There’s something about watching documentaries that centers your reality – there’s this raw emotion to them that poetically moves the hairs on the back of your neck ever so softly. Dark Horse, from director Louise Osmond, is one of those incredibly true stories that follows the tale of an unlikely champion from the unlikeliest of places. Imagine it’s 1999 and the village you grew up in, Cefn Fforest, is a former mining town in South Wales. There’s little work and the strains of a recession influences everyone around you. What would you do to break the monotony? To make you smile in that different kind of way?
Jan Vokes, a barmaid at a local club, decided that she was going to breed a racehorse. With the help of her husband Brian “Daisy” Vokes and a local tax consultant, Howard Davies, they buy a thirteen-year-old mare and mate her with an American stallion to raise the foal on their slagheap allotment. To help weigh the cost, Jan forms a syndicate with 23 friends where they each pay 10 pounds a week and name the horse Dream Alliance. Despite showing little promise Dream amazes the racing community by winning all the way to up the Grand National at Aintree in Liverpool, one of the most famous and dangerous races in the world.
“This project started by accident really,” notes Osmond. “I went to a race outside of London on Boxing Day – which is kind of a tradition. I’ve never been to one before but you quickly realize how extraordinary and incredibly beautiful these animals are. I thought to myself wouldn’t it be great to do Rocky but with a horse.”
The director ended up searching for anything that could wet her quill but couldn’t find a story. “I was literally at the darkest time of development and at a point of giving up when I came across Dream. When I read about him I jumped up and down. I didn’t even have the courage to make a single call because I wanted to make the film so badly,” says Osmond. “I asked my producer Judith Dawson and told her if you don’t do anything for the rest of your life you have to call these people and persuade them to make the film.”
Dawson ended up ringing Howard Davies and even though he didn’t have time to talk they managed to chat for an hour and a half before the two hung up. “When we went to Wales to meet Jan and Brian we were a bit tentative. We weren’t sure what kind of people we were going to find but as soon as we met, we realized how amazing they both were. It was too good to be true and they were an absolute riot,” recalls Osmond.
In order to paint the story of Dream, Osmond had to gallop through a wealth of news articles, research and personal stories from Jan, Brian, Howard and the rest of the syndicate. “Jan had actually recorded the whole process on her home movie camera but when she lent the camera to her son for his honeymoon he accidentally recorded over nearly everything,” Osmond says.
With only a few movie clips and photos the director decided to interview everyone first and then have editor Joby Gee find the story in post before going back out to shoot accompanied reenactments. “The wonderful thing about this story is it has a beautiful natural structure to it. We wanted to make sure we gathered materials to hit those beats,” mentions Osmond.
As the narrative progresses Dream receives training from Philip Hobbs, one of Britain’s top racehorse trainers before entering in his first race at Newbury in 2004. Dream places fourth. In the races to follow he improves, placing third and second before winning two times in a row. Then in April 2007, Dream wins at Perth and then finishes second in the Hennessy Gold Cup, another big race on the calendar.
Dream’s resilient effort is not only making the racing community talk but it’s bringing the small village of Cefn Fforest together. “People would go to the pubs and clubs and bookies to watch the races,” says Osmond. “As Tony Kirby says in the film, ‘It brought the town back to life in a kind of way’.”
To recreate those moments Osmond worked with DP Benjamin Kracun. “We talked a lot about the look of the film. We knew we’d be using this old 35mm archived footage from when the town’s mines were working. It had this lovely filmic look with sun flares which I think had been filmed on uncoated lenses. We ended up looking to these beautiful old lenses from the 70s to create the reenactments and used subtle filtering to give it a slightly old slightly smoky feel to it so it was almost like a dream,” notes Osmond.
Throughout shooting they wanted to create a kind of dramatization but keep it on the funny side as well. “We knew we didn’t want the reenactments to have any dialogue or words exchanged, but we wanted to generously show them,” the director explains. “We tried to give them as much room as we could in order to pair them back in the edit to their simplest form. Film tells you what it wants and in a funny way this film wanted to be a fairly simple dramatization. It’s what suited this project but it was the hardest element to bring to life visually. We needed to figure out a way to play to the tone and spirit of the story.”
On race day at the Grand National at Aintree Dream suffers a devastating accident but the syndicate refuses to put him down. Instead they take their winnings and put it towards a new form of stem cell surgery to save its life – a staggering 20,000 pounds. But like Rocky, Dream recovers to make a surprising comeback and enters into the Welsh Grand National. Does he win?
Dark Horse from Sony Pictures Classics opens May 6 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal Theater – you might even get to meet Jan and Brian.