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Interview with the Hennegan Brothers

Sons of a New York Racing Association placing judge, THE HENNEGAN BROTHERS spent much of their Long Island youth at the racetrack with unprecedented access to the horseracing world. Brad has worked in television for the last decade, with credits ranging from Martha Stewart's CBS show to Director of On-Air Promotions at IFC and College Sports Television. John helped launch the show Burden of Proof while at CNN, and has been a writer/producer/director for the NBA and ESPN, among others. The First Saturday In May, their first feature, follows the two brothers from Arkansas to Dubai and on to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. This engrossing documentary traces the paths of six rising equine stars, including the heroic Barbaro, and the people, passion and dreams at the core of this breakneck competition.

Read the interview, and then see the Hennegan Brothers blog, The Road to Tribeca, for a daily account of their journey to the Tribeca Film Festival.

Tribeca Film Festival : Can you talk about the angle of the film?

John: In cinema, horseracing suffers from the Hollywood clichés of gambling, and race fixing, and snobs, and all this stuff. And we really wanted to shatter all those illusions and come at it from the real racetrack, and these are the real people that are there and that make it such an exciting sport. And at their very core they’re all the same.

Brad: They all have the same goal, basically. It’s like they’re all very different in the way they live their lives, and you know the way they are. But their goal is always the same, to win the Kentucky derby.

Tribeca Film Festival: What was the biggest obstacle in making this film?

Brad: Just getting started. In July of 2004, we started with, “Hey, it would be interesting if we followed horses to the Kentucky derby.” We always wanted to make a film, and we had some scripts and this and that. And it just took too many different people and too much money so we figured, ”Let’s try to shoot a documentary.” So John and I kind of did research and followed the horses on paper. We didn’t shoot anything, and then we picked outAfleet Alex.

John: Yeah Afleet Alex, who came in third by like two lengths in the Kentucky Derby, but went on to win the Preakness in a really dramatic race: he stumbled at the top of the stretch and won huge! And then he won the Belmont stakes by a large margin and turned out to be one of the greatest horses of the modern era. And Brad and I were just watching these from afar, seeing if this could sustain an entire year.

Brad: We wanted to see if it was completely viable. Could we actually pick a horse that’s actually going to eventually run in the Kentucky Derby? Because the odds in horseracing are they say there’s 40,000 horses born a year, 23,000 make it to the track as a racehorse, and then only 20 make it to the gate of the Kentucky Derby. And the stories from the losers were just as compelling as the winners, and maybe even more so I suspect because 22,299 are losers!

John: But we were never under the illusion that we were going to pick the horse in August that’s going to win the Kentucky Derby, because if we could do that we wouldn’t be making movies. We’d be gamblers.

Tribeca Film Festival: Did you have to learn how to make the movie from scratch?

Brad: We got a lot better, luckily, as the year went along.

John: But the other thing was the basic fact of being around two-year old animals that are babies, and they get spooked really easy, so we shot on the Panasonic the 24p cameras. They’re small and unobtrusive and allowed people just to kind of forget that we were shooting. There was no boom pole, there was no…not a lot of PA’s running around…

Brad: Except for when John walked behind the horse and almost got kicked. Kicked the bucket. Not literally kicked the bucket, but kicked it. Literally kicked the bucket, I mean. It’s dawn, it’s very quiet, and John’s you know behind just shooting, shooting, and the horse is walking by and he rears back and BOOM, he kicks the bucket and John’s running away, you can see the camera is like Blair Witch running all over the place.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the process, and why?

John: I think my favorite part, looking back on the whole thing, was actually being at the racetrack and being a part of something where you really didn’t know what was going to happen. You can look back at this film and say “Ooh, wow, that happened and this happened-- great.” But really, when you’re in the moment you have no idea what’s going to happen.

Brad: The worst part? Well, the editing process has been the most fun part and probably the worst part at the same time. Because we have over 500 hours of footage, so just kind of getting that into a manageable amount to even start cutting was a, uh…was a challenge.

John: A Herculean task.

Tribeca Film Festival: Can you talk about Barbaro?

John: Barbaro now is a cultural icon. At the time, he was one of three favorites for the Kentucky Derby. So we knew he was a really good horse. But there are several other good horses too. And we honed in on them. People couldn’t even pronounce Barbaro’s name!

Brad: And this was four, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby and people didn’t even know who he was.

John: And it just goes to show kind of the impact this horse had on the globe. This is a global story, and it’s bittersweet for us because you know it’s a blessing and a curse that we were involved in this whole thing. But we were happy we were able to chronicle it We developed some real bonds with all the people close to Barbaro too, so to us it wasn’t just a headline. This was people’s lives, and I think skeptics out there say “Oh they were keeping this horse alive for money and studs,’ and that’s all absolutely not the case. I mean these people love horses.

Tribeca Film Festival: Give me a little flavor of the film. The people who live, eat, breathe horseracing.

John: Our film, The First Saturday in May is about people. And it just happens to be set at the racetrack. You know race fans and sports fans are going to like this film, and we’re hoping they all come out in droves. But we really made this film with an eye for people that like stories about people. Especially perseverant people. Passionate people. These are people that devote their lives to horses. They’re not there for money, they love horses. Yeah, some of them make money at it. Surprise, surprise. But this is about people that love horses.

Brad: And they’re doing something that they love, they’re dedicating their life and it’s something that’s 24-7, they never take a vacation…which is crazy. They’re there every day, there’s no off-season. You don’t go down and play golf for the winter like if you’re a baseball player. This is all year round and there are no breaks and they do it because they love it.

John: Most of the guys in our movie aren’t going to be able to come see the movie. They have babies to take care of, they have horses. These horses don’t have clocks, or the power of speech to tell ‘em what’s wrong, I mean they’re always on. It’s a tough life. But it’s a life that they choose to do, and they’re not complaining about it.

Tribeca Film Festival: Any thoughts about the ESPN angle?

John: Well, it combined our two loves. We love sports and we love film. And that’s another reason why we made this film. We’re just trying to figure out ways not to get real jobs, I guess!

Brad: The thing about this film is that it’s not just a sports film. The people are just amazing in it -the passion of these people. I think that’s what we captured.

John: And all we wanted to do is give people a taste. We didn’t want to beat people over the head with statistics and this and that. We wanted to give you a taste of a world that we love. Because horseracing is the coolest sport that you’re not paying attention to.

Tribeca Film Festival: Did you have summer jobs growing up?

Brad: Working for a jockey’s agent. I was 10 years old, and I had to go to his house and cut out past performances and hang them up. And I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just wanted to cut them and get the hell out of there and get paid before anyone knew I didn’t know what I was doing.

John: We grew up in the New York area, so we worked at the Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga racetracks. So the first jobs were at the ice cream stand at Belmont and Saratoga, and I think my dad—some guy at the racetrack made a fake birth certificate. I think you had to be 16 and I was like 13 or something. So…you know…

Brad: That’s kind of shady. But the most coveted job was the jockey escort. Basically, in Saratoga they had to lead them through the crowd and have people yell at them. I don’t know what we were going to do, but the other guys were pretty tough.

John: But we thought we were really cool, we were like 16 and 17 years old like walking with our 10 gallon hats and tin badges: “get out of the way, jockey comin’ through!” But at the time, it was the position to have so we were pretty psyched about that. And we also spent a couple Saratoga summers as Hot Walkers. I walked hots, which is leading the horses around just to exercise them in a circle. And that was really cool.

Tribeca Film Festival: What was it like to make a film with your brother?

John: Making a film with your brother has its good and bad points. Mostly good, though, I would say. If you’re going to fight with somebody at your office, if you have a big fight with a coworker at your office that you were friends with, you’re just like, you see them in a totally different light after that. But with your brother you just let it go after a few minutes, because you know the back story. You know each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and buttons to push and not push.

Brad: I don’t think I was going to say anything that nice! No, but the communication was there, that’s probably number one because with all these split-second decisions we had to make. We were together probably 25 percent of the time shooting at the same track. Usually we had to split up around the country, but you know and we were in touch by cell phone and deciding you know, you take this storyline, I’ll take this storyline. You know, we had our ups and downs, and fights. Now we’ve had fights all over the world. We’ve had fights in the UAE, Arkansas, California, New York.

John: I’m trying to think what our biggest fight. . .

Brad: When you got ripped off by the cab driver in Dubai.

John: Right, well he did rip us off.

Brad: Well, I mean you were freakin’ out!

John: Oh, that’s right; I got mad at you because you didn’t defend me.

Brad: It was like ten bucks!

John: I kind of forgot about that one.

Tribeca Film Festival: What is your favorite moment in the film?

Brad: There’s one that John shot—w hen Michael Matts is introducing his young son to Barbaro. And it’s probably 5 in the morning, and Barbaro has never seen anyone that small before. He’s a small child, he’s probably what? 8? 10? I don’t know, anyway, he’s small. And Michael teaches him how to go up to the horse and pet him with confidence so the horse gets used to seeing someone below his eye line.

John: I think my favorite moments in the movie are ones that have nothing to do with horses or horseracing—just the things that everyone can relate to. There’s one character in the movie named Frank Amonte. . . he’s just a guy that’s devoted his life to the racetrack, and knows horses, and he’s a father. And his moments are the ones we can all relate to as parents.

Brad: Well it’s funny when they’re fighting with each other. Everyone’s fighting. Father and son clashing, and not in a mean-spirited way, it’s just back and forth of fighting about getting up early, getting his son to work for him—that’s probably the best part. Yeah, it’s not about horseracing, it’s just life.

John: There’s something for everybody, and it makes us feel really good that through the long editing process we selected the right characters that really represent the racetrack and our society.

Tribeca Film Festival: What three movies would you take to a desert island?

Brad: American Movie

John: I love Deer Hunter—one of my all-time favorites. It was also before all those guys were famous. We also—we’re not that serious—Wes Anderson movies, we love Bottle Rocket. And then it got even better with Rushmore.

Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have a favorite movie quote?

John: I can’t remember ‘em all now, but there was a time when we could repeat all the quotes from Barfly. That’s chock full of quotes, you know, he’s the ultimate rebel.

Brad: Well I was thinking of American Movie when he says, “I was so drunk last night, I called Morocco, man. Is that how you want to make a feature film? Get drunk and call Morocco?”

John: No, he’s going, “Mike, you know what I did last night? I was drinking a lot of schnapps and I’m calling Tangiers trying to find the bar in Casablanca. Is that what you want to do with your life, you want to sit there and call Morocco?”

Brad: “Suck down peppermint schnapps and call Morocco when you’re drunk?”

John: That movie is chock full of great quotes.

Tribeca Film Festival: What about favorite sports films?

John: The original Bad News Bears is still one of my favorite movies. Talk about real. I mean, yeah we knew Walter Matthau and maybe Vick Morrow as the opposing coach. But you didn’t need any star power. You can’t make that movie anymore today. And you gotta throw Hoosiers and Rocky in there. I mean Rocky still stands the test of time. I feel like it’s one of those movies like Animal House that you just gotta watch once a year just to realize its brilliance.

Brad: What about Breaking Away?

John: Awesome.

Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have a personal mantra? Words you live by?

John: Do it yourself.

Brad: I don’t know, John’s always got quotes hangin’ off him, I guess that’s his department.

John: No Harvey Keitel, I had a quote in my wallet for a long time, it says, “You don’t need Hollywood to make movies; I knew a lot of great people when I was a young actor and I wish I would’ve made more movies with them.” Another, and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a Calvin Coolidge quote… basically, the gist of it is, “You can be smart, you can be connected, but above all, perseverance is what gets it done.”

Tribeca Film Festival: Why does Horseracing make for a good backdrop for a film?

John: First of all, the landscape is so colorful and beautiful without anything happening

Brad: The production value that you get just from being at the racetrack in the morning and the light and the colorful silks, and all the people everywhere. It’s like something you really couldn’t replicate, so…

John: The audio there, I mean the roar of the crowd. Just everything, it’s a unique sporting experience. Horseracing is the coolest sport you’re not paying attention to. It’s also probably the cheapest sport. Where else can you go—if you went to a major league baseball game with a family of four.

Brad: It’d cost you, like a hundred and fifty bucks? Two hundred dollars for everything? But you can go to the racetrack probably for get the whole family in for 20 bucks?

John: And then, there’s a chance—not that you need to go to gamble at the racetrack. You can. But you might even walk out of there in the black!

Brad: And a lot of people are aware of horseracing but don’t know about it, and we just wanted to show people what a cool world it is. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. Now they can go and see The First Saturday In May, and see six really different characters and what a great world it is.

Go to the Hennegan Brothers blog: The Road to Tribeca. »


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