Inside the Stables: ‘Jockey’ at Aspen Film’s 2021 Academy Screenings
Director Clint Bentley on making ‘Jockey’
For as many horse-racing movies as there have been in cinematic history, no prominent title among them has focused on the humans riding over the finish line.
Independent filmmaker Clint Bentley, the son of a jockey himself, wanted to change that and lift the curtain on the stories underneath the grandstands and behind the stables with his film “Jockey.”
“I grew up in that world, going from track to track with my dad,” Bentley recalled in a recent phone interview from Dallas. “And then as I became a filmmaker and I realized there’s never been a film that that showed the life of the jockey.”
Providing a window on this rich subculture, Bentley sumptuously captures his world in all its quirks and rituals, from the rivalries and trash talk to boozy nights, weight-cutting extremes, the grind of training and the hair-raising injuries.
“Audiences have seen it a lot from the stands and, in movies much bigger than ours, from the grandstands,” Bentley said. “But they’ve never gone around the backside.”
Bentley co-wrote “Jockey,” which screens Sunday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, with Greg Kwedar and found the ideal actor to lead the film in the phenomenal Clifton Collins Jr.
Collins plays Jackson Silva, a hard-bitten past-his-prime rider — his body broken from decades in the saddle — who thinks he may finally get his big break when his trainer (Molly Parker) asks him to ride a horse that appears bound for winner’s circle glory. Meanwhile, a young jockey (Moises Arias) shows up at his track claiming to be Jackson’s son.
The film won a special jury award for Collins’ performance and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for release. Collins is a dark horse in the Oscar race for Best Actor, while he and the film appear poised to pick up many nods at the Independent Spirit Awards, which announces its nominations Tuesday. Collins was also honored last month at the Denver Film Festival.
Bentley shot “Jockey” at the historic Turf Paradise racetrack in Phoenix during the pandemic with a 10-person crew on a shoestring budget. Before making it independently, he unsuccessfully tried to go the traditional route.
What: ‘Jockey’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Sunday, Dec. 12, 3 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
“I tried to get this movie made in the industry, with production companies and studios, and everyone passed on it,” he said. “I really thought that we’d be self-distributing this movie and no one would ever see it. But that brought with it a incredible freedom to just make the movie that I would want to see.”
Following his own vision, Bentley made an intimate and memorable character study while bringing viewers into this secret jockey world. It’s a worthy heir to personal films about off-Main-Street sports like “The Wrestler” and “The Rider.” Using mostly natural light and many handheld shots of horses and jockeys on the track at sunrise and sunset, it visually embraces the wonder of riding these beasts, but doesn’t drown the beauty in sentiment or in sports movie cliché.
Researching and writing the film with Kwedar, who had no background in horse racing, Bentley toured tracks and met jockeys across the U.S.
“It was not only watching jockeys do their work, but then also just having meals with them and talking to them and hanging out,” Bentley recalled. “The best research for Greg and me came out of casual conversations.”
Collins also immersed himself in the jockeys’ world to become Jackson, and mentored the films’ many first-time performers and jockey-actors for their roles. The part finally gives this beloved character actor — a Hollywood “that guy” familiar from small roles in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” “Star Trek” and “Traffic” — the chance to perform center-stage. His weathered face and recessive performance speak of the jockey’s melancholy and regret, his determination and his fleeting belief that his star-making win might still on the way.
He’s passable as a jockey, too, gaunt and compact. Though at 5-foot-8 he is slightly taller than most jockeys, Bentley shoots Collins so he looks just right. Collins embraced the weight-cutting demands of jockey life as well, trimming himself to skin and bones in the months leading up to the shoot, as Bentley recalled.
“Every time we’d hop on Skype his face would get a little thinner and a little narrower,” he said.
SUNDAY, DEC. 12
Noon ‘Julia,’ Isis Theatre
3 ‘Jockey,’ Wheeler Opera House
7 ‘Being the Ricardos,’ Wheeler
MONDAY, DEC. 13
Noon ‘Speer Goes to Hollywood, Isis
2 p.m. ‘Hand of God,’ Isis
5 ‘Torn,’ Wheeler
8 ’Don’t Look Up,’ Wheeler
TUESDAY, DEC. 14
Noon “Citizen Ashe,” Isis
2 p.m. “Happening,“ 2 p.m. at Isis Theatre
5 ‘Tragedy of Macbeth,’ Wheeler
8 ‘Red Rocket,” Wheeler
WEDNESDAY, DEC. 15
2 p.m. ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” Isis
5 ‘Cyrano,’ Wheeler
8 ‘Parallel Mothers,’ Wheeler
THURSDAY, DEC. 16
1 p.m. ‘Drive My Car,’ Isis
5 ‘The Lost Daughter,’ Wheeler
8 ‘Licorice Pizza,’ Wheeler
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Aspen’s annual comedy festival has canceled for the second year in a row because of the coronavirus pandemic.