Here, director Simon Wincer (Free Willy, “Lonesome Dove”) recounts the making of his inspirational sports drama The Cup, based on the true story of jockey Damien Oliver and his surprise triumph at the 2002 Melbourne Cup, one of Australia’s most beloved and iconic sporting events. Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Gleeson and Daniel MacPherson, The Cup hits theaters in limited release this Friday, May 11th.
On New Year’s Day of 2003, a neatly handwritten note arrived on the fax machine: “I have a story idea I wanted to run past you. I am sure you are familiar with the subject matter and would welcome your thoughts and suggestions.” The intriguing note came from Eric O’Keefe, a Texas journalist I had met while directing the television western Crossfire Trail. Our first meeting, in 1999, was memorable. Eric had arrived from the stifling heat of Dallas to a late September blizzard in Calgary. The weather was so bad I had moved shooting an exterior street scene to a covered set, an interior ship’s cabin. Eric was forced to grab our star, Tom Selleck, between set-ups and convince him to go out into the blizzard to be interviewed and photographed away from the crush of the tiny set. Through Eric’s tenacity, a great cover story resulted.
Our paths crossed for the second time on another television western, Monte Walsh. Eric had been sent a preview of the movie and wanted to write an article about it. In our phone interview I realised that Eric had latched onto the essence of a film that dealt with the end of the cowboy era and the coming of wire (fences) and how each cowboy coped with the new reality. Eric just got it, describing scenes, moments and shots that most people couldn’t articulate. Best of all, he appreciated the elements that shone through—story and character.
So when Eric’s New Year’s Day fax arrived, I sat down and took notice. “What do you know about the 2002 Melbourne Cup?” Well, not much. I had been in Los Angeles completing the post-production on Monte Walsh when Damien Oliver had his incredible triumph. The story had been related to Eric by Memo and Mimi Gracida, some American friends who had just returned to the States after visiting Flemington and seeing the race. Like everyone who was there that day, they had been reduced to tears by the events that unfolded.
As I started my research I was excited to discover a story that possessed all the ingredients to make a wonderful film. Not only was this true, it was enormously uplifting. It was an emotional journey climaxing in the triumph of the human spirit.
Here was a story centred on Australia’s biggest annual event, featuring players from every corner of the globe; but at its heart shone an unassuming Aussie hero.
“Yes, Eric, there is a great story here,” I enthused. “I think it would make a wonderful film.” There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
“I am interested in writing a book,” he said.
“Well, let’s write a screenplay and maybe then you can write the book!” I responded. So on June 10, 2003, at the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles, Eric and I sat down over breakfast and nutted out the first ideas that were to grow into The Cup.
Over the next few months we discussed, debated, argued, agreed and disagreed as we exchanged e-mails, phone calls and voice mails or worked together in my study fine-tuning the outline, then drafting early versions of the screenplay. Eric would write a scene, I would edit it and visa versa.
Exploring the essential ingredients of the story was a fulfilling experience. The more we dug into the detail and met the people involved, the more excited we became. Not to mention the fun of visiting Dubai and attending three Melbourne Cups and the Irish St. Leger at the Curragh.
As I readied our screenplay for production I realized just how big an undertaking this film was going to be—not only were we going to recreate one of the most remembered Melbourne Cups of all time but restage other key races, which would require us to purchase or lease over 100 thoroughbreds. So our horse department set themselves up at a leased stud just outside Melbourne and began an Australia-wide search for horses. On top of their normal daily race training these animals needed to get used to filming around lights, cameras, waving microphones and tracking vehicles. All of them had to be trustworthy on set, where safety for the cast, crew and extras is the number one priority.
As well as the normal casting process, jockeys, track riders, stable hands and grooms had to be recruited. The actors who were cast as jockeys went into an intense three-month training period, just like the thoroughbreds they were going to ride. Each actor undertook a rigorous and supervised diet and exercise program. I cast Stephen Curry (Damien Oliver) eighteen months in advance of filming, and he spent that time learning to ride and getting into shape, losing 32 pounds in the process. Dan MacPherson (Jason Oliver) lost 24 pounds. For Dan the task was a little easier, as he is a world-class tri-athlete and has competed in and finished the Hawaiian Ironman event, the world’s toughest.
Filming went relatively smoothly and to schedule until Melbourne was hit by its wettest winter on record. (Film crews are renowned for breaking droughts!) We had to postpone shooting the major track racing sequences for three months until spring, so the tracks would have a chance to dry out. When even the stud we had leased became waterlogged, my producing colleagues Jan Bladier and David Lee called and asked me if I would mind accommodating 100 horses at my farm for three months! What could I say? So the entire equine cast, along with their staff, moved in to winter at my farm.
Perfect weather ensued when filming recommenced in spring, and the complex racing sequences were completed safely and smoothly. Post-production was completed in 2011. The film’s journey to the screen was accomplished. For me, I hope it does justice to an event that has become forever etched in Australian sporting folklore, one of Australia’s most beloved and enduring traditions: The Cup.
For more information on The Cup, visit www.thecup.com.