I recently had the chance to talk via Zoom with Clint Bentley, the director and co-writer of Jockey. The film is the story of an aging jockey coming to the end of his career. He discovers one of the new young jockeys claims to be his son. The film won an Audience Award at AFI Fest, and has been nominated for two Film Independent Spirit Awards.
I saw this at AFI Fest where you said your father was a jockey and you were raised in this world behind the barns. What was that like and how did it shape your view of the world?
You know, it didn’t feel weird at the time. We grew up in Florida, but we lived all over the place following my dad around the circuit to the point where my sister was born in Oklahoma City, just because that’s where we happened to be when she was born.
It’s such an interesting world, and such a lovely world. But I think in terms of shaping my worldview, it was seeing there’s a lot of people on the backside who all come from different places and all come from different backgrounds. A lot of them are wounded in different ways emotionally. But they create this family for each other and give each other what they need. And no matter how competitive they get in terms of winning, they all really want to take care of each other for the most part and I think that really shaped me going forward.
You spoke of some of those people and you have several non-actors in the film. What was it like getting them to share their lives?
The first time actors in the movie are such interesting people in their own rights that it didn’t take much to get them to be interesting on camera. It really was just a process of winning their trust and letting them know what the intent of the movie was, and then working in such a way that it didn’t feel like it was taking advantage of them in any way or manipulating them, just letting them be themselves on camera. Once I was able to do that and earn their trust, the rest flowed out. I have to say huge props to Clifton Collin Jr. for being able to guide a lot of them through those scenes. None of them had been in front of a camera before.
As they recite their injuries, that really gives you an idea of what it’s like to live that life.
Yeah. There’s a line in the movie that’s a direct quote from having hung out with a jockey. He was only like 24 at the time. I asked him “Have you ever been hurt bad?” And he just listed off his litany of injuries: “I’ve broken my ankle and I’ve broken both collarbones, my nose so many times. I’ve broken my arm. But no I’m lucky, I’ve never been hurt bad.” I was thinking “Holy shit!” That tells you enough about the world and the job right there.
Jackson Silva, the main character, is struggling with aging and a body beginning to deteriorate. That’s an issue we all face at some point. But that seem to be less an issue for riders than fear. Does that seem like a fair statement of what Jackson is going through?
That’s a good question and it’s a really astute reading of it. Because it’s something that jockeys… they talk about getting hurt and it’s just part of the job as like if you’re delivering mail, getting a flat tire on the way to work or on the route is just part of the job. For them that’s breaking a collarbone; it’s that mundane for them. It’s not a question that they talk about in terms of if but of when. But breaking a bone and getting back on a horse or getting knocked unconscious and getting back on a horse, those aren’t things that mess up their career. It’s really getting the Fear –capital F Fear. They know it inside. If they’re nervous up on a horse on their tiptoes running forty miles an hour down the track with ten other horses around them, they’re not going to do well in the race, and they’re also potentially going to get their friends hurt, or the horse hurt or themselves hurt. It really is the thing that it’s really hard to come back from that once you get it. It’s what every jockey… it’s their fear to get the Fear.
One of the things that I found very interesting in your film was the number of scenes that were at dawn or at sunset. Sunset seems especially appropriate of Jackson’s story. Can you comment about how you used that visual aspect in your storytelling.?
It really came from, first, limitations opening up opportunities. We had a small crew and just a very small light kit, so we were going to be using natural light to shoot the movie And then Adolpho Veloso, our brilliant cinematographer, really lit on this idea that the connection between the sunset and the sunrise season of Clifton’s character Jackson being at the sunset of his career, and Moises being at the sunrise of his career. We leaned into that. And something that I didn’t even notice at the time, until Adolpho pointed it out, was that the rhythms of the life of a jockey match that of what we put in the movie. They wake up before dawn and they get on horses to exercise them. They exercise them until it starts to get hot in the day, then they take a break. They go off and they work out, or they try to figure out how not to eat a meal. Then the races are over by the evening. It really follows that same rhythm that we portrayed in the movie. It’s also very beautiful at that time.
You have an interesting relationship with your filmmaking partner Greg Kwedar. What kind of dynamic does that bring to making a film like this when you both consider yourselves directors, producers, screenwriters?
Actually, it’s a real blessing to be able to work with Greg. We’ve been working together for about ten years. Yes, both of us are writer/director/producers. We switch off back and forth. We write together and one produces for the other to direct, then we switch back and forth. It’s really not only supporting your friend. I do go through that and being able to support who you know very well, and know them not as a artist, but as a person. But then also having that person over your shoulder when you’re shooting something who’s also a director. Directing is a very lonely job. To be able to look back at someone else and say “I think it’s good, but is it good?” And for them to be like, “No, it’s not good,” or “Yes,” is really and amazing thing to have. Also, we’re different as artists and as directors. That difference makes each of our projects better because you’ve got somebody working on it who has different sensibilities and different thoughts and brings different things to the project that you’d never think of.
What are the two of you working on for the future?
We’ve got a film of Greg’s that hopefully we’ll shoot in the new year that is more in the vein of our first film, Transpecos, kind of a thriller with something more on its mind. Then, I love the way Jockey feels. Just trying to make more movies that feel like that.