Filmmaker Louise Osmond celebrates “commoners” in The Sport of Kings.
British-based documentarian Louise Osmond is sufficiently media-savvy to pitch Dark Horse — her award-winning movie about a working-class foal who successfully competed against his Thoroughbred betters — in terms that suggest a Hollywood-produced crowd-pleaser. The film, she says, is “a wonderful mash of film genres, part classic British Billy Elliot/Full Monty underdog tale, part Lavender Hill Mob comedy caper — plus, of course, Rocky ... with a horse.”
And here’s the beautiful part: That’s actually an accurate assessment of the Sony Pictures Classics presentation currently on view in limited (but gradually expanding) U.S. theatrical release.
Osmond tells an uplifting true-life tale that spins out of economic deprivation in Cefn Fforest, a former mining village in Wales that never fully recovered from the closing of the pits during the 1980s. Janet Vokes, a spirited barmaid and grocery-store custodian, had the audacious notion that she could apply knowledge she gained while raising pigeons and whippets to breeding a racehorse. Remarkably, she convinced several other villagers — including Brian, her husband, a former coal deliveryman and nightclub bouncer; Howard Davies, a tax consultant with a lifelong passion for racing; and Angela Davies, Howard’s initially skeptical wife — to join her in forming a syndicate to fund her seemingly far-fetched scheme. (Each member’s weekly fee: The equivalent of $14 in U.S. currency.)
“In many ways,” Osmond says, “Jan was a sort of pied piper for the project, one by one persuading her friends and then her village to get behind her outlandish plan. Where most of us might look forward and see the obstacles or the snobbery or the doors locked shut, Jan sees only intriguing challenges and the opportunity to stir the pot a bit. She is quite fearless.”
The syndicate purchased a cut-rate Thoroughbred mare — arguably the slowest racehorse in Wales — then paired her with an aged stallion. The result of this union: Dream Alliance, an unlikely steeplechase champ who allowed the “commoners” of Cefn Fforest to gate-crash their way into The Sport of Kings.
Dark Horse won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Since the start of its theatrical run, the movie has generated overwhelmingly favorable reviews — it currently has an impressive 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and a fair amount of Oscar buzz.
So we decided to phone Osmond in England to get the story behind the story of Dark Horse. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: If this had been a dramatic feature, not a documentary, do you think you could have possibly cast it any better?
Louise Osmond: [Laughs] No. And, you know, that was the most extraordinary thing about making this film. Honestly, when you make documentary films for a living, I think what is a given at the beginning of any project is that the hardest thing will be the casting. You’ll have to look and look and look for the people that can make this film that you want to make, and this story you want to tell, come alive.
With this one — it was almost ridiculous. When I had come across this story, I called Judith Dawson, the producer, and said, “Please, please, please call these people and persuade them.” Because the first cold call can be difficult. So she called [Howard Davies] and he said, “Look, I'm driving, I can only speak for a minute or two.” An hour and a half later, Howard hung up. That was the first clue that it wasn't going to be overly difficult.
Still, we felt like, OK, Howard's great, so that's great. But maybe the rest will be shy, or maybe just a bit sad or quiet, or kind of introverted in some way. Then [Jan Vokes] came down the road. Then we met Angela, Howard’s wife, and then the rest of the syndicate people. And right away, we were like, This is not for real. Because each of them — all of them — they were extraordinary. I think it wasn't just that they were great characters in their own way as people. What was extraordinary is they were so emotionally expressive. They had that skill of being able to tell their story in a way that connected absolutely to their emotions.
Some people can tell you a story — but it isn't from the heart. For each of these people — it was. It meant so much to them. And they were able to express that, and kind of express themselves as characters. I've never encountered anything like it, and I'm sure I never will again. All the way along the making this film — it felt like I’d been given a big present.
C&I: Even your four-legged star seemed well cast.
Osmond: Absolutely. I mean, we filmed around other racehorses while making the film. And it was often quite hairy. Because most racehorses hate the camera, and they are very nervous. And when they get nervous, they get ready to kick.
But Dream Alliance is just not like that at all. He was just so calm, and he loved to be photographed. He loved attention. I always felt it was because of his upbringing. He was used to being surrounded with people in the syndicate, and people from the village and ducks, and geese and so on. Many finely bred young racehorses are kept in their stables and stalls, because they are almost too expensive to be left out in the field just to run around and play. They have a very sort of protected life. Whereas Dream grew up right at the heart of the village. It may just be my fantasy, but I think that made a difference.
C&I: Dark Horse is story about beating the odds, and triumphing over adversity. But it’s also a story about what happens to people after they achieve what they joined forces to achieve.
Osmond: In a way, the most important thing for me is that, after this adventure, these people kind of returned to their own lives. There was something very moving in the story — and truthful, I think. But actually, at the end of it, they all went back to life as it was before. Although they weren't any materially richer from the journey, they obviously were richer in other ways because of this extraordinary experience.
C&I: So they went on this amazing journey together — and then that was the end of it?
Osmond: Well, actually, that wasn’t the end of it, because Jan has bred another foal called Impossible Dream. And there is a new syndicate containing many of the old people who were in the previous syndicate.
C&I: Does this mean you're gearing up to make a sequel?
Osmond: [Laughs] No, I think I'm going to leave them alone on this one. I think they might want some peace and quiet.