Doc Week: The Hennegan Brothers Go to the Derby!

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For day two of Doc Week, we have an interview with the newest filmmakers of the bunch. The Hennegan Brothers, John and Brad, had a background in television production, but they went back to their childhood roots working at the Long Island racetracks for their first feature documentary The First Saturday in May. The two of them spent months following six horse trainers on their journey to the sport’s biggest race, the Kentucky Derby, showing what it takes to breed and train a champion racehorse, despite the overwhelming odds where only 20 out of 40,000 new horses a year are admitted. The film takes an interesting turn when the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Barbaro, is injured in a later race, creating a national sensation that neither of them could have expected when they started the film.

CS sat down with the two filmmakers to talk about what went into making their first feature documentary.

ComingSoon.net: You guys have a background in horseracing and you’ve been doing a lot of stuff for TV, so why did you decide now was the time to make a feature doc about the Kentucky Derby?
Brad Hennigan: ‘Cause we’re getting old and we figure it was now or never.
John Hennigan: Right, we really got sick of working for other people, and it was just like, “When are we going to jump off this corporate ship? Quit talkin’ about it and do it?” We saw these great stories in horseracing starting in ’03 and we followed them on paper. Funny Cide was a horse that captured the nation a little bit, then there was Smarty Jones.
Brad: So we saw those great stories and for the 2004/2005 year, we wanted to follow a couple of horse on paper and see if it was actually feasible to pick a horse to go to the Derby, and John picked out Afleet Alex, and there was a great story behind Afleet Alex, and we said, “Okay, we got one there.”
John: That great story about Afleet Alex that we followed unfolded over the course of a year.
Brad: So what we did was in June 2005, when the 2-year-old season begins, the 2-year-old races, we started following some horses and then by January, we both quit our jobs—John quit his a bit earlier…
John: I got laid off in January of ’05.
Brad: Laid-off, whatever. (laughs)
John: And then we started plotting it on paper in May of ’05, started shooting it.

CS: Is there some skill in finding five out of the six horses you picked to follow actually going to the Kentucky Derby?
John: Well, that’s what people think.
Brad: If we were that good gamblers or handicappers at getting five into the Kentucky Derby, we’d be on a yacht somewhere.
John: We wouldn’t be making movies.
Brad: But we followed about 12 horses, and then we shot about 500 hours of footage and then we cut down to the 99 minutes that it is now.
John: The way horseracing works, too, is that you can see from the movie that there are certain races that have a better quality of horses that have a chance to make it—they’re called prep races—and you kind of gravitate towards those. You know when one is being geared towards that, there’s just skill level. Some horses run faster than others.
Brad: And if you look back in history, historically X amount of horses come out of this race or that race, this race in Arkansas or this race in Florida, so there is a loose “derby trail” where horses usually go to certain prep races to test their mettle to see if they are a Derby horse.
John: Right, and if a horse comes out of nowhere, like a little track you never heard of and it becomes like, “Hey, this horse has a chance.” It would probably go to one of these prep races, so eventually that horse would get to a place and this would be his proving ground, and that would be a good story for us.

CS: It sounds almost like reverse-engineering to find the horses that might eventually get into the Derby.
Brad: Actually, it’s funny because that’s what trainers do a lot of the time. They think they have a good horse on their hands several months out, they work backwards from the Kentucky Derby to see what races they would want to do.

CS: So once you did that, how did you get in contact with the trainers. Did you have a lot of connections to get to each person and convince them to let you trail them with your cameras? There must be a lot of training secrets they don’t want the competition to know about.
John: Right, it definitely helped that we great up around the race track, but it wasn’t like we knew every single person. If we didn’t know somebody, someone else knew them, and when we explained to the trainers… I mean, we would just walk up to them. It’s not like you would think at Yankees Stadium, you can’t just go in the dugout and ask for Joe Torre, “Hey, can we start following you around?” At the racetrack you can, you know? It’s like, “Hey, we’re doing this documentary. We want to show people about horseracing, how horses get to the Derby, can we follow you? We want to follow some cool trainers that will be willing to do it and guys that we think have good stories.” And they all realized that we were trying to do something good for the sport, so they were totally great, and about the secrets, Brad can tell you about that.
Brad: Basically, we just got there at 4:30 every morning, put a microphone on ’em, and after half an hour or so, they forgot we were there, and we were just fly on the wall, and we just shot them all the time, and they were pretty open.
John: There was only a couple times where they said, “Listen, can you turn this off?” and it was like a business deal, because a lot of them have owners and the owners don’t know what we’re doing so they’d say, “Listen, can you turn this off when I’m talking to this person. I’m talking about something personal” but they all left it on and were cool with everything. Kiaran McClaughlin telling us very candidly about his MS, there really were no times where they told us to put the kibosh on it.

CS: Did you guys end up doing a lot of the camerawork yourself?
John: We did everything.
Brad: For budgetary reasons, we did everything ourselves. Basically, I’d be in California shooting, we’d have one Panasonic DVX100A, we’d have a camera and a wireless mic and we’d put it on our trainer and just follow him around for the day. So I’d be in California, and maybe John would be in Florida or I’d be in Arkansas and John would be in Kentucky. If we had more money, we would have hired some more cameramen, but we didn’t know what was going to happen. 40,000 baby horses are born each year and 20 make it to the derby, and if we ended up shooting 500 hours of footage and if had to hire cameramen for that…
John: It was kind of just trial by fire. We just taught ourselves. We shot some weddings of our friends and messed with technique there, but we kinda just figured it out on our own and made sure that we had good audio. Even if we screwed it up visually, if you can hear it well, people will forgive that.
Brad: Yeah, and if it’s a good story, people are forgiving about some things, and those cameras were really user-friendly and we were able to capture some beautiful moments.

CS: It looks very professional.
John: Thank you! We definitely got better and at the Derby, a couple of our friends that were better shooters came in and we probably used a lot of their stuff, to, but we feel like we did a pretty good job and we came a long way, and these cameras are great, too. I don’t know if we should plug the company because we’d like to ask them for new cameras.
Brad: We want to go HD!

CS: There haven’t been many documentaries on horseracing or even the Kentucky Derby, and it’s kind of surprising considering that it’s one of the older sports out there. Why do you think that was and did you guys have more of an inside track on it? (no pun intended)
John: That’s why we were so psyched when we first came up with the idea. How is it that no one has done this?
Brad: There were 131 Kentucky Derbies at the time, and I think a couple people had tried and there might even be one out there, I’m not sure.
John: Well, it’s hard to do, and we felt like we could do it because of just being one person. These are young horses and big and they can kick. If you have a boom operator and a cameraman and a producer and a director there, that’s three too many people. We were able to get in there with these small cameras and we knew our way around horses.
Brad: It makes the whole thing more intimate that way. We knew our way around horses, like John was saying, and these guys would just relax around us and forget we were there. It wasn’t like a whole circus around it that would disturb the horse. It was just us, a little camera and they had a wireless mic on. It helped us get some fantastic stuff.

CS: I wanted to ask about Barbaro’s story because while you were filming the stuff before the race, you probably had no idea what a big story that might become. Did you spend a lot of time with his trainer beforehand? There doesn’t seem as much stuff before the Derby with Barbaro as there is after the accident.
Brad: Actually, no. We were with Barbaro starting at the end of January, so there is quite a bit there. I think people just focus more on him because a lot of people wanted us to change the movie to make it more about Barbaro, and we wanted to make sure it was still one of six horses. We’re glad that we did that but yeah, we were with Barbaro when they were still calling him BarbAYro… he was one of several good horses but at that time that he was going to become a legend.

CS: I was wondering if maybe they were a little less open to having the cameras around.
Brad: No, they were really open to it, and it’s probably because you’ve heard of him that you feel there’s less of him, but yeah, the film’s probably evenly cut between these six horses.
John: Right, I think we even timed it out at one point to make sure we’ve spent the same amount of time on everyone, because we had 500 hours of footage and that balancing act is tedious. We wanted to make sure that we did pay attention, because we know these guys, too, so we were like, “Oh, Dale is getting more screentime than Kiaran.” It was more of a joke between us, too. They were all just good friends, too. We became very friendly, because when you’re with people that much, you become their friends, and I’m sure other people you’ve interviewed that have done moves have become very close to the subjects.

CS: How long did it actually take to edit down those 500 hours of footage and figuring out the stories? Has the movie gone through a lot of different versions before its debut at Tribeca last year?
Brad: Yeah, our co-editor Tamara McDonough, she really got the whole ball rolling, where she helped us import all of this footage into our Final Cut Pro system, and keep track of it all. It would have been a disaster if I had tried to do that, so it was great. She set it all up, and she helped us cut the film.
John: And her husband, Mark Krewatch, who cowrote it with us, the four of us just basically culled through all the stuff and started getting it organized. I mean, that took the whole summer.
Brad: It probably took about three months to load and at the same time, we were also logging each tape, which says, “Tape 1: Horse walks in circle, horse walks again.”
John: We had books like this of logs because with 500 hours of footage, you had to be really detail oriented, and we wanted to do the best job possible. I’m thinking about that time and going, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe we did that!”
Brad: That’s like four Encyclopedia Britanicas full of…
John: Boring stuff!
Brad: Like 500 hours of horses just walking in circles and getting watched and stuff.

CS: You both have TV backgrounds, so that must have helped in some way in terms of organizing everything.
John: We did a lot of different stuff from being P.A.s on movie sets, Brad worked for Martha Stewart, I worked in development, everything. We took all the knowledge we had, but most recently, we worked on promos and spots over the last couple of years and that’s all about moving stuff along…
Brad: …and telling a story in 30 seconds. It was nice not having to tell a story in 30 seconds. At least we had 90 or so minutes to tell a story.
John: Right, but we were really honest with ourselves that “This is getting boring” or “let’s move this along” because listen, at the end of the day, this is an entertaining movie and we want people to be entertained. People’s attention spans in this day and age are short. You have to grab them right away, so we felt we were very honest, we screened it a lot because people turn something off if they don’t like it.

CS: Let’s talk about the music a little because I think you made a lot of interesting choices in terms of mixing ambient and acoustic music with upbeat rock and rap tracks. That was all figured out after the fact or was that stuff you were thinking about it as you were making it?
Brad: I’d like to say we thought (of it beforehand). There’s always songs you want, like there was this one song by Les Savy Fav, “The Sweat Descends.” We liked the feel of it and I think we used it for our sales trailer when we were trying to raise money for this project, so that was one song that we really wanted to use, and we have some good friends, the Ryan Brothers, who had scored a couple movies before, they do a lot of spots, they were in a band called The Bogmen and they’re in a new project now called Gano Ryan with Gordon Gano from The Violent Femmes, so they were able to go to Gordon and have him sing the Stephen Foster, “My Old Kentucky Home” which he sings, and Brendan and Billy did a fantastic job. They’ve left us behind and have just done the soundtrack for “The Heartbreak Kid.”
John: But let’s let the Farrelly Brothers know that we found them first. (Brad mentions they actually had a song in “Fever Pitch” first.) But the amount in our film, they knocked it out of the park with ours. As we were editing, yes, we had very distinct ideas to go in, just to give Brendan and Billy something to work with. Like, “You know what would be cool here? Something like this” and we’d talk about it. You can sit here and talk about it but the execution is the genius, and that’s what they did. We worked very closely with them in terms of getting an idea going, and then we said, “Just go with it.”
Brad: We love music but we’re not musicians per se, so we’d say “This is the feeling we want” and they were very good at translating all that information.

CS: Now that you have your first movies under your belts, what’s going to happen next?
Brad: Right now, we have a couple other projects. There’s been a little interest in this as a scripted feature, but we have several other ideas, but our main goal is our Friday, April 18 release date. We’re just spending every waking moment trying to get the word out on this film, because we’re going to be in 25 cities altogether including Kentucky.
John: The main thing is that in this day and age of indie film, if people don’t go to see something the first weekend, it’s gone, so we’ve been spending a lot of time on getting the word out around the racetrack for the last year.
Brad: The racetrack and indie film circles. We’ve screened this at film festivals and we have people coming up to us afterwards and saying, “You know what? I’ve never been to a racetrack. I never wanted to go to a race track, but now I do. Thank you.” For us, we wanted to make this sport cool again. Whenever we take someone out to a racetrack, they love it, but it’s actually getting them to go there. There’s so much for your entertainment dollar nowadays. In the ’20s and ’30s, it was boxing, baseball and horseracing, but now you can go to extreme fighting, football…

CS: One thing that’s good about the movie is that it’s more about the training and the sport, since too many people only think of horseracing as gambling in the sense of “I never saw my father when I was young because he was always at the track.”
Brad: And what we always say is that it’s a story about people that just happens to be set at the racetrack. We set out to make “Hoop Dreams” at the racetrack.
John: A lot of comparisons too have been made to “Spellbound” at the racetrack, and that’s good company because that was nominated for an Oscar, but no, we really always wanted to show these different cool characters. We wanted to educate while we entertain and I think that’s what we did.

The First Saturday in May opens in select cities (you can see the full list here) on Friday, April 18.

Tomorrow, Doc Week continues with our interview with Shine director Scott Hicks talking about his documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts, an amazing portrait of composer Philip Glass.

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