Jeanne Rosenberg stumbled into co-writing her first screenplay and it set the stage for a movie career.
Film critic Leonard Maltin joked that Jeanne Rosenberg was an “accidental screenwriter” when he introduced her at TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of The Black Stallion in Hollywood last year.
A graduate of USC Film School [now USC School of Cinematic Arts], Rosenberg had planned on a documentary film career, until a script analysis she wrote on her favorite childhood book, The Black Stallion, changed everything.
After graduation, she learned the movie was in the making with Carroll Ballard directing. A horse lover from her earliest memory, Rosenberg was determined to wrangle a meeting with Ballard when the film was in preproduction in Canada.
“I called and said, ‘I’m coming your way. Maybe I’ll just stop in. Do you mind?’ I was flying from Los Angeles to the Midwest. They were in Toronto,” Rosenberg says.
“We were supposed to meet for coffee one morning. He was late. I was making notes on a napkin. He showed up, grabbed the napkin out of my hand, and kept the notes.” Then came a life-changing phone call: “Carroll would like you to come back. We need help on the script.”
“It was total chaos when I arrived. Melissa Mathison [who would later write ET: The Extra-Terrestrial] got off another plane,” says Rosenberg, “We met and became this writing team as we were about to shoot. Carroll hadn’t committed to a screenplay. All the actors were there. Everyone! Carroll liked to keep everything open and see what developed. He was driving everyone crazy, of course,” Rosenberg says laughing.
“There were times when we would actually write in the evenings and hand pages to Carroll ahead of time. But usually we were right there [on set] hunkered somewhere in the grass, or in a chair, ripping off pages and throwing them at Mickey Rooney, who would scowl and scowl and then do it. We were writing on set virtually moments before the cameras rolled.”
Rosenberg remembers talking with Carroll about the scene where young Alec, played by Kelly Reno, first sees retired jockey and racehorse trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney, in a role that would earn him an Oscar nomination) in the big barn.
“Carroll wanted something dramatic. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about narrative filmmaking at that point and I write this scene where Henry’s lurking through the barn, through the shadows, but when it’s the reveal he has a gun in his hand. I show it to Carroll and he goes, ‘No, no, no!!’”
The rewrite worked: “Instead of the gun,” Rosenberg says, “Henry has shaving cream all over his face. It was scary and then, here is this cantankerous, maybe dangerous guy, with shaving cream all over his face!”
A true equestrian, who owns and competes on reining horses, Rosenberg flashes back to when shooting began on 7.7.77, a date emblazoned on her mind.
“We shot the second part of the movie first. I was in Toronto,” she explains. “Part of my job on set was really to protect the horse relationship. I kept reminding Carroll that no one can get close to The Black except for Alec. No one else can lead The Black. I know we lost that a little later in the story, but I was constantly reminding him.”
Meanwhile, her equine education expanded. “I’d never seen liberty work before. I had never seen a trainer stand and raise his arms and get the horse to rear on cue, to go from A to B, and go to a mark. It was extraordinary. It really took my mind somewhere else, made me see whole new possibilities.”
And she got schooled in patience and frustration. “Carroll kept refusing to let us write the island sequence. Of course, we did it anyway,” Rosenberg says. “I did not go overseas. Melissa was there. I know it was really hard and really gorgeous. A tough shoot, the kind of shoot that Carroll Ballard loves, out there in the elements with a much smaller crew. Everyone pitching in to carry gear — here, there, and over rocks.”
It was an extraordinary visual experience captured on film. “That’s what Carroll wanted to make. He has an amazing eye and is quite a storyteller.”
“There are so many angles — high angles and low angles and tracking shots — so many things that are so much easier now. Just send the drone out or put the camera on the cable. It was so hard then and they did it so well.”
More about The Black Stallion
Written by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg (in her screenplay debut), and William D. Wittliff, The Black Stallion launched a Hollywood career for Rosenberg that includes family favorites like White Fang, The Journey of Natty Gann, and The Young Black Stallion.