The Dark Horse is a dramatic story of struggle and redemption. Hearing the news that her father is suffering with dementia, Dana, a thirtyish Seattle ballet teacher, reluctantly returns to her childhood home on Orcas Island to discover that it is threatened with foreclosure. To save the farm and the family, she must tame her mother’s dangerous Friesian horse and ride him to victory in the year’s biggest dressage competition. She must also reconcile her warring brothers, and heal a broken heart.
by Cornelia Duryée
The Dark Horse has been a labor of love from start to finish. I first got the idea two years before filming, when I heard that a much-beloved 200-acre piece of property on Orcas island was due to be sold. I asked the owners of the land if I could film there, and they all agreed to give us three precious weeks in May to do our very best, within our limited budget, to capture this utterly unique place on film.
The story occurred to me because of my life philosophy, which has always been to make lemonade of the lemons life hands you. Several things that happen to Dana, the protagonist in the movie, have roots in my own life experience. I lost my dancing career due to injury, regrouped, and became an actor/director. I also learned that while I could no longer dance, I could ride a horse who dances - "Cobus", the equine star of the film, is the horse that I am privileged to ride. My father suffered from Alzheimer’s for 8 years, before succumbing to it in 2001. All that time my mother was at his side, tenderly caring for him. That is in the movie, that love that never gives up. I have also been ill in my life, and my husband of twenty years has stood by me, and it has not been an easy road for him.
The kind of love that lasts - that is the kind of love he has for me. That is in the film.
Everyone in our entirely local crew and cast believed with us that we could make a movie full of light on a very small budget. It was an ambitious film to make, and it was miraculous how the seven faithful, patient investors took the leap of faith with us. We had horse stunts, divers, and crowds, we took over Bear Creek Farm for three days, virtually shutting down their operations, to simulate a dressage horse show. We used five Monroe area farms for the horse footage; there was only one shot with horses on Orcas, because it was so expensive to get horse trailers onto the island and to put them up. We used four different farms on Orcas as well, and every farm owner let us shoot there for free, may they be forever blessed.
Our only Seattle location was The Wannabee Café. Without the generosity of all the owners of horses and farms and restaurants, this movie would not have been possible. The horse community of Washington, and the residents of Orcas Island, rallied behind the project and gave it their all.
I chose to shoot on film because, in 2006, there was no better medium in my opinion. We used a glorious Kodak stock that was discontinued right after we wrapped; luckily Tamia Diaz, our Second Unit DP, wise in the ways of filmmaking, bought 5 extra rolls to store in case of reshoots. The reshoots occurred 13 months after the original shoot, and there the rolls were in her basement, thank God.
All the characters are named for Celtic demigods and -goddesses. I am Celtic, and I know the Celtic temperament well. In my mind this family is a warring tribe of powerful Celts, trying to find peace in the face of their naturally passionate personalities. The last name of the family, McSpadden, comes from one of my husband’s many Scottish ancestors.
Three of the actors rode our equine star, Cobus, in the movie: Carol Roscoe, who played Dana, Kathryn Mesney, who played Gwen, and Jane Jones, who played Jane the Prosperous Woman. And Mark Dias had to handle the horse from the ground in the film. All three actresses had ridden before, but it had been awhile. We had a Natural Horsemanship class for the actors who would handle the horse, and riding lessons for Carol and Kathryn. They were all very game, and brave, considering that Cobus is nearly 17 hands tall. He is a Friesian, a breed known for its gentleness and tractibility, and he was completely wonderful throughout the shoot: he put up with hot days, with strange situations like swooping cranes and nighttime bareback gallops, and with the crew’s reaction to his rampant gorgeousness, which led us to make the rule that only his trainer and his actor riders/handlers could touch him. Otherwise he would have been continually mobbed by adoring cast and crew. He is a very special horse, talented and forgiving and willing. His excellent trainer, Lynne Salewski, worked very hard to prepare him for the shoot. When we cast him he was only four years old, and under Lynne’s instruction he prospered in the four months that she trained him before the shoot. There could not have been a better horse for the role.
I wrote the script for a year and a half, off and on, with many rewrites, but in the final three weeks before shooting I had story meetings with Stewart Stern, and brought John Jacobsen on to help with the final rewrite, and his contributions were very helpful. They were two of my five teachers at thefilmschool ( www.thefilmschool.com ) in Seattle. John also plays an extra in the scene in the Wannabee Café.
It has been an honor working with the wondrous producer Larry Estes throughout the development, filming, and post-production processes. Without him, there would be no movie. I still have to pinch myself when I count the blessings I have been given in Larry, in Ben Dobyns as an editor, and in so many other brilliant, hardworking Seattle filmmakers. I could not be more grateful for the wonderful tribe we have making independent film in Seattle.