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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #64: Louise Osmond Brings Alive in ‘Dark Horse’ a Story That Existed Only In a Handful of Photographs

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #64: Louise Osmond Brings Alive in 'Dark Horse' a Story That Existed Only In a Handful of Photographs

“Dark Horse” follows barmaid Jan Vokes in a tiny village in one of the poorest mining valleys in Wales in the early 2000s. Jan hatches a crazy plan to take on the “sport of kings” and breed a racehorse. She gathers together a group of locals who each agree to pitch in 10 pounds a week. They raise their foal on a hillside made of slag from the coal mine and nurture it to maturity. Reflecting their pride and flights of fancy, they name their horse Dream Alliance. To the astonishment of the racing elite, Dream becomes an unlikely champion, beating the finest thoroughbreds in the land. Then, in one fateful race, the horse—which embodies the plucky band of misfits’ hopes and dreams—has a near-fatal accident. [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Institute.]

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“Dark Horse” is an inspirational and life-affirming rags-to-riches true story of a barmaid who bred a champion racehorse and changed lives.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

Set in a former mining valley in Wales, “Dark Horse” is the inspirational true story of a group of friends from a working men’s club who decide to take on the elite “sport of kings” and breed themselves a racehorse. Raised on a tiny patch of land, their foal grows into an unlikely champion, beating the finest thoroughbreds in the land, before suffering a near fatal accident. Nursed back to health by the love of his owners – for whom he’s become a source of inspiration and hope – he makes a remarkable recovery, returning to the track for a heart-stopping comeback. 
It’s about a community that had lost everything, who felt forgotten by the world; it’s about the irrepressible spirit of a barmaid Jan, who bred the racehorse, who and persuaded others to share her outlandish dream; it’s about a defiant and exuberant journey into an elite and exclusive world and the pride it gave the village to prove themselves the equal of anyone there. Above all, it’s about the extraordinary bond the characters forged with a beautiful animal that seemed almost like something from a fable; a phoenix rising from the ashes. 

Tell us briefly about yourself.

I started out as a journalist in news, which was a great and exciting life, but I realized I kept wanting to stay behind in the aftermath of every story, as that’s when it seemed to me the really interesting things happened. I moved into documentaries and found a place I felt I was meant to be – it’s a job I love. 
I’m drawn to stories that move me most of all: stories about people struggling to find their place in the world, to find a voice, to express themselves, to survive in extraordinary circumstances. And given I was raised on a diet of Jack London books, I’m drawn to anything with some spirit of the wild in it. Films include “The Beckoning Silence,” “Deep Water,” “Richard III,” “McQueen & I,” “Killer in a Small Town.” 

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

Bringing alive for the big screen a story that existed only in a handful of photographs, a few tapes of home movie and some racing archive – that was definitely the challenge that kept me up at night. Judith (the producer) and I knew we wanted to make the film in the valley, in the village itself, so we asked the local community to help us and they couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. No professional extras were used – it’s all local people and animals. It made for an eventful and often comical shoot but those are memories that will stay with me forever (in a good way).

What do you want Sundance audience to take away from your film?

The valley the film is set in had suffered really hard times. The people there had been powerless in the face of the mine closures that devastated their community. For a time I think that got into the soul of the place: they felt cast off and useless, they didn’t exist for the outside world. 
Jan responded to this by coming up with an idea that was so crazily ambitious and improbable: I’m going to breed a racehorse in my back garden. What? 
She wasn’t asking anyone’s permission, she wasn’t going to let anyone define her or her dreams. No one gave her a cat’s chance in hell but she did it and in doing it she ignited something in the people around her. “It brought the place back to life” as one of the contributors says. 
So what I hope people will take from the film is this: your circumstances, however tough or bleak, do not define you. What you do is who you are. 

Any films inspire you?

“Harlan County, USA,” “Raymond Depardon’s Modern Life,” “Grizzly Man,” “The “Return,” “Leviathan,” “Ida” by Pawel Pawlikowski (who made fantastic documentaries before he went into features) and a box set of great films from the 70s: “All the President’s Men,” “Klute,” “Jaws,” “Alien,” “The Black Stallion.”

What’s next?

A beautiful story set in the last great wilderness and fingers crossed, the funny and moving story of an unlikely rebellion.

What cameras did you shoot on?

We shot 95% of the film on the Arri Alexa. We did some additional shoot days of the racehorse and a foal on the Sony F55. One or two shots were also filmed on my Pocket Black Magic. I carried it with me all the time as the weather in those Welsh valleys can be very dramatic.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

The film started life in the British Film Institute’s public pitch session for theatrical documentaries at Sheffield International Documentary Festival in 2013. We were lucky enough to be one of the films supported by the panel. And then, a commissioning editor I’d worked for at Channel 4 came in, then Film 4, and between them, they matched the BFI’s funds and we got to our budget.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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