Seabiscuit (2003): Revisiting a Depression Era Phenomenon by Making a Safe, Middlebrow Movie

Writer Laura Hillenbrand, who got on her first horse at the age of five, first read about the Depression-era horse-winner Seabiscuit as a child. She encountered it again in her work as a fan and chronicler of horseracing. While she knew about the horse’ strange career, she knew little about the people around it–the owner, the trainer, and the jockey. She could never anticipate that her discovery would lead to a publishing–and cinematic–phenomenon.

Four years later, Hillenbrand submitted the book for publication with modest expectationsL “I was thinking, ‘If I can sell 5000 copies out of the trunk of my car, I’ll be happy.'” Surprisingly, after only five days, the book made it onto the best-seller list. After two weeks, Seabiscuit, An American Legend topped the list at No. 1.

The response to the book was overwhelming. Named one of the year’s best books by more than twenty publications–including The New York Times and Time, Seabiscuit remained on the Times Best-Seller List for 30 weeks; the paperback debuted in the list in April 2002 and remained there for more than 60 weeks.

Director Gary Ross (who wrote Big and Dave and directed Pleasantville) is a fan of horseracing. Ross’ love for racing started early, when he asked his parents to have his Bar Mitzvah at the racetrack. His wish was of course denied. But he and his wife, producer Allison Thomas, spent time at the track before reading Hillenbrand’s article, “Four Good Legs Between Us,” in American Heritage.

There was a heavy bidding war for the film rights. “I talked to her about horseracing for two hours,” recalls Ross. Hillenbrand sensed Ross’ enthusiasm for horseracing, realizing that he loved the story for the same reasons that she did. Ross’s focus was not a forgotten, almost discarded horse that rose to national popularity, but the human elements around it. “The three men who played a role in the horse’s history were at the center of Ross’s attention. That’s why the book’s cover doesn’t have the horse’s head on it–I made a deliberate decision to focus on the men’s faces.”

Band of Three Outsiders

The tale’s first character is Charles Howard, the owner of a bicycle shop in San Francisco, who got into the automobile business early on. Within a few years, he owned the most successful Buick dealership in the West. But the cars that brought him success also brought tragedy. After Howard’s son was killed in a car accident, his life spiraled downward and his marriage dissolved.

Hundreds of miles away, a cowboy named Tom Smith, who makes up the yarn’s second character, rode horses across a boundless region. When the boundless landscape gave way to barbed wire and railroad tracks, the cowboy became obsolete, a walking relic in the New World.

Completing the triangle of dramatic persona is John Pollard, born into a prosperous and educated family of Irish immigrants. Like other Americans, the Pollards were hit by hard times and the family lost everything. At a makeshift racetrack, Johnny “Red” Pollard, a beaten down but determined youngster, learned to look out for himself; what he couldn’t make racing horses, he scraped together by boxing.

A few years later, Howard remarried a beautiful woman, Marcela Zabala, whom he had met at the track. Together the couple decided to buy a horse. Howard hired a quiet, idiosyncratic trainer named Tom Smith, who spied a spark of promise in a beaten up horse that had grown stubborn and reckless. Smith saw something in the knobby-kneed bay, just as Howard saw something in him.

And Smith saw the same inner spirit in the troubled jockey, “Red” Pollard. In 1936, at the track in Saratoga, the Howards were introduced by their trainer to Pollard. Under the tight but loving supervision of this trio, Seabiscuit transformed from an unruly animal to a head-turning record-breaker. With an instinctual faith in Smith, Pollard and Seabiscuit, Howard, a consummate showman, challenged the Triple Crown winner, a stunning black horse named War Admiral, to a match race. The resulting race became more than a competition between champions and their riders. It grew into a contest between two worlds: the East Coast establishment of bankers and their elegant horses versus a nation of downtrodden but spirited have-nots who championed a ragtag team of three displaced men.

Says the author: “My loyalties lie with my subjects, and in selling the rights, my priority was to find a director who would be true to the facts, portraying them in a way that was consistent with their personalities and their circumstances. What sold me on Ross was his dedication–bordering on obsession–to an accurate portrait of the men and their era. He went out of his way to adhere to events as they occurred.”

Ross was attracted to the three-sided story: “I was knocked out by these wonderfully heroic characters and this horse that became a folk hero.” Ross says he was enthralled by the speed, the danger, the beauty of the story. What caught Ross’ attention was the men’s struggle to overcome incredible hardship and loss, their willingness to find courage and rebuild their lives. “Red lost his family, Howard lost a son, and Smith lost his way of life,” explains Ross. “How do you transcend that kind of pain and grief I discovered three broken characters that could have quit but instead reached out to each other and formed a unique nuclear family.”

“In any good adaptation,” Ross explains, “you have to be faithful to the spirit of the book; that was my compass. Of course, I changed some details and fictionalized some parts in order to capture the impact and the meaning of the book. But every change I made was cleared with Hillenbrand, who was wonderfully open. It was like having a great collaborator.”

For both Hillenbrand and Ross, the key was the strange and unlikely relationship among the men–Seabiscuit’s jockey “Red” Pollard; the trainer Smith; and the owner Howard. Each man had his own story that began before their paths converged because of one amazing animal. “It’s about three journeys,” comments Ross. “These were broken men, each for different reasons; they were like pieces that needed each other to become whole again.”

Ross spent considerable time bringing the screenplay to life by putting actors’ faces to the historic names involved. He had created three parts for three specific actors, starting with Tobey Maguire as the jockey Pollard. Ross and Maguire had known each other since they worked on Pleasantville, in which maguire played a teenager nostalgic for a time that never was.

Pollard had lived a hardscrabble life; abandoned at a track when he was still a boy, he struggled to make his way in a difficult world. Money he earned from amateur and brutal boxing matches supplemented the meager income he made from what he loved–horse-racing. Pollard was an anomaly even among jockeys. In spite of his vagabond life, he always carried a bag of books, spun fantastic tales and quoted Shakespeare in the jockey’s room. The jockey with a shock of crimson hair was a bundle of contradictions, a complex and enigmatic man.

Ross saw similarities in Maguire and Pollard: “I knew Tobey has lived a difficult life and I knew he had a fire in him–a complexity and innate toughness.” Ross thinks Maguire may evolve into the (Robert) De Niro of his generation. As he explains: “There is an edge to him as well as a vulnerability. There’s a lot of rage and anger in Red, and at the same time, his connection with Seabiscuit was unique. When the two of them came together, they calmed each other down, enough for Red to discover who he was as a jockey and Seabiscuit to transform into a championship race horse.”

Maguire’s recent roles have been in varied films like Pleasantville, The Ice Storm, Wonder Boys and Cider House Rules. Coming off the tremendous success of Spider-Man and gearing up for the 2004 sequel, Maguire says Seabiscuit was a perfect opportunity for him: “This is a great role for me. I want to challenge myself and find different things to play.”

As for Howard, the self-made man and spirited entrepreneur, Ross wanted Jeff Bridges. “Howard is the linchpin in this group of people,” notes Ross. “I was so lucky to have Jeff. He’s such a great actor, with such a long career and so many unbelievable roles. He brings the solid legs of a patriarch.”

Bridges had a personal connection to the story. His cousin Kathy Simpson called him upon reading the book, and said, “you’ve got to play the part of Charles Howard.” To which Bridges said, “You’re kidding, who is Howard” She said, “He owned Seabiscuit.” Part of the reason why Bridges’s cousin was excited was that their grandfather, Fred Simpson, used to go to the races four times a week. Says Bridges: “As a teenager, I remember driving him to the races at Santa Anita. He probably bet on Seabiscuit. While we were shooting, I could feel his spirit smiling up there in heaven and looking down on us.”

Equally important to the casting was chameleon actor Chris Cooper.  Says Ross: “I was really taken with the work he had done in American Beauty. We had an early look at Adaptation and saw the character that he played, which won him the Best Supporting Oscar. His extraordinary work in that film really convinced me that he was more than capable of getting inside Smith.” Besides, Cooper raised cattle with his father for twenty years and came to the part with a good idea of what kind of man Smith was. “Chris brings a piece of the West with him,” says Ross. “It’s in his walk, his voice, his physicality. Even when we were shooting at a racetrack or a church or some fancy eastern barn, he made sure he never lost it. In every scene with Cooper, you feel the range–he’s just a great actor.”

“This was a story I really wanted to tell, and to do it, we had to honor the history while translating it to the big screen. It was a huge task–a story that spans years and embodies a nation during a most particular and painful time.”

Unfortunately, despite good intentions, Seabiscuit became a middlebrow, uplifting movie, simplifying the potentially powerful material into a typically safe Hollywood picture, a glossy production aimed to please vert member of the audience by turning it into a mythical tale.