The designers of “Seabiscuit,” the Depression-era horseracing drama, had to create both the opulence of the upper class and the poverty of the lower class in a film about a horse that binds the two together.
Production Design / Jeannine Oppewall
The design team headed by Oscar nominee Jeannine Oppewall (“L.A. Confidential,” “Pleasantville”) had to be ingenious to create an authentic period feel on a minimal budget. The goal was to use as many authentic locations as possible. Santa Anita racetrack, opened in 1934, has been in continuous use since Seabiscuit’s heyday. The crew its Art Deco beauty intact, but contemporary elements were also present.
“Do we pay to take it down? Do we mask it with a tree or a bush? Do you take it out digitally in post-production? It’s a nightmare,” says Oppewall. “I always say, ‘the pencil has two ends, the lead end and the eraser end.’ And when you make a period movie, you use a whole lot more of the eraser than you would like to.”
In the case of the Howards’ ranch, the lead end of the pencil was applied. After searching high and low for the perfect house and not finding it, the crew built one to complement an existing barn. The team multitasked with sets built under the grandstands at Santa Anita. “We built the Agua Caliente jockeys’ room and shot it … and then changed it over and shot it as the Santa Anita jockeys’ club.”
The track at the Pomona Fairplex doubled for Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack, while the New York City Jockey Club was lensed at Saratoga, N.Y. The the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was shot over 14 days at Keeneland race track in Lexington, Ky., the heart of horse country.
The film’s color scheme had much to do with its true stars, the horses, says Oppewall. “There are only a few colors in ‘Seabiscuit’ — the colors of the horses, many different beautiful shades of brown, and the colors of nature, essentially greens and cream details. There are wood tones and more wood tones, and then there’s grass.”
Costume Design / Judianna Makovsky
Oscar nominee Judianna Makovsky (“Pleasantville,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) loved designing in the period and the horseracing milieu. “It’s so American, and the beginning of American sportswear, which you don’t get to do very often. It’s more than just suits on the men. I also liked that it encompassed every walk of life — that was quite a challenge to do but really fun.”
Actual footage from the ’30s was intercut with new footage, so “the people had to look real,” Makovsky notes. Her team pulled from more than 35 rental houses in America, England and Italy to find clothing for the huge number of extras in the crowd scenes, “We cleaned out America first, and then we hit Europe. What we couldn’t find we made. It was literally hunt and peck.”
For Tobey Maguire, Makovsky came up with crimson and white silks authentically reproduced to match the ones jockey Red Pollard wore.
Surprisingly, the hardest things to research were the jockey’s britches. “No one kept the trousers,” Makovsky says. She finally found a pair of trousers from the wardrobe of famed jockey George Woolf at the Derby restaurant, which he once owned. “They were the only ones we could find anywhere in the world, be
cause they wore out, and (jockeys) threw them away. And they were filthy.”
Makeup and Hair
The fact that the story spanned many years was the key challenge for makeup department head Thomas Nellen. “The accomplishment was to make the male characters age over time, without actually having to show exactly how old they were.”
Nellen stayed conscious of the film’s Depression-era setting. “Not everybody runs around like a Vogue magazine — you have to go beyond the glamour pictures,” he notes. With characters like Red Pollard’s mother, Nellen had to show the family go from wealthy to poor. “You try to tell the story — we add the makeup (for the) before, then pull it back to show that they get poor, (so) she looked gaunt or pale.”