The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of JOCKEY.
Can you talk about how you worked with the script once the film was cast?
Clint Bentley: It’s always such a pleasure when you bring an actor on to a role because they really fill it out. In this case, we really wrote this role for Clifton, the role of Jackson. We were developing the script with him for about a year before we started shooting. Of course, when you bring the actors on, they really give the characters life and bring them to life. But our process for writing this film was just to continue re-writing throughout the whole process. Molly and Clifton and Moises Arias (who plays Gabriel) did so much research and so much work to learn about the world of horse racing. They brought so much of their own lives and their own pasts to these characters and also things that they found in the world. Every night we’d sit down with them and go over the scenes for the next day and do re-writes and then turn in pages at midnight.
Greg Kwedar: We had worked with Clifton on our first film, and immediately were struck by the immense interiority of his work. He’s such a master of understanding the page and the words, but then he marries that into his process within the community that he shoots in. Then within that, as Clint said, so much of his own life—like his longstanding family history within entertainment and stories about fathers and grandfathers—were weaved into this material. And then the same thing happened with Molly. She came into this project and made what would’ve been a supporting character such a complex human who has all these different things to juggle as an employer, a friend, and as someone with something deeper simmering. All of these things that make the character of Ruth such a nuanced human being are due to Molly’s ability to have a storytelling mind along with what she was discussing throughout her own process.
I wanted it to feel somewhere between a documentary and a narrative
How did you workshop scenes the night before?
Molly Parker: It really helps when you’re all staying in the same hotel, five minutes from the track, and spending all your time together. It was such an extraordinary experience, and one that for me, as an actor, I hope and pray for. We made the film at a working track in Phoenix, we stayed really close to the track, and we were able to be there all day doing our research while these guys were off shooting something. Clifton would be working with jockeys, I was working with this terrific woman trainer who took me under her wing, and then at night we’d come together back at the hotel and talk about what we had coming the next day. It’s an incredibly fortunate experience to get to work in this way with real artists who are not caught in a rigid system of “we have to make films this way with this supporting architecture.” We were allowed so much latitude in how we got to work and these filmmakers are not only generous in their ability to seek out input and take it in, but truly view it as a collaborative effort. As actors, it gives you a sense of agency in what you’re doing and that’s really special.
Clifton, what is like learning that you’re getting a script written for you? Is it flattering?
Clifton Collins Jr.: It is flattering. As artists, you want to be of service to the character and the role, and to the director and the producers. That’s actually more fearful to me… not bringing the truth to the character and not meeting their expectations. You don’t want to let your friends down. Clint and Greg believed in me the first time, and now they believe in me again. It helps to have two people that you admire and respect and look up to believe in you in that fashion. On the outskirts of this, it’s being written for me and it’s on my shoulders and it could completely fail, but you can’t think of those things. You can only think of the through line and doing the best job and having the best story, being honest and organic and truthful and making sure that it’s their vision. As artists, we often go in as things start to develop and find things. Like, being on the track early on before shooting allows one to really soak up what’s happening today. They’re all resources and we find out how they fit in. Maybe some scenes aren’t meant to go deeper, and others are. To get to the depth of these emotions, one really has to go over it hundreds and hundreds of times. You don’t really have time to worry about what people are going to think and the pressure on your shoulders, because the pressure in this case was not letting my two boys down.
GK: We feel the same pressure in a way, having built this friendship over the years between the two movies. I can’t stress enough how much Clifton creates this energy and space for bringing a community together. His hotel room became the place that we would do this work every night. He had changed all the light bulbs and redecorated the entire place and all the script pages and notes were around, and it was in the spirit of “let’s keep exploring, what else can we find,” and not to be precious but to be open. It was really a culture that started at the top of the call sheet that brought that playfulness and willingness to dive into the shadows and into the corners and under the rocks.
I understand it wasn’t a big call sheet!
CB: We had a crew of only about ten people and outside Clifton, Molly and Moises, we had one other actor, the talented Colleen Hartnett who plays Gabriel’s mother. Outside of that, everyone was from the track. The wonderful Leo, played by Logan Cormier, was a jockey and there were a lot of trainers in the movie, a lot of people that have never acted before. The general manager of the track plays a veterinarian! It was lovely. I didn’t quite know how we would pull it off but I wanted it to feel somewhere between a documentary and a narrative. You can only do that by stripping everything down to the necessities and then we could really fold our crew into that world of a live racetrack, as Molly was talking about. And then you’re open for poetry to come into the film and it makes your job much easier. In the same way that getting together with actors to work on the script isn’t necessarily because anything is wrong with the scene, but because it’ll be better with their input. You can just step into this world with a small crew and walk along the river and wild horses will come out magically and get in the frame!
MP: That in itself is special. Clifton and I have both been doing this a while and what Clint is talking about is what makes a good filmmaker. That ability to put ego aside and say “there’s nothing wrong with the scene but let’s make it better” doesn’t happen all the time. That is a talent that these filmmakers—as well as their producer Nancy Schafer—brought to it to create a space that allows us all to do that kind of work. I’ve known about Clifton for years since he came from the world of independent film, and I truly think he’s one of the great actors of my generation. It’s part of why I wanted to do this film. There was this role for him that I knew he would kill it. Clifton has this ability to be in it, be of it, and at the same time know that Clint is a first time director and think about how he can support him. It’s a real testament to his character and his talent. It’s pretty good work!
CCJ: You’re going to make me cry Molly. Again!