The Cup: the movie that will stop a nation?

Encore visited the Geelong set of Simon Wincer’s new project The Cup which, although shot on a tight schedule, he hopes will be ‘the movie that stops a nation’ when it’s released in 2011.

The Cup tells the story of Damien Oliver (played by Stephen Curry), winner of the 2002 Melbourne Cup with the horse Media Puzzle and the support of Irish trainer Dermot Weld (Brendan Gleeson). Oliver’s brother (Daniel MacPherson) was killed one week before the event in a horse racing accident in Perth – which also reflects the way their father died 27 years ago.

US journalist Eric O’Keefe heard of Oliver’s story and contacted Wincer, trying to get more information from his Australian friend to write a magazine article. Wincer looked into it and rang him back saying “This is a movie!”

Wincer is, of course, no stranger to horse-themed projects, from 1983’s Phar Lap to the 2008 CBS miniseries Comanche Moon. He’s even the one who famously freed ‘Willy’ the whale.

“There’s usually a strong emotional thread with animal stories, so of course I’ve been drawn to them quite a few times,” explained Wincer. “Some of these horses are important characters so we have to capture their personalities, which is sometimes difficult, but

The Cup  is really a story of human triumph over adversity.”

Although O’Keefe had never written a script and Wincer had always worked on his own, they decided to collaborate on the project and, after a couple of drafts, they got in touch with Oliver and his manager, who soon gave their approval. That was in 2003.

“I approached [producers] Jan Bladier and David Lee early on because I knew it was too big for my American partner Lance Hool and me. We got Myriad Pictures as international sales agents and met with Graham Burke and Joel Pearlman at Roadshow, and they committed a massive guarantee less than 24 hours later,” said Wincer.

It would take seven years to make it happen, with the team facing everything from the equine flu to the writers’ strike in the US. The $17.5m project was financed in 2008, but fell apart due to the global financial crisis. According to Wincer, even though the potential of the story was evident to investors, financing was still difficult.

“We had Roadshow supporting us with a millionaire guarantee, but the reality is, that was only part of the finance. Even Screen Australia reduced its contribution when the first lot of financing fell through,” he said.

The Cup lost its international star, Ray Winstone, and the budget was eventually reduced to under $15m. It was financed “with great difficulty”, according to Wincer, combining funds from Screen Australia, Village Roadshow, pre-sales from minor territories, private  investors and the Producer Offset – cash-flowed by Ingenious Media.


Encore visited the Geelong racecourse on day 16 of the 40-day shoot. The team was working on the lead up to the Geelong Cup; a scene where Curry mounts Media Puzzle and together they join the other competitors. It’s a surprisingly warm winter day, which can be  seen in the faces of the more than 250 well-dressed extras, and the strappers walking the horses around in a never-ending loop that continues even after the director yells ‘Cut!’

There are 26 horses at Geelong – about half of the fifty-something working on The Cup , which include four crossbred ‘safety’ horses and 46 full thoroughbreds. Ten percent are privately owned – including one of Wincer’s own animals – 30 percent have been leased from a horse dealer, and the production owns the rest. Once the film is completed, many of them will be auctioned: “Most of them have been ‘sacked’ from being racehorses because they’re too slow and their owners gave up, but there’s always huge interest for film  horses,” said horse coordinator Georgia Aikman. “The horses represent a considerable percentage of the budget”.

The first priority was to match the colour and body size of the 23 horses that competed in the 2002 Melbourne Cup, as well as some of the key horses in other competitions featured in the film such as the Irish St. Ledger and the Geelong Cup. Four different horses will play Media Puzzle: a quiet one for Stephen Curry, one that was trained to rear and do tricks, and two racing horses.

According to Australian Move Livestock’s Evanne Chesin, who has previously worked with Wincer, The Cup is a very simple film compared to Phar Lap, where they had to recreate another era. “Here you’ve only got to saddle the horses and keep them fit, so it’s not complicated. It’s just a matter of getting the horses,” she said. “Another problem is trying to make the horses look good; we’re filming a spring carnival in the middle of winter, which is when the horses get a long hairy coat. In spring they bloom and they look fantastic,  which is what we’re trying to recreate,” she added.

Compared to other directors, Chesin says Wincer is more sympathetic towards horses because of his personal interest in them. The biggest challenge, however, was the lack of time: “We haven’t had enough pre-production, but you do the best you can.

Wincer agreed: “It’s a very tough schedule, very ambitious. It’s such a big film, and we’re really doing it on a ridiculously tight budget,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of prep time because our financial plan was approved so late, and because Brendan Gleeson was only  available for a very short window. We had to jam him into the first 12 days of the shoot.” His work on television has helped Wincer find the discipline required to achieve the schedule, but not without sacrifices; he had to keep his coverage simple because they couldn’t  afford to run over schedule. He hopes this simplification of camera moves and set ups in some scenes will be compensated by the dramatic weight of the story itself.

The Holden logo is everywhere at the Geelong location, from the horses to the finishing posts. It’s not a case of product placement but quite the opposite: “That’s how it was in 2002 and we have to recreate it. I wish they were paying for it, but they’re not; we tried, but  these are tough times and it’s hard to get money that way. We’ve got Toohey’s New and Holden; lots of advertising, all unpaid.” One company that did support The Cup was Qantas, which provided a number of airfares and a 747 for a scene where the horses are being unloaded.


The Cup was originally planned to be shot on 35mm. Real footage of the 2006 and 2007 Cup – as well as Derby Day, the Irish St. Ledger, the Geelong Cup and even an AFL match at the Telstra Dome – was shot on film. The existing footage is essential to the story, and it  has to blend in seamlessly with the dramatised part of the film, but by the time DOP David Burr came on board, the decision had been made to shoot digitally, and it was Burr who chose to use the Sony F35.

“It’s a look that’s real, not picture perfect. There’s very simple VFX – such as adding rubbish to the grandstand after the Derby Day – but that’s it,” said Wincer. To shoot a close view of the races, Wincer and Burr tested the wearable GoPro sports cameras mounted on  the jockey’s helmets. Although the angles they were getting were “fantastic”, they found the image quality inadequate, so they chose to use the Olympus EP2 DSLR camera instead, and developed a little rig with a gimbal to keep the camera upright. “We’re going to  mount it on a tracking vehicle, belting around all these horses at 40 km/h, and that will allow us to get the camera in pretty close to get in and dirty with the horses and the jockeys,” he explained.

“The footage won’t be the same quality as the F35, but it will stand up fine used in quick cuts, no longer than 1.5 seconds, intermixed with our F35 material.” Between June and July, the film was shot in more than 40 locations, from an apartment in Docklands to the Myer window at Bourke St in the Melbourne CBD, to eight days in regional areas of Victoria such as Barwon Heads and Tylden. While the Mornington Peninsula doubled for Ireland, there was no doubling for the racecourses, with visits to Geelong, Sandown, Caulfield,  Pakenham, Yarra Valley and, of course, Flemington.

This is a special year for the Melbourne Cup, which will celebrate its 150th edition on November 3. It’s a big event that requires a lot of preparation, and access to Flemington Racecourse has been restricted, forcing the filmmakers to shoot their Cup sequence in  November, months after completing principal photography.

“The rest of the film will be finished and mixed by then, except for that last reel, the Melbourne Cup,” said Wincer.

The Cup will be released next Easter.

(UPDATE – The film will now be released in October 2011).


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