” he said. “If you give me forty million dollars to go out and make The Bodyguard, my responsibility is to find the director, find the cast, get it cut, get it edited and delivered on time, on budget. I’m the go-to guy. As producer, co-writer and director on this one you can only blame me, I can’t hide here. On other films I might say, well, that director’s not very good, but this is all me.”
50 to 1 returns to Arizona this Friday, August 29, and opens exclusively at the following theatres: Arrowhead Fountains 18 in Peoria and Uptown 3 Theatre in Sierra Vista. Plus, audiences in Show Low will get a chance to enjoy 50 to 1 next month, September 5, when the film will be shown at the WME Show Low 5 theatres.