Interview: Stephen Curry and Simon Wincer (The Cup)

Interview: Stephen Curry and Simon Wincer (The Cup). By Simon Miraudo.

Simon Wincer has become the go-to guy for equine-centric films, having directed Phar Lap, The Lighthorseman, countless westerns, and now The Cup, based on Damien Oliver/Media Puzzle’s legendary win at the 2002 Melbourne Cup. Stephen Curry stars as Oliver – whose brother Jason died mere days before the big race – following on from his AFI-award winning performance as Graham Kennedy in The King. I spoke to the duo about the eight-year long task of bringing the script to the screen, their concerns about depicting such a sensitive, personal story, and why exactly Wincer loves horses so.

Check out our review of The Cup here!

SM: When you were growing up, do you remember seeing a film or a TV show that inspired you to get into acting or filmmaking?

SC: This may sound a little strange; I haven’t told Simon this before. Phar Lap is one of the films that was one of the most common films watched in my family; I would have seen that 20 times, I reckon. It was back in a time when it seemed that more Australians were seeing Australian material, and whenever an Australian film would come out it would be an event. Films like Storm Boy, Phar Lap, Gallipoli; all those kinds of films from that era, for me, having been a young boy at that stage – I was born in ’76, so these films came out when I was very young – had a really huge impact on me, and Phar Lap was probably the one that made me want to be able to emulate someone like that. Simon, did you see something that I’d done when you were a kid?

SW: [Laughing] I just had the horrific thought that I was actually directing when you were born.

SC: Right, there you go.

SM: You were preparing for the role 30 years earlier.

SW: The film that probably influenced me most is Lawrence of Arabia. I’m a huge David Lean fan, and I think that’s almost a perfect film. Having read the screenplay many times since, and read the books about David Lean, there’s one line in the screenplay that is simply, ‘They take Aqaba’, and it’s like a 10 minute scene. How can anyone just write that one line and see this unbelievable sequence with all these camels and horses and machinery and everything take Aqaba, which is now of course part of Jordan. It’s just the most remarkable sequence. The whole film is just perfection. He was such a master of storytelling because of his editing background. Everyone remembers the shot of the match being lit and the sun coming up. Wonderful moments like that.

SM: Simon, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you handed in the script for The Cup back in 2003.

SC: Yeah, we wrote the first draft – Eric O’Keefe, who’s an American colleague, and myself – and then I had to convince the RC and Damien Oliver we should make this film.

SM: Can you tell me about the first moment when you saw the cinematic potential in the story?

SC: Actually, it was this guy I co-wrote the script with, Eric O’Keefe, who was a Texan journalist who interviewed me on a couple of westerns I made in America for this magazine called Cowboys and Indians, which was a high end, glossy magazine in the south-west of America. I was finishing this Western I did with Tom Selleck called Monte Walsh, and Eric had interviewed me about that thing. He contacted me just after the 2002 Melbourne Cup, and he said, ‘What can you tell me about the 2002 Melbourne Cup? I’ve got some friends that just came back from Australia and they said 100,000 people were crying when the jockey rode back to scale’. I was in Los Angeles, and I was going home in a few days, so I said, ‘Eric, I’ll look into it when I get home’. Eric had told me, ‘Look, I want to write a magazine article, or a book; it sounds like it has a lot of potential for a story’. So I went home and started reading all the newspaper reports and checking out the video of the race, and I rang Eric back and said, ‘Mate, this is not a magazine article, this is not a book – it’s a Hollywood film!’ Eric said, ‘But I want to write a book or a magazine article’, and I said, ‘Well, let’s write a screenplay first and see if we can’t get a film’. So he said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to write a screenplay’; so I said, ‘Let’s write it together’. Ironically, that’s how it came about. I remember the day we sat down – I was actually finishing another movie – an IMAX movie – we met at the Universal Hilton, right next door to Universal Studios and we nutted it out. I said, ‘It’s got to be this big international story – horses coming from all over the world. The heart of the story is Damien Oliver’. That is where we started, and that was in 2003.

SM: It took another eight years to get to the screen, and I do want to talk about some of those obstacles. Stephen, at what point did you get involved? Was this a project you were aware of, and chased after?

SC: No. Well, a mutual friend of ours in Greg Sitch – who executive produced this, who also happens to be the brother of Rob Sitch of Working Dog, who I worked with on The Castle ­– I met him about 15 years ago, and we were at a party one night and he sat me down and said, ‘Look, there’s a friend of mine, Simon Wincer…’, and I went, ‘Uh! Simon Wincer?!’ He said, ‘He’s got this film about Damien Oliver winning on Media Puzzle’. So I said, ‘I refuse to work with Simon Wincer; I’ve heard horrible stories about him’. He organised a meeting, and Simon was there and gave me the script across the table, and I just read it and fell in love with it. I thought I’d be able to work with this bloke that I’ve admired for so many years and got to meet Damien. The moment I met him I realised what a lovely bloke he was and what an inspirational figure he really is. From that point on, I was kind of hooked, and that was ’06 or ’07. It was about three years of waiting to do the film, and it was almost up and things such as the GFC and all these issues out of anyone’s control conspired against it for all these years. I don’t think Simon ever gave up, but a couple of times I resigned myself to the fact it might not happen. It was pretty shattering really, because I was so hell-bent on being part of this story. I think it’s such an important one for all Australians to remember. So finally when it got up it was an absolute thrill, and it was kind of unexpected how it happened in the end.

SW: What happened was, literally in February [2010], we were still a few million dollars short of $15 million, which I knew we couldn’t make the film for any less – we had pared down the budget, we pared down the budget – I rang up a friend of mine who was a private investor in the movie. I rang up and said, ‘Mate, I think we’re dead in the water’. He said, ‘There must be another way; I’ll think of something, leave it with me’. Ten minutes later he rang back and said, ‘I’ve been talking to my wife and we’re going to put up all the shortfall’, and from that moment on we had a movie. That was February of last year, and we scrambled to get it ready, because I was able to make an offer to Brendan Gleeson when I knew we had the money, and he was available for a very short window in June, so we had to scramble to get everything in place so that we could start shooting at the end of May.

SM: You were obviously driven to get the project going and I guess this question is for both of you. Stephen, you’ve played public figures in the past, but Damien Oliver is still carrying on and living his life. Did either of you have pangs of apprehension before getting involved?

SC: Yeah, I did. I didn’t want to get it wrong. I guess, the worst thing that could happen with this is you get remembered as the guy who was in that Damien Oliver film.

SW: [Laughs]

SC: And then the definitive one is made after you get out of the way. So, yeah, you do. But from the moment we started on this and when the crew came on board and the cast came on board, you could feel this palpable sense of responsibility that everyone had. It was treated with such respect, and I don’t think I’ve worked on a production where everyone was so aware of telling this story right. I think we really benefited from that. Jobs come and go sometimes, and often they can be far less memorable than this one, and it’s more often a result of, I dunno, apathy, or people going through the motions. But we had a crew here – and Simon handpicks a lot of his crew, and his cast as well – these are guys that worked together from way back when. I think you met on Citizen Kane, didn’t you?

SW: [Laughs]

SC: Bob Donaldson our 1st AD, and David Burr our DOP, and basically all the heads of departments are people that Simon’s worked with for all these years.

SW: And we all talk second hand. It makes a difference when you’re piecing something as big as this together. If every department has a good leader, including the horse department. There were girls in the horse department, who, for a call, are transporting 60 horses from one side of Melbourne to the other, to be ready on set for 7am, so they have to get the horses ready by 1am and on the trucks. The dedication is enormous. Of course, at the end of a long day, they have to take them all home and feed them, water them, and put them down. You walk around the stalls, watching them get ready for the racing scenes, and the girls are putting make-up on so the horses are identical to the ones in the 2002 Melbourne Cup. When people are paying that much attention to detail, it’s really gratifying. It was great to see everyone so caught up with it. The same with the cast and the same with the crew. There was one particular grip called Lester Bishop who I’ve done three or four movies with – he’s a grip that works with David Burr, our DOP; grips are a really key part, because whether it’s a camera movement, whether it’s dollies, or a tower or a crane, they basically handle the camera, and the camera is then mounted on the tracking vehicles so it’s safe. Lester said the most wonderful thing to me at our wrap party – sure he’d had a beer or two – he said, ‘Mate, you have restored my confidence in Australian movies’. And that was a wonderful thing. He said, ‘We’ve had so much fun on this, you know. The work’s been great, the story is great and people are really going to like this movie’. Coming from a hardened veteran like that is really gratifying.

SC: But also, that respect for the material really did overflow into this general respect for each other as well. There was a real sense of kinship and community on the film that was just fantastic.

SM: Simon, this isn’t your first film dealing with animals, and certainly not horses. What is it about horses?

SC: I think because I learnt to ride when I was four years old, so I’ve been around them all my life. I still ride every bit of spare time that I’ve got. I’ve got a farm, and I’ve got horses and I compete on an equestrian level still. So I know what they can and can’t do. It’s more than that though; it’s more a case of these sorts of stories that have a strong emotional thread, and that’s what I’m drawn to. More than the animal. I mean, you can look at other films that I’ve done over the years, and one that immediately springs to mind with the same emotional thread is a film I did for Disney years ago when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg first moved from Paramount to takeover Disney before its resurgence, and I was asked to direct the first Wonderful World of Disney Sunday night movie, which I, as a kid, grew up with, and which they brought back in America. It was called The Girl Who Spelled Freedom. It’s a wonderful story about a Cambodian family who escaped during the Vietnam war, got to Thailand and were adopted by an American family in Tennessee, and the little girl in the family, called Linn Yann, she won the spelling bee in America, and she’d never been in a classroom in her life until she’d been in America. She got to meet President Reagan. It’s a really uplifting story. So I’m drawn to those really uplifting emotional stories, because I love drama and I guess if my body of work has a common thread it’s that strong emotional line. And mountains and valleys I love.

SM: Stephen, were you a fan of horses before you began on The Cup? Are you still a fan of horses now, after dealing with them on set?

SC: Umm, well… No, look I admire horses and I respect horses. I tell you one thing I have gained from this film, and it’s an appreciation of what jockeys do and their unbelievable skill and dedication and their bravery. They are, without a doubt, the most elite sportsmen going around, and a lot of people don’t know this, but it is the most dangerous sport in the world. More people die in horse racing incidents than any other sport in the world, and as such they just – I don’t know – they’re a breed unto their own. Damien is one of a handful of jockeys who managed to make a decent living out of the job. A lot of them live hand-to-mouth and a lot of them work just as hard as Damien works but just haven’t had the success that he’s had, but still have that drive and still have that passion, and the ability and what probably turns into an obsession for a lot of them. It’s one of those things that I’ve never really understood it, but having done a lot of work on this film, I can’t say enough about how amazing jockeys are.

The Cup arrives in Australian cinemas October 13, 2011.

One Response to “Interview: Stephen Curry and Simon Wincer (The Cup)”

  1. when does the cup come out on dvd

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