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‘Secretariat’ plays odds with uplifting, winning message

It didn’t look like Secretariat could pull it off. Coming out of the gate at the 1973 Kentucky Derby, the chestnut colt fell behind all but two horses and dropped more than nine lengths off the leaders down the backstretch. Under the whip from jockey Ron Turcotte, the thoroughbred suddenly blitzed the field, winning the Derby and the nation’s adoration.


FOR THE RECORD:
“Secretariat": An article about the movie “Secretariat” in the Oct. 3 Calendar section reported that Disney distributes movies from Marvel Studios. Although Walt Disney Co. owns Marvel Entertainment, films from Marvel Studios are distributed by Paramount Pictures.


That stirring come-from-behind race — the opening leg in the horse’s ridiculously lopsided Triple Crown triumph, the first such sweep in 25 years — is at the center of “Secretariat,” a Disney drama opening Friday about the legendary equine, unconventional owner Penny Chenery ( Diane Lane) and eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin ( John Malkovich).

It’s the kind of feel-good family film — “Secretariat” is rated PG — that evokes the quintessential Disney films of the era it’s set in: “Freaky Friday,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Love Bug.” At the same time, the movie recalls the studio’s rousing sports dramas of the past decade, a slate that includes “The Rookie,” “Remember the Titans” and “Miracle.”

Disney’s new top executives believe “Secretariat,” a project begun by their predecessors, distills their creative and commercial ambitions, and they are promising to make more modestly budgeted, uplifting films in its hoofprints.

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“It’s a movie that speaks to who we are today and where we are going,” studio chief Rich Ross said of the film, which features a gospel song and a Bible quote and has evident heartland appeal – the perfect inspirational film, he believes, for these recessionary times.

Nearly a year after Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger fired studio chief Dick Cook and replaced him with Ross, a cable television veteran, the movie company is assembling a film lineup that in many ways looks like the Disney of yesterday. The studio has stumbled recently with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Step Up 3D” and “You Again,” films that were inherited from Cook’s regime but marketed by Ross’ team.

“A quote was shared with me from Steve Jobs, who said: ‘When you have a brand, it’s like a bank account. With every offering, you’re either making a withdrawal or a deposit on the brand,’” said new production President Sean Bailey, referring to the Apple boss, who is also Disney’s largest individual shareholder. “I feel like these kinds of movies are real brand deposits.”

Directed by “Braveheart” screenwriter Randall Wallace and written by “The Rookie’s” Mike Rich, “Secretariat” was produced by former major league pitcher Mark Ciardi and partner Gordon Gray. Ciardi and Gray, who had previously produced the hockey movie “Miracle” and the football story “Invincible,” had wanted to make a film about Volponi, the 44-1 longshot winner of the 2002 Breeders’ Cup. Ciardi, Gray and Rich had discussed making a movie about Secretariat — arguably a better horse than racing legends Seabiscuit, Kelso, Citation and Man o’War — “but we didn’t know what the story was,” Gray said, adding that there was no suspense “because he killed everybody.”

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Rich, who previously had written “Radio” and “Finding Forrester,” films focused on overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, did research and decided that the most dramatic Secretariat movie would focus on Chenery, a Denver housewife and mother of four who took over her father’s Meadow Farm. Under her leadership, the farm turned out Secretariat and, a year earlier, Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge. “The story came together pretty clearly,” Ciardi said.

The movie itself, though, faced several obstacles. Disney said it would make “Secretariat” only if Julia Roberts or Jodie Foster would agree to play Chenery. What’s more, Cook and production president Oren Aviv didn’t want Wallace to spend more than $35 million — less than half of what Universal committed to 2003’s “Seabiscuit.” When Roberts and Foster passed, Wallace was able to persuade the studio to hire Lane, who hadn’t been in a $100-million grossing movie since “The Perfect Storm” in 2000.

In a way, the studio was mimicking the strategy that Cook and Aviv used on “The Proposal,” which originally was offered to Roberts. When the “Pretty Woman” star passed, Disney cast Sandra Bullock in her place (saving several million dollars along the way), and “The Proposal” grossed more than $300 million worldwide.

“Penny has a well of dignity and quiet strength. And I believe Diane had that quality, that you wouldn’t see how tough she was until you punched her,” Wallace said. “The exterior was soft and genteel and the interior was steel, and that’s what I thought Penny needed to be.”

“Secretariat” represents one of three genres of film the studio is pursuing under Ross, whose own film slate is at least a year away from reaching theaters.

Disney’s studio not only makes its own films but also distributes movies from Pixar Animation Studio and superhero tales from Marvel Studios, along with the occasional live-action offering from DreamWorks. For Disney-branded films, Bailey said he is primarily focused on making movies that fall into four broad categories: family-friendly comedies with heart (Bailey and his team cite “Splash,” “Big,” “Enchanted” and “Elf”); epics that create worlds ( “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the upcoming “Tron: Legacy”); and inspirational true stories ( “The Blind Side,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Remember the Titans” and “Erin Brockovich”).

The studio also will occasionally make movies aimed at a narrowly defined demographic — next year’s high school girls’ movie “Prom” and the young adult adaptations “Fallen” and “Matched” are current examples — but is scaling back on adult dramas. Disney’s more grown-up Touchstone label is basically gone, and potentially expensive highbrow movies like “Gemini Man,” a long-in-the-works hit-man thriller, face longer odds.

Even though Disney didn’t wager a lot of money in the making of “Secretariat,” the studio is placing big bets on a surprising number of big-budget projects helmed by prominent directors such as David Fincher, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro.

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Fincher, fresh off “The Social Network,” is developing a remake of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” a movie that Ross shut down under director McG, whose vision was deemed to be too dark. Raimi, of “Spider-Man” fame, is set to direct a “Wizard of Oz” prequel, while Del Toro, the filmmaker behind “Pan’s Labyrinth,” plans to remake “The Haunted Mansion.”

But modestly budgeted stories like “Secretariat” will continue to factor in Disney’s theatrical lineup. The studio and filmmakers aspired to make the racing movie more than a straightforward retelling of Big Red’s prowess on the racetrack — a sort of equine rags-to-riches story that one news account from the era described as “a compound of good genes, good training and good luck.” Landing on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week, Secretariat achieved the kind of pop culture fame reserved for only elite athletes like Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson and Mary Lou Retton.

Rich’s script, which Wallace revised, was loosely adapted from sportswriter William Nack’s book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion"; Wallace took it and followed Chenery’s emotional journey and the obstacles she faced in trying to fulfill her father’s vision for the 2,600-acre farm in Virginia.

“I have an approach to historical stories which makes people really uneasy — and that is you don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth,” Wallace said. “A movie is not a documentary, it is an impressionistic portrayal that, in those two hours you have, you have to capture what are the deeper truths. That means you have to synthesize and condense.”

Wallace, who attended seminary and speaks with a preacher’s rhetorical flourishes, used the gospel song “Oh Happy Day” and a verse from Job to emphasize the film’s spiritual themes of rebirth and transcendence. “It’s not a sports movie. It’s from the guy who created ‘Braveheart.’ And it’s much more akin to ‘Chariots of Fire,’” Wallace said. “I never did want the movie to be about a given dogma. But I wanted a sense with each character that they were looking for some experience of the sacred.”

“Secretariat” emphasizes Chenery’s isolation from her four children (who remained with her husband in Denver while she was in Virginia) and her high-stakes gamble to shore up the breeding operation’s tenuous finances by selling $6 million worth of syndication rights in Secretariat – essentially, an ownership stake and breeding privileges in the broad-chested beast — well before post time at the Kentucky Derby.

“Penny said to me, ‘You know what your movie does? I didn’t understand how hard it was and how lonely I was until I saw your movie,’” Wallace said after the 88-year-old Chenery watched the movie.

Given the limited budget, Wallace re-created two of the races in the Triple Crown but used television footage for the Preakness Stakes. For the Derby, his cameras focused on the smallest details, like how the horse rolled its eyes and how the jockey curled the animal’s mane in his hand. At the Belmont, where Secretariat set a world record for that distance just as he did in the Derby (marks that still stand today), Wallace heightened the feat with a slow-motion start, emphasizing every footfall until the gates spring open.

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“Hanging between there, like a rose between the two dramatic thorns, was the Preakness,” Wallace said. “I had heard that her family was left behind, and this was the most agonizing part to me. The sense that Penny has been presented with a choice, at the beginning of the movie, which was passion or family. And the miracle is that she gets both.”

Because it’s a feel-good movie, Wallace chose not to include Chenery’s subsequent divorce. But Ross said Chenery’s willingness to follow her passion through adversities makes the film relevant to contemporary audiences.

“This is about a woman who bet the farm, literally and figuratively,” Ross said. “If we were going to tell the story and the perfect happy ending for a Triple Crown winner, that would be a very uninteresting movie. This is not about that.

“When we at Disney talk about believing in dreams, the dreams do not have to be about princesses and fantasy. This is someone who believed in her dream … a dream that she could do what no one had done before. That to me is the ultimate Disney story.”

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

john.horn@latimes.com


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