Secretariat opens on Friday at Regal’s Columbia Center 8 and at the Fairchild Cinemas 12. It’s not bad. Look for my review here on Friday morning.
The film is written by Mike Rich. I first heard of Rich when his high school English teacher sent me an email in early 2000 raving about this great new screenwriter. At the time, I was just wrapping up my career as marketing supervisor at Ben Franklin Transit. She somehow got my number and called me there.
He grew up in Enterprise, Ore., and apparently his teacher is also a devoted reader of my weekly newspaper column. She praised his writing, praised his movie and impressed the hell out of me.
Everyone should have a fan as devoted as that school teacher.
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Since then, Rich has become one of the more successful screenwriters of the last decade. His first endeavor, Finding Forrester made nearly everyone’s best list in 2000. It was followed by movie hits Radio, The Rookie and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team story, Miracle, a film he didn’t get credited for writing.
His latest is Secretariat.
Once in awhile, a critic will get to know those that make movies, and on a deeper level than just seeing their name in the credits. Rich lives in Portland, Ore., and I screen most of my movies in Portland. Between Finding Forrester and The Nativity in 2006, Rich went to a lot of screenings.
Rich is a great guy, a devoted Christian and ever-so patient with a critic who nagged him mercilessly about this aspect of movies or that over a six-year period. During that time, I grew to like him immensely and when the opportunity arose to do an interview with him about Secretariat, I jumped at the chance.
Gary Wolcott: Why Secretariat?
Mike Rich: It goes back to 1973 for me. I grew up in Enterprise, Oregon. I remember that summer really, really well. Like a lot of people, I fell in love with that horse — fell in love with the sport during that five-week period of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.
I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to write a lot of terrific stories, true stories with sports involved. Secretariat is one that was in the back of my head. When I got the opportunity to write about him, I jumped all over it.
GW: I’ve seen all of your movies, including Miracle which you didn’t get credit for writing. What I like about your writing is that you write to the common person. And I emphasize “to.” You write to the common person in all of us. How do you do that?
MR: I’ve always been told that my movies — my style of writing — plays well in the heartlands. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the heartland. Enterprise wasn’t the Midwest, but it is the heartland. The knack for an ear for dialogue, for structuring story, is something you have, or you don’t. I am blessed to have that ear for this particular type of writing.
GW: Did Secretariat turn out like you wrote it? I’ve talked to a lot of writers and sometimes their movies don’t turn out like they wrote them.
MR: I felt Randy [Randall] Wallace did a terrific job with the material. He has a writing background himself. I’m grateful for his directing skills and with what he was able to do with some of the written word.
Editor’s note: Randall Wallace wrote “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor,” among others and got an Oscar nomination for “Braveheart.” He wrote and directed “We Were Soldiers.”
It’s interesting to watch the film with an audience. It just seems to be a real crowd-pleaser. That’s one of the benefits of what I do. I get to sit there and get a tangible reaction from people. If there’s a scene that I wrote that I wanted people to laugh at, I get to find out. I don’t get it second-hand, I get immediately back what works and what doesn’t work.
GW: You had a great time with John Malkovich’s character, Lucien Laurin, the horse’s trainer. The line where you say he dresses like Super Fly cracked me up.
MR: I did my research. The early 1970s is great material for screenwriters.
GW: Malkovich is great. I loved the scene with the golf clubs. It’s a really funny ad lib.
MR: A lot of stuff with John is an ad lib. It’s kind of a nuance to what he does with the turn of a phrase. Sometimes you get lucky. When he threw the golf clubs away at the end of the scene, he literally threw them away. He gets an entire bag of golf clubs to land in a garbage can. Sometimes you get lucky when you’re shooting a scene.
GW: And he didn’t break character, didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, didn’t do anything, just walked away. Perfect. Only great actors can do that. I would have cracked up. Did you have any say in who played the characters?
MR: Those decisions were made by the studio and by Randy Wallace. As executive producer on this particular project, I offered my input. Randy Wallace is the one who put together this cast. A lot of times I’d get a call from Randy and he’s say, “I’m going to go with”
And this is a cast that takes good material and makes it even better.
GW: It’s a great story. I remember Secretariat so well. I saw the last race, the Belmont. While I’ve never followed horse racing, I’ve never seen a horse win a race like that. He just took off.
MR: When you consider that he holds the record for all three of those races 37 years later, it’s pretty remarkable. It also took a long time for Secretariat’s story to get to the screen. Mrs. Chenery — Penny Chenery — was always very, very protective of the legacy of Secretariat. And I really admire her for that. For her to give her blessing to let me take a swing at this screenplay is something I will always remember.
It was a tough screenplay to write. Most stories and most movies involving sports have an underdog story. The first thing that jumped out at me when I was researching the story is that Secretariat was not an underdog. He was a dominant horse. It wasn’t until I started looking at the character of Penny Chenery as an underdog that things started to click.
GW: Define a great story.
MR: A great story isn’t so much about the story as it is the character. What attracts me to a story is the characters involved. With Secretariat what makes the story work is the character. If you don’t have good characters, it doesn’t matter how strong your story is, it’ll sink. For me, it’s always been about finding that character that I could really sink my teeth into.
GW: Your English teacher wrote to me in 2000 and raved about your writing and mentioned Finding Forrester to me and told me to watch out for you. Apparently she reads my column.
MR: That’s Mrs. Forster — Sharon Forster — I still stay in touch with her. Every time one of my film’s comes out, she calls me and tells me it’s a good film, but it’s no Finding Forrester. She’s really protective of that film. I’m sure Secretariat will be no different.
GW: That’s Mrs. Forster as in Finding Forrester?
MR: It’s spelled a little different. She’s not teaching anymore. She was my English teacher all four years in high school because it was a small school with not many kids. So when I sat down to write Finding Forrester in 1998, I was thinking of a name for the central character. She was the one who instilled in me a love of writing, love of reading and a love of literature. So it made sense that I would use that name.
GW: I write for a living and I can name four or five English teachers that inspired me. One was Mrs. Hensley, my sophomore teacher at Gresham High School in Gresham, Oregon. She loved Mad Magazine and caught me reading it in class one day when I was supposed to be reading Shakespeare.
I loved my English teachers and at one time wanted to teach. Did you ever want to teach?
MR: Ever since I got into this profession I have spent a lot of time with high school kids, college students, aspiring writers, grade school kids. We all love the notion of telling a story. I guess that’s an offshoot from Mrs. Forster. She taught me the love of writing and the love of literature and if I can instill that in another person then that’s a good thing.
GW: You did radio news for a long time. I’m a former radio news person. Stories on radio are 30 to 45 seconds. There’s a big stretch between writing news copy for broadcast and scripts for hit movies that last two hours or more.
MR: It’s interesting that you bring that up. A screenplay on average — typically — is 120 pages and on average has 50 to 60 scenes. Each of those scenes is a building block toward one, larger product. Each of those scenes accomplishes something. There should be no wasted scenes. Each is one kernel of information that drives the story forward.
News writing does the same thing. You try to give a clear piece of information to the audience. The difference is in news writing you have to be completely overt with that and follow the old school formula of who, what, where, when and why. You want to hit the audience with that information so it is very, very clear.
Screenwriting is a little different. You have to give the audience information without them knowing they just received information. The overall goal of screenwriting is the same as news writing. It’s just done in a different and polar opposite way.
GW: You have done hockey, baseball, football with Radio, and I’m starting to see a pattern here.
MR: (laughs) And don’t forget basketball with Finding Forrester.
GW: That’s right! So now we know Mike Rich is a sports fan. The Nativity is your only script not involving sports. That was a labor of love for you.
MR: It was a special story on so many levels. And during the writing of that story I was approaching Christmas a year after my dad passed away. My dad was just nuts about Christmas and one of the big traditions at my house was setting up the nativity set. He was always the one who did that, and he was always very particular about how it got set up. That was the spark for me. I wrote it in a short period of time, just a few weeks.
GW: Do you ever have a desire to direct?
MR: I have gotten opportunities already. For a lot of reasons it hasn’t worked out. I think if the material was right — maybe. Part of my hesitation is I love writing. And I love being around my family and friends. For me to direct a film means I have to give up basically a year of my life with pre-production, production and post-production. I live in Portland, Oregon and would likely have to move to Los Angeles. If the opportunity came up to do a small story that we could shoot in Portland, I think I’d be interested.
GW: A lot of people shoot movies in Portland, Oregon. It’s not a bad place to shoot one.
MR: Successful directors live in L.A. They go in, and they go home at night.
GW: So what’s next.
MR: I have something unannounced over at Universal. Right now, I’m going to catch my breath a little bit and then dive back in on something new. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve been in this business for more than 10 years and still have the opportunity to write great stories. It’s something I’m really thankful for.
GW: Who do you like? What writers work for you?
MR: I like Scott Frank, John August — from days gone by, William Goldman — and I have a keen appreciation for this craft because it is so different from other forms of writing.
GW: Over the last 20 years in at least a couple of columns a year, I mention screenwriting. Great movies start with great writing. Period. It’s all about writing.
MR: In the film business the only one who starts with nothing is the writer. When you see the credits roll at the end, that’s a great moment. I really celebrate that moment. When you think about it, it all started with me and a blank screen on my computer.
A movie is such a fragile thing. There are so many junctures along the road where it could fall apart. And to actually see the concept make it onto the screen is always a small miracle.
GW: As a writer you always have to be worried that someone is going to screw up your script. Once you give it to them, it’s theirs and not yours. Maybe you’re at the point in your career now where you have a say, but when you did Finding Forrester you didn’t. You weren’t going to tell Gus Van Sant how to do that movie.
MR: No. And that’s a good thing. The script was in such terrific hands with Gus, and he made some choices that elevated the material. I’m thankful for that.
But you are right. The first time I sit down and watch a cut of film it’s always nerve-wracking because you realize that what you’re about to see might not be a good interpretation of your words.