Jim Wilson knows a thing or two about defying the odds.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker’s new movie, 50 to 1, tells the story of Mine That Bird, the improbable and inspiring long-shot champion of the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
“I remember watching the Derby on TV that year,” Wilson says. “I had handicapped the race and I had thrown this horse out. He hadn’t won a race in his home state of New Mexico. He came in dead last in the Breeders’ Cup. He didn’t have a chance.”
Then Mine That Bird stunned the horseracing world.
Brilliantly ridden by jockey Calvin Borel, the crooked-footed gelding rallied from the back of the pack, nearly 30 lengths behind, to win by almost seven lengths.
It was one of the greatest from-out-of-nowhere wins in sports history.
“It was a real-life Rocky story,” Wilson says.
Today, nearly five years later, Wilson and rest of the team that made 50 to 1, opening in North Texas on Friday, know what it feels like to be that kind of long shot.
They’re trying to get attention for their $8.5 million feel-good movie in a box-office race against $100 million blockbusters.
“We are living our own Mine That Bird story,” actor Skeet Ulrich says. “Everywhere we open, we’re going up against gigantic studio movies. We’re battling the billionaires. But you know what? If we have any say in the matter, we’re going to beat them.”
The 50 to 1 team believes so passionately in this film that it’s not content merely to release it and hope for the best.
“We want people to know about this movie,” actor Christian Kane says. “We’ll go from house to house, knocking on doors, if that’s what it takes.”
Kane is exaggerating about the lengths he’ll go to to spread the word, but only slightly.
The director, the writer and select cast members have embarked on a seven-state, New Mexico-to-Kentucky bus tour, parking their 45-foot rolling billboard outside various movie theaters and racetracks for meet-and-greets with moviegoers.
The 50 to 1 bus will be in Dallas-Fort Worth for four days of events that include appearances at the Dallas International Film Festival on Thursday, Premiere Cinema in Burleson on Friday, Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie on Saturday and Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
The actors include Ulrich (formerly of the TV series Jericho), Kane ( Leverage), Todd Lowe ( True Blood), Madelyn Deutch and Hugo Perez.
Mine That Bird, perhaps the biggest star of them all, is expected to be at the Lone Star Park event for photo shoots with race fans.
Wilson, who won an Academy Award for 1990’s Dances With Wolves, says he has never heard of Hollywood promoting a film in this way.
“Getting the lead actors to hop on a bus with you and go around the country to chat it up is crazy,” he says. “In 20 years of releasing films with Kevin Costner, I’ve never done anything like this.”
“I’ve taken airplanes to different big cities for red-carpet events,” Ulrich says. “But this kind of thing, I think it’s a precedent-setter.”
Says Lowe: “I feel like I’m a politician on the campaign trail. I’m shaking hands and kissing babies.”
Adds Deutch: “My mom [Lea Thompson] has been an actress for 30 years and my dad [Howard Deutch] has been a director for 30 years. They were both like, ‘You’re going on a what?’ They had never heard of anything like this. But it shows how much Jim Wilson believes in this project. It’s a labor of love. He didn’t want to just sell it to some cable channel and say, ‘All right, have your way with it.’ It means so much to him to get this out to the people and to give the film the attention it deserves.”
“We’re not getting paid to do this,” Kane notes. “We’re not getting a dime.”
A real shocker
But the 50 to 1 team is definitely getting something out of doing this, something more meaningful than a paycheck.
After two weeks of limited release in New Mexico, where Mine That Bird and his misfit cowboy owners and trainers are celebrated local heroes, the film has been packing theaters and wowing audiences.
“We’ve been sneaking into screenings,” Kane confides. “People don’t know it. We’ll sneak in and stand in back and watch the audience watching the movie. People are standing up in the theater and cheering. I saw five cowboys walking out of one theater and they had tears in their eyes.
“These were not tears of sadness; they were tears of elation. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have a feeling, after we’re done traveling with this movie, I never will again.”
The movie is having so powerful an effect on moviegoers because it’s one of those rare too-good-to-be-true stories that also happens to be true.
When Wilson started working on 50 to 1, he discovered that Bird’s two-legged companions had just as unlikely and remarkable a story.
Owner Mark Allen (Kane’s character) and trainer Chip Woolley (Ulrich), a couple of hard-drinking cowboys, lost race after race after acquiring Bird, only to learn that the horse’s Canadian winnings were enough to qualify him to run in the Kentucky Derby.
Woolley, who was on crutches after shattering his leg in a motorcycle accident, loaded Mine That Bird into a trailer hitched to his pickup truck and drove 21 hours and more than 1,200 miles to Louisville.
The rest of the gang made the journey on Harleys. Once there, Kentucky racing royalty dismissed the rough-and-tumble New Mexicans, only to get their comeuppance when Mine That Bird made his miracle run in the big race.
“A lot of times when you’re writing a script, you get about halfway through it and starting thinking, ‘Boy, it needs a little help here; I’ve got to invent some extra story,’ ” says Wilson, who wrote the script with Faith Conroy. “Not here, though. There was so much story, we didn’t have to invent anything.”
What’s more, it’s a story that couldn’t have a more perfect ending if Hollywood’s most imaginative writers made it up.
Mine That Bird was literally so far behind early in the race that he was often not even onscreen during NBC’s TV coverage. Then he moved into the lead in the blink of an eye, so quickly that veteran announcer Tom Durkin didn’t even spot Bird making his charge until he was three lengths in front.
“I remember reading the script for the first time and thinking, ‘No, this can’t be real,’ ” Lowe says. “Then I watched the YouTube video of the race and it’s all real.”
Much of the climactic race scene in the movie, in fact, is the actual NBC footage.
“Here’s the funny thing about that,” Kane says. “Jim screened the movie for some big studio types in California and they all enjoyed the film. But one of them said the only thing he didn’t believe is the ending. He said it was a little unrealistic, that the horse was probably never really that far back and so on.
“What he didn’t realize was that he was looking at the real footage. Can you believe it?”
“When I heard that,” Wilson says, “I just hung up and smiled.”