Off To The Races With 'Seabiscuit'

This is very, very dangerous stuff," says Gary Ross, sitting amid the Old World splendor of the St. Regis Hotel, in Century City, Calif. The avuncular writer-director of "Seabiscuit" is talking about horse racing, but he could just as easily be holding forth on filmmaking. "It may have the highest mortality rate of any sport. If you have an accident in a car, the vehicle is designed to protect you. If you fall off a horse going 45 miles an hour, well... "

In a summer of mutants, terminators and pirates, Ross's $80 million drama about the runty, 1930s Thoroughbred that became a national sensation is one of the more dangerous movies around. It is epic, intelligent and sincere--a movie for adults, about to be released during the most teen-centric season of the year. "Seabiscuit" doesn't have a Pink single on the soundtrack. It will not be coming to a PlayStation near you. It is not, in other words, the kind of film that Hollywood studios make much anymore, and certainly not at that price. "I knew I was lucky every day," Ross says. "I thought, 'I may never get a canvas like this again'."

Luckily, he had one hell of a vista to paint. Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," the film is a classic underdog tale and, as such, a classic American one, too. Seabiscuit was a small, crookedy-legged horse. He was not beautiful and he tended to lose. A lot. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a self-made Buick mogul who had lost a son in a car accident and bought the horse on the advice of trainer Tom Smith. Smith (Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar this year for his portrayal of a toothless orchid fanatic in "Adaptation") was an inscrutable plainsman whose way of life had been destroyed by the Depression, and by the very world Howard's cars had helped create. Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), was a washed-up 26-year-old by the time he met the horse, and at 5 feet 7, he was considered too tall to be a top performer. Somehow, these men saw a greatness in each other, and in this horse, that had eluded everyone. Despite absurd odds, Seabiscuit began to win (and win, and win), and inspired a country devastated by poverty and unemployment.

He would have a similar effect on Hillenbrand. "I was the most obscure person in America before this book," she says, laughing. "I was making $9,000 a year and living in the most horrible little apartment in Washington, D.C." But the day after she closed her deal with Random House in August 1998, the phone started ringing--producers wanting to option the film rights. At the time, Ross, who had written "Big" and "Dave," had only just directed his first film, "Pleasantville." But, Hillenbrand says, "one sentence into my conversation with Gary, I knew he was the man to do it."

As a kid, Ross celebrated his 13th birthday at the racetrack rather than have a bar mitzvah, and he shares ownership of the Thoroughbred Atswhatimtalknbout (which lost the Kentucky Derby to the underdog, Funny Cide, this year) with Steven Spielberg and "Seabiscuit" producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. But that's not what won Hillenbrand over. "He was immediately saying this was a story about people, and that's what I wanted to hear," she says. "I didn't want to hear a sentimental tale about a horse."

Despite the initial interest from Hollywood, however, "Seabiscuit" was anything but a sure thing. Hillenbrand, an unproved author, still had to write the book, and Ross needed to find a studio willing to finance an expensive period film, without a central romance, about a sport that was not exactly the national pastime. Generally, a corporate-financed film needs to be so inexpensive that if it flops, the studio doesn't lose its shirt, or so marketable (e.g., "Tomb Raider," "Bad Boys II") that even if it's awful, the public buys tickets anyway.

But Ross caught a break. Hillenbrand's book hit the shelves in 2001, and became a publishing phenomenon. (It's, to date, the most successful sports title, and the paperback edition has held the No. 1 spot on The New York Times best-seller list every week for four months.) Suddenly, Ross had a tony property that resonated with the same Horatio Alger uplift as "Rocky." What's more, the national mood changed dramatically after September 11 that year. The story, which might have seemed too heartfelt or patriotic before, now promised to give the country the same shot of self-esteem that Seabiscuit himself had delivered 65 years earlier. Universal Pictures saddled up.

At a Universal marketing meeting last fall, the executives discussed strategy. "We talked about what 'Seabiscuit' said about the state of the American psyche," says studio chairman Stacey Snider. "We thought there was a real tonic in the themes of the film that were relevant now: where you find your strength when you've been knocked down, the idea of second chances, of people helping other people." Even so, the movie was a financial risk. Snider was under pressure to cut costs after Universal's parent company, Vivendi, announced that it planned to put the studio on the auction block. "You just didn't know if this was the last movie you were going to be able to greenlight," she says. "It was my responsibility to err on the side of prudence." She opted to divvy up the bill, sharing the expense (and the eventual revenue) with DreamWorks and Spyglass Entertainment. Maguire, who had long been Ross's first choice to play Red Pollard, had literally done his part to make the executives less nervous. The part was called Spider-Man.

On a recent afternoon in West Hollywood, in the conference room of his production company, Maguire deftly lights a cigar as thick as a roll of quarters. At 28, he still looks boyish, so the effect is a bit like watching an 8-year-old clomp around in his dad's wingtips. "I've stopped fighting with reporters," he says. "They all want to put everything in a box with a neat little story arc." He takes a puff. "I've given up trying to fight all the labels and stuff. Whatever you want to say, you know?"

The neat little story arc on Maguire is that he's in the midst of switching types, from the wide-eyed wunderkind of "The Ice Storm" and "The Cider House Rules" to bankable leading man. "Seabiscuit" will answer an important question: is Maguire a movie star when he's not in tights? "He's not classically hunky--he's not Paul Walker," says Ross, who has been pals with Maguire since the two made "Pleasantville." "He's a fierce, intense guy. In most of his movies, he's played sensitive, reactive characters, but I knew there was another guy there." Red Pollard, in addition to being a jockey, was also a prizefighter, and in Ross's script at least, an angry one. After his folks leave him with a stranger at a racetrack, Pollard carries a hefty chip on his shoulder, and is loath to ask for help.

Maguire didn't have an idyllic childhood either. His family moved around a lot, and he found that his parents weren't always focused on him. "I was kind of self-parenting at some point," he says. "Moving became more difficult. You've got to fit into these different situations, and you're living a different life. As I got older, and the social pressure was greater, I started to protect myself more--a defense mechanism, I think, so I wouldn't get too attached to people."

With Maguire, Bridges and Cooper in place, Ross's attention turned to his non-human cast. It quickly became clear that no one horse could play Seabiscuit. "Just the rigors of filming were too much for one horse," says the movie's wrangler, Rusty Hendrickson, who bought five or six horses to play Seabiscuit, and an additional 50 or so to play his competitors. (The horses cost about $5,000 each, and were resold after the film wrapped.) Although different Seabiscuits were used for different purposes (running, rearing, etc.), the Thoroughbred that gets all the close-ups is named Fighting Ferrari. "I love being on horseback," says Maguire. "It feels very meditative, but I feel conflicted about it at the same time, having this animal carrying me around." Luckily for him, most of his racing scenes were not on a horse at all, but on a mechanical rig called an Equicizer, a workout machine used by jockeys. This was far safer, and allowed Ross to film midrace conversations between Pollard and jockey George Woolf (played by Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens) more easily.

The planning of the races was excruciatingly precise. With real horses running at full speed, and with Maguire on his Equicizer mounted to a flatbed truck, a team of 15 people would follow the action around the track in a massive camera car loaded with equipment. "It was basically a battleship," Ross says. "All these moving parts had to come together at one specific moment, and for maybe a quarter of a mile, you'd have this piece of choreography that you'd worked out."

Despite the thrill of the races, Ross still delivered what he had promised Hillenbrand almost five years before: a movie about people. Seabiscuit doesn't even appear on screen until almost 50 minutes into the film. Early response from critics (including NEWSWEEK's) has been mixed, praising the performances and Ross's attention to period detail, but accusing the movie of being too sanitized, and too slow to get to the horse. Sitting at the St. Regis Hotel weeks before these initial verdicts were handed down, Ross seemed to anticipate that they were coming. "The journey of these characters is an important part of this story," he says. "Without that, it's just a movie about a horse. It's meaningless." And in the end, perhaps it's appropriate that "Seabiscuit" doesn't get showered with too much praise right out of the gate. In the 1930s, racing experts didn't think much of the small, crookedy-legged horse at first, either. We all know how that turned out.