He may be best known for writing the Braveheart screenplay, but when it comes to screenwriter, producer and director, Randall Wallace, there’s much more to him than just a camera.
The charming husband and father sat down with me at the Trump Tower to talk about his method, theories on children and parenting, and why the story behind a race horse named Secretariat inspired him.
The most famous Triple Crown winner in racehorse history becomes a movie star on Friday, Oct. 8 with the release of Disney’s “Secretariat” – a story about a thoroughbred, his owner, and an unlikely trainer managed to set records in 1975 that have not been matched since.
Going into the screening of the movie, I have to be honest… I wasn’t sure I was going to like a movie about a racehorse.
I was wrong. The movie was fantastic and the audience was cheering and clapping right along with the movie. It was like being in a stadium!
Was there a big crowd?
Yes! People were actually cheering as though they were at the actual Secretariat races back in the 1970s.
That’s been one of the surprises for me. The hope that you have is that people will get involved emotionally, and one of the big directing choices I had to make early on was the approach of how I was going to tell the story. I wanted the audience to be inside the races and inside the lives of the characters.
You certainly succeeded! I was on the edge of my seat for the majority of the movie. Tell me how you first became involved with the story.
Well, I had never before worked on a project where I wasn’t the only writer. Disney had bought the rights several years before and I had to fight for the job with several other directors who wanted it, and all of my previous films had been about real masculine points of view and battles: Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Pearl Harbor…
I want movies that have and that promote stories that help you toward feeling more alive.
The film had such an artsy feel – cutaways and close ups of the horse’s nostrils, the pawing of hooves, the feeling of tension inside the corrals and even the slow motion, soundless takes. It really felt like life, and the way it happens from moment to moment. Did you want to channel and evoke all of these emotions that come with normal, daily life?
I’m going to say something that I realize as I say it, is going to sound really artsy and pretentious.
I really think of myself as an every day person. I’m a father, my parents grew up on farms, and I want to make movies that are for my kind of people.
The world is my kind of people.
Everyone wants something that makes them stand up and cheer. And they want to point their children toward something that’s higher and nobler. I think that capturing a moment is a talent.
When I was growing up, I grew up in Tennessee, I grew up with working people, so when I encountered things like great art… when I first saw a painting by Vermeer. One of his greatest paintings is Woman with a Pearl Necklace, and the pearls are only one half circle of white paint.
So here’s this master using one moment to convey the essence of what a pearl is, and I don’t think it was laziness, I think it was genius. So when I look at a movie, I try to be inspired by that approach… by saying, ‘What’s a single image that can make me feel everything, and give me everything I need to know.’
Trying to find those individual pieces that connect an audience, and make the audience to realize the truth of this story, that we didn’t make this story up while sitting at our computers. Those are flesh and blood animals running at high speeds like they do every day of their life. And I think that’s part of reason people are cheering at the screen.
It sounds pretentious doesn’t it?
No, not at all. I think it sounds like a parent. I’m a parent myself, and when children come into the picture your perception changes. And I feel like you can meld that better with your art, and in this case, you do.
Nobody pays attention like young people do. They are blunt and direct and they understand if something’s crap.
What inspired you about the story as a whole with all of the people who were involved in the history of it?
There were two things about it. I thought that the story had potential, and this story placed high value on factual accuracy. When I came aboard, I wanted to go beyond the statistics of trying to sell the story. So I had to create some moments. And those moments largely pertained to when Penny is with her girls; when Penny is with her father when he’s dying; when Eddie is on the racetrack and shouts out to the world; when Penny is in the ballroom and she’s watching everyone else dance and though she’s surrounded, she’s by herself; when Secretariat’s coming through the tunnel, and he’s like a gladiator entering the arena. Those moments are to me, a good story.
As a director, what do you want to see happen in a movie?
I look for the defining moments. The chance to stand up and face a moment.
If you run away, one day you’ll lay dying, and give anything to get back to that one moment, that one time. That’s what I look for in movie moments. And that’s what Penny did. She stood up and faced the people that were supposed to love her the most.
It’s one thing when you face your enemies, it’s quite another thing when the man you’re married to, when your own brother are telling you, ‘ You are a housewife. This is not your role. This is way beyond your ability.’
When you show the courage then to say, ‘I’m not running a popularity contest and this is what I’m going to do,’ that gives me goosebumps. I want to see that happen.
What makes Penny remarkable?
That Penny came along in a time when women were expected to be utterly different than they are expected to be today certainly makes the story remarkable. At the same time, I’m always looking for a story that’s timeless, a story that doesn’t have a limited appeal to fashion, or that’s not appealing only to the fashion of the time. And by fashion, I mean whatever people are preoccupied with at the time.
There is certainly a remarkable similarity between nowadays and then when the country was mired in an unpopular war, a war no one could really explain. And they questioned their leaders, much like we question ours, and we were cynical about pretty much anything, and along came a horse that everyone could root for and be inspired by. So having said all that, I think that Penny’s ability to stand up actually transcended the time that she was in, and yet speaks to our sensibilities.
Do you see Penny as a role model for modern women?
I don’t have a daughter. And I think it’s a good thing I don’t. I think I would be helpless. Girls are so strong with such an unbreakable spirit, and I think that’s how Penny is. And I think there’s something about every woman that has the opportunity to see Penny and say, ‘I want to be like Penny.’
But, I believe that men will look at Penny and say, ‘I want to be like Penny.’ And this is the first movie I’ve had that hasn’t been so distinctly mature… that I would want to take my sons to.
Even a child will understand the heroism of what Secretariat does in this movie.
Do you see women differently after filming Secretariat?
I’m not sure if this is obnoxious or not, but I just hit upon this the other day, and I kind of believe it… that thoroughbred racehorses, the stallions, and women, have a similarity, which is that you really can’t understand them. They’re mysterious. And they don’t want to be understood. They want to be respected and admired. They want to walk into a room and have people say, ‘wow.’
No disagreement here! Do you think that taking the “wow” approach in making the movie made it such a standout with critics?
I would like to take credit for everything good in this movie. But I’ll tell you, where I can take credit for some of the performances was when I was smart enough to get out the way.
When you’re a good director you have to get out of the way. The fact is, when a movie is wonderful it’s because it’s a combination of the passions of so many that come together in a way that’s very serious.
The sense of family all across the screen and into the audience… when people talk about their favorite movie, it’s almost like they become a tribe. ‘Oh, we love that movie.’ It’s like my youngest son, we had a shared experience with believing in the story. I think it’s emotionally powerful, and I don’t think that filmmakers can convey inspiration unless they themselves are inspired.