Storyline from Imdb:
A wild horse and a teenage girl forge an unbreakable bond which keeps them connected for a lifetime. Based on Anne Sewll's classic novel, the 2020's film adaptation stars Kate Winslet as Black Beauty, Mackenzie Foy as Jo Green, and Iain Glen as John Manly. This interview is the continuation of the previous Novelpro Junkie's interview(Click HERE to view it) with the director and screenwriter, Ashley Avis. So, take this time to know more about her experience making this marvelous film.
1. In one word, how would you sum up your experience with making Black Beauty?
2. How does it feel to finally release Black Beauty on Disney+ for the world to see?
It feels surreal to have a story that carries with it so much meaning, a film both myself and our team worked so hard on for several years around the clock, now debuting to the world. The movie was produced by Constantin Film, and was one of the first acquisitions by Disney+ -- so to have one of the greatest studios in history recognize what we crafted is incredibly special. I'm deeply honored, and very excited, for the Disney+ audience to experience Black Beauty. The movie is for everyone -- it is for children, and families, it is for couples, and those who love animals. Disney is the most idyllic partner I could have ever imagined for this story.
3. What is your favorite scene from the movie to shoot?
The beach scene. The reason our modernized version of Black Beauty exists is because I had a serendipitous meeting with a wonderful producer named Jeremy Bolt several years ago. We sat in his office, had tea, and spoke about the movies that inspired us to become filmmakers. I mentioned The Black Stallion (1979), and how much I loved the scene on the beach with Alec and The Black -- it's about five minutes, just set to score -- and shows that enigmatic relationship between a horse and a human. The mysterious connectivity between them. That was the moment Jermey first said to me, "my partner and I have wanted to remake Black Beauty for about ten years. If you have a take, let me know."
I knew the story incredibly well, and had a take right in the room. Jermey told me they wanted to modernize the story, and make Beauty female. So I raced home and put together a forty page long pitch. From there, things went very quickly for our industry, it was one of those projects that was exactly right.
And so, as I wrote the screenplay, I very much wanted to have a scene on the beach between Beauty and Jo. A moment where they gallop like not even the wind can catch them, and experience that pure, true connectivity. It was very technically challenging to shoot all of the beach scenes you see in the movie in just one day.
While filming in South Africa, we arrived at a stunning beach called Silverstroom at about three a.m., and began before sunrise. Our dedicated horse team (lead by Horsemaster Elbrus Ourtaev, and Liberty Trainer Cody Rawson-Harris) were there even earlier. I very much wanted to capture the very particular dusky blue purple of morning for the opening of the movie, when Beauty is galloping alone, before the light crests. Later, we had the sunset shots to capture where Jo and Beauty ride together. For the quality of that magic hour light our wonderful cinematographer David Procter and I were hoping for, we had an incredibly short window of time to film that scene. It became a technical and logistical challenge to get all of the coverage we needed -- both closeups and wides of Jo with our tracking vehicles (showing the emotion, as well as the partnership between girl and horse) as well as very dramatic sweeping wide drone shots. We had limited runs that we could do with the horses, and about forty minutes to do it all.
Fortunately, there were two beaches at Silverstroom -- about twenty minutes apart from one another. A public beach, and a private beach.
As a filmmaker, I love problem solving and coming up with creative solutions, especially when things feel impossible but you know that somehow, you have to figure out how to do it, because the film or the moment warrants it! I didn't want to have to pick or choose, or limit our coverage. And so, this became the plan. On the public beach, we had Mackenzie Foy and our stunt horse, a tried and true gelding called Indiana for that coverage. Mackenzie also did her own stunt, and we had only one chance to do it. She is such a brave, wonderful person, extremely kind and empathetic, and she absolutely nailed it. The nervousness as her fingertips come off the reins, and then the pure joy that washes over her face is all so beautifully real. We jumped for joy when we got that shot.
Meanwhile, on the public beach, we were simultaneously filming our drone coverage -- the big wide shots with a Jo stunt double (Cheyenne de Beer) and Spirit, one of the other main Black Beautys. We didn't know until the end of the day if the drone team had gotten the footage we needed, because there was no cell phone coverage between the two beaches. Big Bird, the outstanding drone company out of Cape Town, got those shots and more. We were thrilled.
I love working with actors, and this story is so personal to me -- so it was very special to see Mackenzie fearlessly do that stunt and truly experience that moment riding Black Beauty down a sweeping, ethereal beach. As a viewer, I think you feel like you're right there with her.
4. Did you make a cameo in this film? If not, why didn’t you?
I did not! My preference is behind the camera! I did lend my voice to one ADR line, though, given the current state of the world made having a traditional loop group impossible. I lent my voice to one off camera line: "We're done, Miss Green," in the scene where Jo is departing Birtwick for Earlshall.
5. What was the most memorable moment on set?
There were so many. One of the most memorable scenes, for me, was when Iain Glen bonds with a horse we depicted as a mustang in the round pen. That sweet paint horse, Archie, had never done "join up" before. I really wanted to capture real horse whispering in the movie, but our schedule was so incredibly tight at six weeks (we ended up milking out a number of pre-shoot days, and other bits of extra time, thanks to our producers being very supportive of me constantly coming into their offices saying... "we have a hair and makeup test day scheduled... but we could also film something for a few hours...").
And use the time we did. It was on our hair and makeup test day that Iain Glen got into the round pen with Archie. We had a small crew, we were testing gear, and it was before we had begun principal photography. We filmed a 'test' with Iain in the round pen for two hours, doing liberty work with Archie. As he was reciting his dialogue, Archie joined up with him. Cody Rawson-Harris, our wonderful liberty trainer, was behind a tree and he began to cry -- it was just so profoundly special. It was an unbelievable moment as both a lover of horses, and a filmmaker, to be able to capture that authentically on camera -- and that is in the film. I felt very supported by our producers, led by the wonderful Jeremy Bolt, to help me realize moments like that.
Another moment I love is the scene where Jo names Beauty. It was another pivotal scene, which we had so little time to film, because I wanted that moment to be at that spectacular time of day where the light is low and gently filtering through the trees, bathing everything in gentle light. Magic hour. Mackenzie had by that time bonded with Jenny (the horse who played Beauty in that scene), and they had a real relationship. I know it was partially because they had become bonded, that we were able to film something like that so quickly -- Jenny truly loved Mackenzie.
Our whole team was unbelievable to be able to work at the pace we did throughout the shoot, but not sacrifice excellence or quality. I've joked with our cinematographer David Proctor about our camera team acting like a ballet -- our camera operator Damien Pawle and steadicam operator Dale Rodkin were incredible, moving around each other. Curving around Beauty's face and emotional eyes, capturing those stunning two shots we wanted as Jo's hand touches Beauty's star as she names her. All while being respectful and conscious that we had a horse in the scene, who was paying attention to both Mackenzie and our liberty trainer at the same time.
Dale did a twenty seven minute steadicam take that day. I've never had a steadicam operator keep the camera up that long (and we shot on the Alexa XT, that is a heavy camera body, plus lenses!). That just speaks to the passion that was the overall makeup of our team.
Then, there was all of the wild horse footage in the movie -- part of which was a completely separate shoot. I really wanted to root Black Beauty authentically as a wild horse, which meant capturing real footage of mustangs in the Western United States. My husband and producing partner Edward Winters and I ended up raising some money on our own for a documentary, and filmed about two weeks of spectacular wild horse footage in Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada several weeks before departing for South Africa. Months later during the editing of the film, I was able to cut the footage of the real Onaqui herd (filmed in Utah), into the scenes with Beauty as she is growing up (filmed in South Africa), to look like part of her family. It was like a little gift that the footage from two different parts of the world cut so seamlessly.
Lastly, I have to mention is the New York City scenes in winter. Those were almost cut, or changed, in the movie given major logistical challenges. We were filming South Africa during the height of summer, which doubled very well for Wyoming and New York State -- but trying to recreate Central Park in Cape Town was challenging! Much less a snowbound winter wonderland! I felt so strongly about showing the seasons of Beauty's life. It is another credit to Jermey Bolt for being so collaborative and problem solving with me, along with David Proctor's truly brilliant technical excellence -- to figure out how we could capture the coverage of those scenes I had in my head.
We ended up filming Beauty, the actors, and carriages on a massive blue screen stage. Our production design team led by Darryl Hammer measured real Central Park benches and lights to re-create them in Cape Town as authentic elements. We then shot plates (backgrounds, essentially) of the real Central Park in New York City, and our amazing VFX team headed by VFX Supervisor Marc Bloc of Black Ginger melded them together. It took months of very delicate work. The environment was supplemented by falling snow, extra trees, and other elements to literally put Beauty and Jo into Central Park. I'm very proud of the problem solving our team did to make that happen.
6. Could you give us an interesting fact about lead star Mackenzie Foy?
Mackenzie is one of the kindest people I've ever met, and she has fallen in love with the world of horses off screen, too. Mackenzie has just joined the nonprofit organization I recently launched -- The Wild Beauty Foundation -- as a Legacy Ambassador. She now owns her own horse, and we are hoping to cast a new spotlight on key issues wild and domestic horses are facing today. Our primary goal is to reach children, those voices of tomorrow. www.wildbeautyfoundation.org
7. Despite Kate Winslet voicing Black Beauty, were you able to meet with her? If so, what was your experience like with the Oscar-winning actress?
I have admired Kate for a very long time, and it was surreal when she responded to the screenplay -- and said yes to lending her voice to Black Beauty. Given the state of the world, I didn't get to fly to London as planned to work with her in person. However, I just feel so fortunate that we were able to complete filming the movie before everything shut down.
We worked remotely -- with Kate at her home, a team at a studio in London, and myself, our producers, and sound team headed by Ben Wilkins in Los Angeles. Kate recorded all the lines from a barn on her property (the signal was better in there -- quite apropos, right?). She had such great humor about it, and despite the occasional technical challenges, it went really beautifully. I edited the film, so I cut in all of Kate's voiceover myself. I spent at least 100 hours going through all of that dialogue at all hours of the night, finding the ebb and flow, and nestling the words gently within Guillaume Roussel's phenomenal score.
8. If you direct or write another film adaptation of any novel/novella/short story (besides mine, of course) which one would you like to do?
I am actually developing an adaptation of a novel now, which is very different from Black Beauty (I can't share the title quite yet) -- but it is a psychological / fantasy piece that delves into the nuances of questioning our realities. I'm also excited to look into other fantasy or fairytale stories for adaptation. It would be a dream to one day adapt or direct The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffery. Those books were a huge part of my childhood.
9. (Fill in the blank question): the year 2020 has been ___________________ .
A time to remain steadfast; recognizing the great challenges among us, while never forgetting the beautiful opportunities.
10. What did you watch/read during the lockdown due to COVID-19?
I read a number of screenplays and books, but for the most part I was editing Black Beauty at all hours of the day from a temporary editing bay I had set up in my living room!
11. Last question, what type of snack (or food) do you plan to get while watching the premiere of Black Beauty on Disney+?
Thankfully I got to watch the debut of Black Beauty with my family, my mother, father, brother, and my husband Ed. My mom made a platter of all sorts of cheeses and crackers, we had wine together, it was just wonderful to share that moment with them.
When the score began to rise... the pounding of Beauty's hooves, the sound of breathing as she runs... I keep coming back to the world 'surreal.' So much love, work, and passion went into this film. I'm very excited to share Anna Sewell's timeless messages to the world, because this all started with her. Everything in the movie was done with incredibly specific intent, and I sincerely hope she would be proud.
Check out this YouTube clip of Black Beauty and watch the entire movie on Disney+