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BMZ Interview: 'Horses' Director Michael Caulfield

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Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: May 2002

In the upcoming Big Movie 'Horses: The Story of Equus,' Producer/Director Michael Caulfield ('Africa's Elephant Kingdom') displays the animal's beauty and illustrates its monumental role in human history.

  

Category: Interviews

Film Synopsis: Three foals born on one warm spring night with bloodlines stretching back over centuries are each destined for a different path. One will become a racehorse, one a stunt horse in the movies and the third will break free, to chase the wind with wild horses. Each story leads into the history, art and science of Equus, the noblest of all animals. (from IMAX Corporation)
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BMZ: How did you get your start in filmmaking? How about IMAX movies? Did your love for animals come before your love for film?

MC: I began my film making life as a composer and only ventured into directing and producing when I became frustrated with what directors were doing to my music. It was however, a long journey between making that decision and actually becoming skilled as a film maker. It's also true that I've been known to give composers a hard time every now and then ever since.

My beginnings in IMAX films came with "Africa's Elephant Kingdom" and I took to the format instantly. Any film maker would, for despite the inherent challenges and the stylistic changes you need to make to your film vocabulary, it's a format that is wonderfully rewarding on the screen and also one that has not yet reached the boundaries of its potential.

My love for stories actually comes before my love for films or animals or anything else. I've been a rock n roll musician, a schoolteacher, a theater composer, a theater director, a writer of books and screenplays and a film maker and the one continuing line through all that has been a fascination with the art of story telling.

BMZ: It seems that not only your documentaries, but even some comedy feature films you’ve been involved with such as "Gallagher’s Travels" involve animals. Do you have an educational and/or vocational background involving animals, and what draws you to them so much?

MC: I think what draws me to them more than anything else is the fundamental nature of animal behavior. The world these days is a complex place and it has become difficult for many of us to find the kind of contentment, however fleeting or small, that can come with simplicity. The lives of animals have always held that charm for me, for whether humans view what they do as romantic or revolting, it's irrelevant to the animals. I also think that we the audience, like to know, even if we never actually go there, that somewhere out in the big, wide world, these things go on. As for a background with animals, I simply don't have one - I'm an urban boy, born and bred.

BMZ: You chose elephants as the subject of your first Big Movie… how or why were horses chosen this time? How did Horses compare with Elephants?

MC: Horses were chosen for the next film for two reasons - one was story and the other was that they are so ridiculously beautiful. I wanted to see that beauty on the giant screen. The simplest comparison I can give you between horses and elephants is that this time, we were able to get off the truck. Elephants was about that species alone while Horses is mostly about the relationships between humans and horses.

BMZ: Horses have played an integral role in human history. In making a film about "the story of the horse" there’s a lot that could be covered, a lot of potential angles. Working with just 40 minutes, you definitely can’t hope to cover it all. Can you describe the approach you took and why it was chosen?

MC: I can't help but feel that horses have had a bad press agent. Here they are, responsible for many of the greatest social and economic changes in civilization and yet we mostly take them for granted. It's a symbol I guess of how deeply entwined they have become in humans' lives and it's that relationship on which our film focuses. Three horses, all born on the same night, three lives among the thousands of horses born this year - what will become of them? To whom will they belong? What kind of life will they have?

I have a deep affection and respect for IMAX films as the last "family" holdout. "Family" is a word that needs a good drycleaning these days, but what it essentially means to me in this case is that people can still go to IMAX cinemas around the world and be guaranteed that what they and their children will see will be (hopefully) challenging, exciting and stimulating. What it will not be is offensive, cheaply violent or demeaning. That's a fortunate circumstance but it also presents particular challenges. In a climate where we present our films to the most visually literate (and sometimes jaded) audiences the world has ever known, how do you keep these values alive in an IMAX film and still turn out involving stories? This was the thinking behind the construction of Horses. I wanted a film that provided scientific and behavioral information, but gave you that in an exciting and involving story, one that connected with the audience. Horses I guess, is a blend of documentary and drama (without human actors) and for me, a potential path for some IMAX films to travel.

BMZ: What were some of the greatest challenges and triumphs, working on the production?

MC: The greatest challenge was to get on screen the way that horses move, particularly when they gallop or jump. The triumph was that we achieved it with a mix of technology, chutzpah and plain old-fashioned luck. Tracking alongside galloping horses in a race at around 30 mph with an IMAX camera craning alongside, up, in front of, behind and above the horses was thrilling to do and even more exciting when the dailies came back. I love this footage. We also succeeded in filming feral horses in the wild which was (as it had been in Elephants), a matter of patience and habituation.

BMZ: Horses are not considered to be among the smartest of animals, but they definitely are among the most "train-able." Were horses more or less difficult as the subject of the film as compared to other animals and humans you’ve directed?

MC: No one, and I mean no one, is as difficult as a human actor having a bad day. Give me animals any time. The horses in this film, both the trained ones and the wild ones were only difficult if we were not prepared. If you're not patient, calm and don't have a well-developed sense of the absurd, you should never attempt to film animals, let alone try to do it with an IMAX camera. If there is any method to my particular madness, it's to use the animals' natural behavior as the basis for everything. There is no joy in trying to make an animal do something it simply doesn't do and it looks strained and silly on screen. If you spend the time to understand the animal, in my experience, you're always rewarded.

BMZ: Are you a horse enthusiast yourself? If so, what experience(s) with horses stand out in your memory?

MC: My very first ride on a horse, as a young boy, was a revelation. I loved the smell of the animal and the way the muscles moved underneath you as their gait changed. I also quickly came to terms with their size when I was unceremoniously thrown into a creek - it can be a long way down. But there was such joy and pride in being able to learn how to work with this big animal, to become fluent and at ease with their movement, to guide their actions. What can I say? They're just so damned elegant and noble. It's a life-long love affair.

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