Liz Mermin’s horse tale

Director Liz Mermin knows her way around horses, as she used to ride them while growing up in New York. But when approached to make a documentary about them, she had reservations. Realscreen spoke with Mermin about her initial reticence to work on a horse doc and the elements that led her to create a film with equine athletes as the main characters.
January 28, 2010

When Simon Perry of the Irish Film Board, Nick Fraser of BBC/Storyville and James Mitchell of Little Bird (now West Park West) put their heads together what do you get? In this case, you get director Liz Mermin traveling around Ireland looking for a documentary premise revolving around horses. Realscreen spoke with Mermin (pictured) about her initial reticence to work on a horse doc and the elements that added up to lead her to create a film with equine athletes as the main characters.

Mermin’s latest doc, Horses, opens tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London to a sold-out theater. The film, with an unassuming but very accurate title, follows three race horses: Ardalan, the small and curious one; Cuan na Grai, the nervous and unpredictable one; and Joncol, the great hope of the stable.

Back in 2006, Mermin was completing her film Shot in Bombay for Fraser, who knew that she used to ride horses when she was growing up in New York. ‘It was sort of the dark secret passion of my childhood, but not something that’s anything to do with my filmmaking life, my urban life or anything else,’ says Mermin. Despite her initial reservations to tackle the subject, Mermin agreed and headed to Ireland under the vague orders to find a story about horses. ‘I started thinking, if I’m going to be making a film about horses I really want it to be about horses,’ she recalls. ‘Not about ‘horse people,’ not about the culture around horses, but a film where the audience really gets to know the horses and understands them in some way.’

The result is a film that treats horses like the athletes in films such as When We Were Kings or More Than a Game. There are moments in the film that are reminiscent of a boxer clearing his head before a fight, such as when the camera is in the stable with one of the horses during its quiet time just before a race. The trainers treat the horses like any human athlete, pampering and prepping them for the race, and the anxiety and tension before the big day is also the same.

Once she found the National Hunt stable and Paul Nolan, an enthusiastic and very open trainer, Mermin started seeking out horse characters much the same way she would human characters for a doc. She looked for horses that were busy preparing to race and that had different personalities so they would stand out from each other in the film. ‘It was an interesting process because, unlike when you go to shoot a documentary somewhere and you say to everyone, ‘Pretend we’re not here and go about your business,’ you can’t explain that to the horses,’ says Mermin.

At first all the horses at the stable were unsettled by the crew and its large equipment, but soon the ‘characters’ started revealing themselves. Ardalan stuck his nose in the lens right away, Cuan na Grai would jump every time he saw the camera and seemed fearful of the crew, and Joncol was cool and laid back around the cameras.

Mermin says that working with horses as subjects was easier than people to some degree, in that egos never became a problem. ‘With every film I’ve done, [the act of filming] caused some sort of tension among the people I’m filming, whether it’s that they’re sick of the camera in their faces or whether they’re accusing someone else of grandstanding and they get jealous about who you’re spending time with,’ she says. ‘[That] obviously wasn’t the case with the horses. There was never a moment where the horses told us to stop filming and go away.’ The same goes for the people who work with the stars of the film. ‘Everyone just went about their business in the way you always want people to and they never do. I’ve never worked in a place where they couldn’t care less if we were there or not, and that was sort of wonderful.’

Horses will air on BBC Storyville and RTE in March.

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