The Cup has now been released in Australian cinemas and it’s one of our biggest releases of the year given its $15m budget. I recently had the chance to speak with the director and star of the film to find out how it all got made.
Matt: We’re talking this morning with actor Stephen Curry and writer-director-producer Simon Wincer about the latest Australian film, The Cup. Guys, good morning.
Stephen: Thank you very much for having us.
Matt: The film is based on the 2002 Melbourne Cup. Jockey Damien Oliver rode Media Puzzle to victory just a few days after his older brother was killed. So even without the benefit of the movie it is an event that I can remember from 9 years ago and I know a lot of other people would as well. I guess I’ll start by asking if you guys are horse racing fans?
Simon: I’m not particularly a horse racing fan. I follow the Melbourne Cup as every Australian does. I just think it’s a great background for a film. This isn’t so much a film about horse racing but it’s about triumph over tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit.
Stephen: I’m a fan of big horse races but have been to the races and not seen a horse. So I’m more a fan of dressing up in a nice suit.
Matt: That seems more common than not these days. It’s why a lot of young people go to the races.
Stephen: Look, it’s been a big learning curve for me. To be able to get a look at what happens inside the racing world has been really fascinating. It’s been an amazing experience.
Matt: Simon, where did you start from trying to put this script together as the event itself would have already had a lot of documented footage and a lot of media interviews and such? How did you get to know the key characters in this story and put a screenplay together?
Simon: Mainly by talking to everybody. The idea ironically came from an American from Dallas, Texas called Eric O’Keefe who I co-wrote the screenplay with. He was a journalist who had interviewed me in America about a western I was doing with Tom Selleck. I was finishing that film in Los Angeles when the 2002 Melbourne Cup was run.
Eric rang and asked me to look into the Cup. He said that some of his friends had just gotten back from Australia and they’d told this story about a jockey that had ridden back to scale and 100,000 people were crying. He said I think there might be a magazine article in it.
I went back to Australia and I looked at all the footage and media coverage and thought wow, this is unbelievable. I rang Eric and said this is a Hollywood movie, not a magazine article! He wasn’t sure how to write a screenplay so we agreed to write it together and that’s how it came into being.
Matt: So how easy was it getting in touch with the key characters in the film? Like Damien Oliver and Lee Freedman and Dermot Weld?
Simon: The Victorian Racing Club (VRC) has been fantastic. They introduced me to Damien and to Dermot Weld and all the various players in the piece. Everyone was on side because they saw this as a very positive look at the racing world but as I said, racing is the background to the movie. The foreground is Damien’s anguish during this terrible time in his life and how he overcame it.
Matt: Stephen, did you get to speak to Damien before the film to work out how to play him?
Stephen: Yeah, I did. He was very generous. I spent a lot of time with him and he let me tag along like his little annoying brother who would come and nip at his heels at race meetings, barrier trials and various things. Also, his mate and manager Neil Pinner was a big help. They have as vested an interest as anybody as seeing this story told in the right way.
They were fantastic from the “get go” and no question was too prickly. They were so open and honest about something that was such a horrible time in their lives. Ultimately it was a triumphant moment but at it’s core is this tragic story of not only Jason’s death but Ray’s death 25 years earlier.
Matt: Did you get to talk to Damien after he saw the film for the first time?
Stephen: I did and it’s a bit of a story actually. I watched it for the first time in its entirety with Damien watching it for the first time with his wife Trish. They were in front of me and I was kind of swapping between the screen and them.
It was really quite confronting because I knew that if they didn’t like it then we’d failed. If they don’t think that it pays due homage to Jason and to Ray and to the entire family then we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Thankfully at the end of it, we all kind of shed a tear. Both Damien and Trish said they loved it and that Jason would have loved it. That was the feedback we needed.
Matt: I have to admit that I shed a tear as well. The ending of the film comes together so well.
Simon: It’s very powerful. The key is that if you can share this emotional journey that Damien goes through, you’ll share in the triumph at the end of the film as well.
Matt: Stephen, can you talk us through the weight loss? I just went and saw Hugh Jackman in Real Steel where he had to build himself up for the role.
Stephen: Yep, I’m very similar to Hugh Jackman in terms of looks and body. In fact, I got down to the last two for Australia but he just pipped me.
I guess it’s part of it for any role and that you have to be prepared to play the character as honestly and convincingly as possible. Part of this one was looking like a jockey. You just put it down to one of those occupational hazards of dieting and I have to say that I’ve never felt healthier and I’ve never eaten healthier. It took a while and it was a bit of a yo-yo kind of effect because the film got up and fell over a few times before we actually got to the starting line.
Ever since then I’ve managed to put it all back on and maybe an extra gram or two over the last few days.
Matt: So what did you get down to?
Stephen: 59kgs which is top racing weight apparently. That’s where the similarities between me and real jockeys end.
Matt: What are you back to now?
Stephen: 74kgs. That’s my “donut weight”. I’ve got to make the most of any film where I can take my top off because it won’t happen again.
Matt: It’s tricky to tell how much time you spend on a horse during the film, particularly during the race sequences given the special effects and creative camera angles. How did those scenes play out? Did you have to do a lot of race riding?
Stephen: I did a little bit of the riding. Legally, there are certain bits that I can’t do. You need a professional jockey to be riding. There was a guy called Matty Allen who is one of Damien’s great mates and is one of the top professional jockeys going around in Melbourne. He did a lot of my more dangerous riding for me and fortunately, from a distance, we look pretty similar.
Simon: To give you an idea about how dangerous their business is, Matty fractured his skull in a bad riding accident literally a week after we finished filming. He’s back racing now but shows why it’s recognised as the world’s most dangerous job.
Matt: How did you create these races? You can see the footage on Melbourne Cup day with the huge crowds. Was this shot during last year’s Melbourne Cup?
Simon: No actually. We shot the 2006 and 2007 Melbourne Cups. I had 8 cameras there to get it from every angle. Luckily, in 2006 it was their biggest ever crowd at the Cup and Derby Day was the same. It was a nightmare with 8 cameras as you can imagine.
Then, with the magic of CGI, we could put the audience at the top of the biggest grandstand and see the horses by combining the footage with own restaging of the 2002 race.
We restaged the whole race from a variety of angles. Normally on television, the race is filled with wide shots because punters get mad when you show a close up because they can’t see where their horse is. We were able to get amongst it and make it a lot more thrilling and exciting.
Matt: So if you were shooting footage way back in 2006, how long has this project been on the cards? A long time from the sounds of it?
Simon: It has. We wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 2003. We almost got it up when we cast Stephen in 2006 because Village Roadshow had enough belief in the project to allow us to shoot these sequences.
We shot an AFL football game between the Eagles and the Kangaroos in 2007. Chris Judd and Ben Cousins were still playing for the Eagles back then which helped a lot.
Stephen: It’s interesting to think that all of that footage stood a real chance of sitting on a shelf forever. This film at one stage, just before we started shooting, looked dead in the water.
Simon: Last February I thought the last door had closed but a very good friend of mine came to our rescue. He put some money to make up for the shortfall and the next day we had a movie.
Matt: I have to ask about Brendan Gleeson who plays Dermot Weld. He starred in one of my favourite films of the year so far, The Guard. What was he like to work with?
Simon: Brendan was great. He’s one of the world’s great actors and he has an extraordinary body of work. One thing about Brendan was that I got him on the telephone so I could convince him to be in the movie. He said that he liked the piece but he wasn’t sure about the Irish dialogue. He thought it could be improved a little.
I laughed and said to Brendan that this is Irish dialogue written by a Texan and an Australian who think they know how you guys speak.
Stephen: In the first draft of the opening scene he says “they’re always after my lucky charms” (laughs) and that was just ridiculous so that had to be taken out.
Matt: Is it just me or is every Australian sports commentator in this film? There’s Bruce McAvaney, Stephen Quartermain, Eddie McGuire, Dennis Cometti, Gerard Whatley and even The Coodabeen Champions. How did they all get involved?
Simon: I wanted to ground the film in reality and they’re all so good at playing themselves. There’s nothing worse than seeing an actor who’s obviously an actor trying to act like a media person. They all nailed everything in one and two takes because that’s what they do for a living.
They were thrilled to be a part of it as well. I guess this is a story that has captured everybody’s hearts. They all wanted to be involved.
Matt: The film has a fairly distinctive Australian flavour and of course, we here in Australia know the significance of the race and people like Bart Cummings and Lee Freedman. Is there a chance that the film might be taken overseas to a wider audience?
Simon: Oh yes. We’ve made quite a few foreign sales already. We’re currently finalising an American version of the film that I’ve previewed over there and received a similar reaction sitting in the audience. There are a few little cultural things that they don’t get and so we’ve made changes for that market which is a fairly standard procedure.
Matt: I’m curious about that. A lot of changes?
Simon: No. Relatively minor. It’s about 8 to 9 minutes shorter. We’ve chopped things here and there because it doesn’t work. They won’t get it unless they’re an Aussie. The film still delivers the same punch and in fact there are some things that I prefer in that version. That’s the beauty of being able to go back and tinker with a film after it’s been finished.
Matt: I guess I’ll finish up by asking what’s next in the pipeline for you both?
Stephen: I’m off to India to do a cricket film. That’s going to be a little bit of fun. It’s called Save Your Legs and it’s based on a real live D-grade cricket team from Melbourne called the Abbotsford Anglers who decided to buy themselves some lovely outfits so they could be taken seriously in the sub-continent.
It turns out they were taken seriously and they found themselves playing on these amazing arenas against these teams they had no business playing against. This film follows their story through India.
Matt: So you’re continuing with the sporting theme?
Stephen: Yeah. Well, I’m going from an elite sportsman to a completely useless one. This one’s a bit better for me because I can actually look a little more like a useless cricketer than a jockey.
Matt: What have you got coming up Simon?
Simon: I do the Australian Outback Spectacular shows on the Gold Coast which I write and direct. There’s a new one opening around Christmas. That’s keeping me busy.
I’m doing my next Australian film on the story behind the song Waltzing Matilda. It’s an epic romance set at a torrid time in history when the country was on the brink of civil war with the shearer’s strike. It’s a wonderful story.
Matt: Fantastic. Thanks very much for joining us this morning and best of luck with the film.
You can read my review of The Cup by clicking here.