Find out how the new Western retelling of the classic horse tale came about.
JB Pictures’ Jeremy Bolt may be best known for producing the Resident Evil franchise and action films like Polar with Constantin Film’s Robert Kulzer. Now the British producer has galloped into the equine genre at full speed with Black Beauty, which is being released November 27 on Disney Plus. We caught up with the producer to talk about the new film and working with Black Beauty screenwriter-director Ashley Avis.
Cowboys & Indians: A horse film is not your usual genre. What made you think of this?
Jeremy Bolt: They’re two aspects to it. I made a film in Germany about 10 years ago called The Three Musketeers. We had a lot of horses in that film. I was very struck by how cinematic they are, how powerful. I started to think about making a movie specifically where horses were a heroic central part of the story 10 years ago. My wife is a big horse person, I should add. She was a 3-day eventer in her teens. She had a lot to do with this. She kept pushing me to do this film.
C&I: Are you involved with horses?
Bolt: I grew up with horses [nearby] in the English countryside. Although I did not ride, I had friends who rode and competed. I was very familiar with the Black Beauty story, both the film from the early ’70s and the film from the ’90s. It struck me that this would be a great story to not only remake, but reset, because there had never been a version in America. The other aspect is that I was very conscious of the way animals can heal people who are grieving or suffering. I’m a big dog lover and I have personally felt how powerful an animal can be to a human, how close that bond can be. There’ve been some successful dog movies focusing a bit on that. I wanted to really embrace that aspect between a rider and the horse. We pushed that in Black Beauty.
C&I: How did you get acquainted with screenwriter-director Ashley Avis?
Bolt: Her manager is a friend of mine. He called me up and asked if I would take a general meeting with this very talented young filmmaker. I was open to that. It’s part of what I do, meeting new talent. Ashley made this film Adolescence that I really liked. So we had a general meeting and that’s how it began.
C&I: What happened when you and Ashley met?
Bolt: Ashley came to my office and started talking about The Black Stallion, which I also loved and I said, “Well, how about Black Beauty?” Her eyes lit up, she was so excited. I think she came back with an outline two days later. It was just perfect. So, I took it to Constantin Film, which is where I have my office and my first-look arrangement. They loved it. My colleague there, Robert Kulzer, who produced the film with me, had also been wanting to make a horse movie. This ticked all the necessary boxes. Ashley and I feel it was kind of serendipity. It happened so quickly. Ashley and I just got on extremely well. I was particularly taken with her concern for the horses’ well-being and her sensitivity to that.
C&I: She has a unique perspective. …
Bolt: I really believed in Ashley’s passion. I knew she was sincere. She had been an equestrian; she understood horses. She wasn’t just opportunistically jumping on a brand. I could feel the sincerity and the honesty within her. You could also see it in her outline. There was such detail. I felt, if we’re going to do this properly, the horse community has to believe in this story. They will see if the filmmaker doesn’t really understand horses. I was very excited to back her [given] that knowledge of horses. I liked her first film, and I saw real talent within her. I persuaded Constantin to back her. Ashley’s first draft of the script was very strong and Constantin decided to go ahead with it. She’s a great example actually, of not just passion, but hard work. She’s relentless and would do anything to help get this film made: writing letters to actors, watching as many other films as were needed. She was so committed, which is very much part of succeeding, because it is so competitive and challenging in this business.
C&I: Ashley comes across as very real . . .
Bolt: I think it’s critical. You can’t fake that kind of authenticity. I hope the horse community will see some of the detail and language — we’ve tried to show authenticity through that. Ashley would listen to Cody [Rawson-Harris], our liberty horse trainer so closely — even down to the boots the characters were wearing. We tried to get it right.
C&I: Were you on the set of Black Beauty?
Bolt: I was there the whole time, all of the production. About eight weeks preproduction and about eight weeks shooting, so right around 15 to 16 weeks in total.
C&I: What else could you say about working with Ashley?
Bolt: The fact that Beauty is a mustang from out West and the issue of wild horses was something Ashley felt very strongly about. The film is not a “message” movie. It is, I hope, a very inspiring and deep story form of entertainment. The plight of the wild horse is something Ashley feels very committed to, and she very elegantly wove this into the story.
C&I: Did anything especially touch you working on this film?
Bolt: There is such a hugely managerial dimension to a film, particularly for the producer, that even in the most emotional scenes you can become detached because you’re constantly aware of all the elements that have gone into creating this scene. Ashley created a very intense and emotional experience for the whole crew. On more than one occasion there were tears on set, just from the emotional aspect of the shoot. Ashley is very in touch with her emotions and very open with them. She was so conscious of what the horse was feeling and what Cody was feeling about the horse. She shared that with the actors. It was kind of immersive for all of us. Obviously, there were some very emotional moments in the story. There were probably more tears on the set than I was used to. And that’s a good thing.
Check out our interview with Black Beauty star Mackenzie Foy here.
Photography: Images courtesy Disney/Graham Bartholomew