Secretariat - Director Randall Wallace, Diane Lane and John Malk
Secretariat - Director Randall Wallace, Diane Lane and John Malkovich © 2010 Disney, Photo by John Bramley

Randall Wallace is a unique talent. He wrote the screenplays for Pearl Harbor and the Oscar winning Braveheart, and wrote, directed and produced We Were Soldiers and Man in the Iron Mask. He is also the New York Times best-selling author of seven novels and the lyricist of the acclaimed hymn Mansions of the Lord, performed as the closing music for President Ronald Reagan’s national funeral.

His new movie, Secreatariat chronicles the remarkable true story of the greatest racehorse in history, and the housewife and mother, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) who agrees to take over her ailing father’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing experience. With the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) she manages to foster the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Secretariat was ranked 35 in the Top 100 Greatest Athletes of the Century.

Since we know the ultimate outcome of the story from history, what was your approach to making the audience really get engaged?

Secretariat - Director Randall Wallace
Director Randall Wallace © 2010 Disney

When I was a boy, my father was a traveling salesman and he was really successful at it. In fact, I think he was the greatest at it who ever lived because he loved people. He said to me, “People will remember almost nothing of what you say and only just a little more of what you do, but all their lives, they’ll remember the way you made them feel.” That, to me, is the key of what movies are about.

A turning point for me, in my career, was when I decided to do stories that made my heart sing. I understood that we had to experience these races as participants and not as observers. That required that we shot the movie in a way that no horse racing movie had ever been shot with an approach to filming where you were subjectively in the race. You’re not seeing what it’s like to have watched Secretariat run, but you’re experiencing what it was like to run like Secretariat. There’s a world of difference in that.

What inspired you to put the religious overtones in the film?

Secretariat - Diane Lane and director Randall Wallace
Diane Lane and director Randall Wallace © 2010 Disney

For thousands of years, the human race has spoken of horses in a way that referenced the magnificent mystery about them, and that quote from the Book of Job captured that. It had not been my intention through all of the drafts of the screenplay and all of the work that we’d done on the story to have that quote. It was when we were in the editing process, and my editor and I were looking. I wanted something that told us that that spirit of the horse was timeless and it was about transcendence.

I thought that what Secretariat had done had transcended what anybody imagined was possible. That also meant that I wanted the music in the end to capture a spirit of joy and celebration. In all of my other films – Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Man in the Iron Mask – along with courage and honor, there’s a sense of tragedy. This was a movie in which it is unalloyed joy. It glories in love and courage. And, Oh, Happy Day did that in a way that I thought cut through every culture, but reached every heart.

What did John and Diane bring to these characters?

Secretariat - Director Randall Wallace and Diane Lane
Director Randall Wallace and Diane Lane © 2010 Disney

Diane’s character not only has to have her father die, she has to project courage in the face of loss and good humor to her children, she has to lose her temper and she has to weep alone in a phone booth. There were moments that were as raw and as deep and as naked, emotionally, as one can be asked to do. Certainly, there’s an issue of technique, but you don’t do that unless you know what it feels like and you know what’s real, and Diane just brought that instantly.

With John, he’s like race horses, only he has more testosterone. We know that John can be volcanic, but to me, this is one of the tenderest moments that I’ve seen John play. The cast lifted each other in a way that I found remarkable.

How did you go about casting all of the horses?

Horses are a lot easier to cast than people and probably easier to direct. We had to have the horses be right. Horses have a primordial energy about them, and we got the greatest horse wrangler in the world, Rusty Hendrickson.

We had to find horses that would capture the energy and brilliance, so we had a Secretariat look-alike contest and the horse that won was absolutely convinced that he was the best looking horse in the whole world. There is a shot in the movie, and it stayed in the movie, the horse is coming around the corner in this amazing burst of speed, he’s turning from right to left and he’s angled with the other horses, and literally the horse turns and has his head toward the camera, like, ‘Are you seeing this?’

What was it like to plan and shoot those racing scenes?

Secretariat - Otto Thorwarth and director Randall Wallace
Otto Thorwarth and director Randall Wallace © 2010 Disney

We had our key family gathered around a cork board with push pins, each of them representing a horse, and we had segments of the track laid out, we decided on each camera angle we would use.

We started shooting the horse racing with this tiny consumer camera, we were getting shots of speed and dirt, excitement and chaos. As soon as we were seeing it, I was like, ‘I don’t want this million dollar piece of camera equipment that we rented anymore. I want this $800 consumer camera.’ We used that for most of the horse racing.

FOOTNOTE: We were invited to the famous Santa Anita Racetrack for the press event for Secretariat on September 27th, the hottest day of the year. It was 112 degrees. The press conference was held in the Turf Club, which was air conditioned, but I decided to go outside, film a bit of the grounds and find Trolley Boy, one of the horses who played Secretariat – here’s the video!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.