Turf warriors

Gary Ross' Depression-era 'Seabiscuit' examines three crippled souls who make each other whole

Popularity can be costly.

Gary Ross failed to place two wagers at the recent Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita because he was talking to friends and didn’t get to the betting windows in time. Both picks, of course, went on to win and as any gambler can tell you, predicting the outcome of an event and failing to cash in is almost worse than losing.

But don’t feel too bad for Ross, a big winner at the racetrack in 2003.

Ross’ “Seabiscuit” — both critically applauded and in the box office winner’s circle at $120 million domestic — was a testament to the director’s ability to take two divergent filmmaking endeavors and turn them into one seamless movie.

“It was such a funny movie to make,” Ross explains from his office on the Universal lot. “Almost like two movies in one. In the morning, it was like making an action picture, with intricate choreography that felt like a massive epic.

“Then, after lunch, it was an intimate film. It was really two challenges at once.”

Based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit” is more than a tale of an underdog thoroughbred. In essence, the animal is an equine connecting rod to three lost and emotionally crippled souls — jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) — who help heal one another through the horse’s success.

An accomplished Academy Award-nominated writer for “Big” and “Dave,” “Seabiscuit” was Ross’ second feature behind the camera. He directed Maguire in “Pleasantville” and adapted the Hillenbrand tome with the actor in mind.

For the other leads, Ross was attracted to Cooper’s performances in “Lone Star” and “Adaptation.” Bridges provided a quiet leadership that suited the stately Howard character.

“Jeff was always in the back of my mind,” Ross says. “He had that iconic stature and a quiet solidity, with an impish, boyish enthusiasm.”

While Ross wouldn’t have to worry about the performances of his stellar actors, it was the horses that often gave him the most trouble on the set.

Planning the intricate race scenes required a horse wrangler, Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, several of the local riders on the Southern California circuit and a handful of key below-the-line talents. And it didn’t hurt having Gary Stevens, who played legendary jockey George Woolf, in the saddle as well.

Each morning the group would map out how the race scenes should play by drawing a diagram of the race on the floor of the Santa Anita grandstand.

“We would go over specific strategy that Gary wanted to use,” recalls McCarron, who after retiring from racing is now an exec at Santa Anita and was used as a horse choreographer for “Seabiscuit.” “If Seabiscuit needed to be in the lead, we would tell each of the jockeys to keep two to three lengths off the lead, or whatever it needed to be.”

Unwilling to take direction, the horses often didn’t cooperate. In the key match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral — a contest that is the equine highlight of the film — Seabiscuit, played by nearly a dozen horses, continually failed to beat his rival. An exasperated Ross did whatever was necessary to put Seabiscuit in front.

“I tried to fix more horse races than any guy in history,” says Ross, laughing. “After War Admiral kept winning, I finally had to put a saddlecloth over a pony and, finally, War Admiral, got whipped.”

These days, Ross is feeling a bit whipped himself. With three months of prep (Ross says he needed nine) and four months of filming in California, New York and Kentucky, “Seabiscuit” was a difficult project to direct and took a toll.

There was a lot of pressure to stay true to Hillenbrand’s 300-plus page book (which was No. 1 at the time the film preemed in July). And, concurrently, maintain the elements essential to the story, eliminate those that could be cut, and, probably most importantly, make it mainstream enough that audiences unable to make sense of a Daily Racing Form would get a true sense of the Sport of Kings.

“You have an obligation to stay close to the historical detail of the book and that puts tremendous scrutiny on the adaptation,” Ross explains. “You have to absolutely satisfy both the personal and the historical.”

Ross has been taking it easy since the summer, mulling over a few writing projects and planning out his next move.

And despite all the “Seabiscuit” tumult, a trip to the track remains a pleasurable diversion for Ross, a longtime horse player. Even without cashing a ticket.


Previous Oscar noms: Original screenplay, “Big” (1988); “Dave” (1993)
This year: National Board of Review, Top 10 Film