Veteran Aussie filmmaker Simon Wincer is back at the stables again – a place he’s all too familiar with having ponied up for such classics as “Phar Lap” (1982), “The Lighthorsemen” (1987), “Lonesome Dove” (1989) and “Comanche Moon” (2008) – for “The Cup”, his long-gestating story of Damien Oliver’s rousing Melbourne Cup win with Media Puzzle in 2002. The film features Stephen Curry in the lead role of the jockey, with Daniel MacPherson as his brother, the late Jason Oliver. In addition to the pride of finally seeing the challenging project get made, Wincer has the distinction of being the last filmmaker to work with the late, great Bill Hunter (who plays racing identity Bart Cummings in the film) on “The Cup”.
Clint Morris spoke to Wincer at, rather appropriately, the Flemington racecourse.
Stephen and Daniel are great in the film, and I must say, having just spoken to the guys – Curry for the first time since “Takeaway” – they’re terrific guys. Must have been a pleasure to work with?
Oh they are, they really are. I spent the last week travelling the country with Stephen. Fellow before asked me ‘Tense story being told in this film, how do you keep it light on the set?’ You keep it light from the get-go. You do the opposite of what most might assume. Those guys are professionals; there’s no bullshit about them – they really know their craft. They can snap out of the funny stuff and go straight into actor mode, they’re very professional. And Bill Hunter is a lot like that too – liked a laugh, but gets right into it. In fact, last time I worked with Billy, before he passed away, was right down there (points to the race track below the committee rooms).
Fair to say stories like this are few and far between these days, cinematically-speaking?
Yeah. And this is a great story. It’s got the heart and the story of Damien Oliver at its centre but it’s also set to the backdrop of the Melbourne Cup and that’s a big canvas. It’s a fun one to play with. There are a lot of pieces in the puzzle but it was interesting and challenging trying to pull it off because it’s a true story and so you’ve got to ground it in reality. We relied on the corporations and an enormous amount of people to help get it going. I think that’s what I enjoy these things – they’re challenging and so it’s fantastic when you can pull it off.
How many years have you been trying to get “The Cup” going?
January the first, two-thousand and three. I got a fax from Eric O’Keefe, who had interviewed me a couple of times, and is a very well-known and respected writer from Texas, who asked me if I could look into some things for him regarding the Melbourne Cup. He had heard that it was “a huge horse race in Australia and that 100,000 people cried when a particular jockey won recently”. He thought there was a magazine or article in [Damien Oliver's story]. I said “This isn’t an article or a book, this is a Hollywood movie.” I suggested he write a screenplay. He said he had no idea how to do that, but I guided him through it. We wrote it together. 19 drafts later, we hit production [Laughs]. So that was two-thousand and three, and look, we nearly got it up a couple of times but investors pulled out for one reason or another – the global financial crisis being one – and even this time last year I was convinced it was going to happen. Then, a couple of months later we were in production.
It’s quite an undertaking making a movie…
I swore after The Lighthorsemen I’d never be a producer again – I’ve been a creative producer on a couple of things, but that’s just lending my name really – because carrying the responsibility of all that money is enormous. And it’s so complicated with all the different financing bodies and stuff, and it really drains you, you know? Luckily because I had so much involvement in writing the script and I’d been living this thing for years I didn’t have to do as much preparation as I otherwise would’ve on another film, and everyone that we offered the film to wanted to do it, so that made it a bit easier.
You still like your westerns? because you’ve done one of the finest westerns of our time – “Lonesome Dove”.
I like the genre, yeah. I like going back and revisiting westerns. I went back and did the prequel to Lonesome Dove called Comanche Moon a couple of years ago. It had a great cast. I just loved it. Just a wonderful experience.
You say you nearly didn’t get “The Cup” up. I imagine you’ve experienced loss like that before, in terms of projects that fall through?
Yeah, I have. And there are a couple of beauties. One of them was the best western I’ve ever read. It was sent to me after Lonesome Dove. And I formed a relationship with a producer named Steve Bing – lovely, lovely guy; my partner gave him my first job in the industry – and we were going to do something together; that project didn’t come off, so we decided we wanted to try and get this western, which was called The Cowboy and the Cossack, up.
Tell us about ”The Cowboy and the Cossack,” it sounds familiar…
It would’ve been absolutely breathtaking. It’s about a group of American cowboys who have to escort a group of cattle across Russia.
The opening scene was on a sailing ship at night time, as it arrived off Vladivostok, and the port authority wouldn’t allow them to drop the cattle off. So they went upstream a bit and jumped the cattle off there. And they all went and later got drunk… as did the cattle. Their Cossack escort arrived the next morning to escort them across Russia and they were, of course, all passed out. But yes, it’s this great journey.. an epic journey… across Russia with these two groups who couldn’t even speak each other’s language.
It was such a breathtaking story, but it was just too complicated and… didn’t happen. Lots of people have been attached to it over the years.
What are you doing now that “The Cup” is behind you?
I’ve been doing this live show on the Gold Coast for the past couple of years, called The Great Outback Spectacular, which is a combination of film and live-arena action. I love doing it. It’s very successful. It’s the only thing of its type in the world. The new [show] opens in the first week of December and then I’m doing a little film in the states next year, which we are trying to cast at the moment, it’s sort of a contemporary little western, a lovely little story and then I’m doing a film with a colleague of mine called Waltzing Matilda. It’s a big Australian film. It’s the story behind the song – it’s an epic romance set in the backdrop of the shearer’s strike, which is when the country was on the brink of civil war. It’s an amazing story. It’s a pretty expensive undertaking and I think that’s why the few people that have tried to get this story up before have failed.