Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance is an inspiring, warm and entertaining documentary that will charm both horse enthusiasts, and lovers of a great underdog story. The film tells the true story of a group of friends from a former mining village in Wales, who, lead by local barmaid Jan breed a race horse that against all odds, goes on to have a career filled with unexpected highs, and lows. What makes this film stand out from other equine underdog stories, is the focus on the relationship between this horse called Dream Alliance and the people of Cefn Fforest, and the wonderfully engaging manner in which the locals share their story.
The film is directed by Louise Osmond and produced by Judith Dawson, two veteran journalists and documentary filmmakers, who were determined to tell this story. They kindly took the time to have a chat about bringing this story to life on the big screen.
Rialto: How did you come across the story of Dream Alliance and why did it appeal to you?
JD: Louise came across it – it was just a scrappy paragraph buried away that caught her eye while she was searching around for an idea she had about the emotional bond race-goers form with the horses they put their money on. It rang a loud bell, she loved it on so many levels and then she called me. “This could be something really amazing, its got everything going for it” Lou said. My job was to find the people and see whether we could persuade them to meet us. Imagine!!
LO: This story popped up when I was in one of those bleak development periods - also called unemployment! - when none of the ideas you’re looking at feel quite right. From the first second, I just loved everything about it. 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, and who 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. Waiting to hear if Judith had persuaded them to meet and talk was the most nerve-wracking period of any film I’ve done!
Rialto: Janet, Howard, Brian and other members of the Dream Alliance syndicate are such great, natural storytellers. What were your first impressions of them, and how did they influence your approach to telling this story?
JD: My first contact was with Howard – he was driving and said he couldn’t really talk. We ended our first conversation an hour later. He was magic. When we met Jan and Brian there was absolutely no doubt. Sometimes in close up, stories melt away a little; the more we get to know them and talked about it, the more vivid it became. And they are Welsh – lyrical, articulate and emotionally in touch.
LO: From the first time we met them they were just completely themselves: so funny, so warm, so welcoming. So we just built the film around them. The great gift they gave us was that they could tell the story in such an emotionally honest and powerful way. It’s been a fantastic journey, these last three years, and they are people I hope we will be in touch with until we’re all long in the tooth.
Rialto: Aside from getting the 23 members of the Dream Alliance syndicate on your side, what was the greatest challenge you faced bringing this story to life on screen?
JD: Much more one for Louise then me, but we agreed from the outset that as a ‘past tense’ story it had to be told as though it was happening in real time. That’s the true skill of it, which is absolutely down to the brilliance of the director.
LO: Actually it was the reverse! Going into a tiny community - especially one that has had some difficult times - is a delicate thing to pull off. There was some fear among people in the village, I think, that we’d make them look foolish but Judith managed it all with great sensitivity. She found all the extras in the film from the local community, putting up ‘wanted’ notices in the local working men’s clubs and drama groups. I think she knows most of that community by their first name now.
Rialto: Dream Alliance’s achievements are incredible, but the real heart of this film lies in the relationship between this gutsy horse and the people of Cefn Fforest. Were you aware of the importance of this horse to the locals, or did that aspect of the story reveal itself to you as you got to know the syndicate members?
JD: It took me by surprise initially, but when you’re in the village, a tiny struggling place that was until relatively recently surrounded by coal mines and where people had been quite prosperous, it didn’t seem at all extraordinary that Dream became a focus of pride. As Jan says, “he brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of lives”.
LO: It was a lovely thing that developed as we went along. At first, we thought the real connection with Dream, the horse, would just have come from Jan, Brian and Howard. In fact, because he’d grown up on the allotment behind the houses, he was just one of them from the start, he was one of their own. So when he started winning everyone felt involved. Also Jan is a real pied piper - in a good way - she managed to convince those 20 or so people in the syndicate to buy into this totally nutty enterprise with zero chance of success, and for a lot of them that weekly £10 was quite a significant expense. I think the added value for many of them was just that challenge: that it just couldn’t be done. Plus, taking on the sport of kings and sticking it to the snobby English racing community gave a great deal of pleasure to many Welsh hearts.
Rialto: You both often take on the duel role of producer and director on your projects – was it hard during Dark Horse sticking to just the one role, or was it a blessing working with someone who understood the process so well?
JD: It was a wonderful collaboration from my point of view – Louise had a fantastic vision for the film with which I absolutely agreed, and I just worked as hard as I could to help make it happen.
LO: Judith and I have been friends for a long time, we both worked as journalists and used to be assigned the same jobs for different companies. So it was a huge pleasure to work on a film with someone you can talk really openly and honestly with. Judith is a great foil editorially, she was really almost acting as an executive producer too, giving very helpful notes etc. So we would talk all the time about the film and she would often come into the edit with our fantastic editor Joby Gee. It made the journey a lot of fun.
Rialto: I’m sure the folk of Cefn Fforest got their own screening – how did they react to the film?
JD: It’s always a really nerve-wracking moment to show the film to your contributors but Jan, Brian, Angela and Howard could not have been kinder or more generous. We shouldn’t have been surprised because they had been so cooperative and easy throughout – but then we worried on the way back to London that even if they hadn’t liked it, they were far too well-mannered to say so! We had the UK premiere for the film locally, thanks to our lovely distributors [Picturehouse] and everyone who’d been at all connected to it was invited. It was quite a night. Those guys could teach the world how to party!
LO: The premiere in the village was such a special night. It was the culmination of everyone’s efforts and because it was entirely cast from the local community - even the animals - almost everyone in the audience was either in it or knew someone that was. I think people loved the chance to live this story a second time round.
Rialto: The film, not surprisingly, won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance Film Festival 2015 – was this your first trip to Sundance? What was the experience like?
JD: It was my first trip and it was absolutely brilliant. It was of course a great accolade for our film to be invited – it’s a very friendly and laid-back festival, full of stars of course but more importantly crammed with film fans. It felt very egalitarian. Louise, Joby Gee, our wonderful editor, and I went. We had a ball and the cherry on the icing on the cake was Dark Horse winning the audience award.
LO: There’s something so inspiring about Sundance. It somewhere I’d dreamt of going and it lived up to every expectation. It’s very much about creating a community so they organise events so everyone can meet. You’d be chatting to fellow film-makers who’d also struggled to get their film made so it kind of reminded you why you fell in love with film-making in the first place. Every film also has one big screening down with local people in Salt Lake City and was so much fun. I was so relieved the story could carry for an American audience, that it felt universal enough. I really hope the same will be true in New Zealand.
Rialto: When, and why did the two of you set up your own production company, World’s End Pictures?
JD: Though we haven’t made that many films together, we share a similar sense about documentary and film and story, and so it felt right to have a space of our own where we can talk about ideas and find ways to develop them. That was about ten years ago.
LO: I think as you get older you realise how important it is to try and work with people whose company you really enjoy and - as Judith says - we both want to make similar kinds of films. We try to gather like-minded people to work with us too, so the long, sometimes hard journey of making films gets to feel more like a great adventure.
Rialto: You’re both hugely experienced documentary filmmakers, how do you know when you’ve stumbled on a good idea, and how many of those ideas come to fruition?
JD: I’d say you know when your heart beats a little faster and you feel – this is a story I would do anything to get the chance to tell. I think, without being melodramatic - there has to be that element of absolute need in it. As with Dark Horse and Louise’s curiosity about the emotional bond between punters and horses, which took her eventually to Dream, not very many stories come to you fully formed. They need a degree of excavation. And as to the hit rate – I don’t like to tempt the Gods – and it depends on so much. But a good story is a good story. That’s an eternal truth.
LO: It is tough to get these films made and financed and it can be heartbreaking. Right after Dark Horse we were both really passionate about another story. We spent a lot of time with the characters and so wanted it to work, and then events changed politically and internationally and somehow the timing was just wrong for that film at that moment. That was really tough. I still think about it today and maybe it’s time will still come.
Thank you so much for this Q&A by the way, and we SO hope people enjoy the film in New Zealand as much as we loved making it.
Louise Osmond and Judith Dawson.
Catch Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance on Wednesday 21st September at 8.30pm, only on Rialto Channel.