WHEN FILMMAKING BROTHERS John and Brad Hennegan were following six horse racing teams to the Kentucky Derby for their documentary, little did they know that one of the horses would soon become an international household name.
While Barbaro’s traumatic racing injury and the subsequent global outpouring of sympathy is not the only subject of The First Saturday in May — indeed, it’s mostly dealt with in a short epilogue — the presence of the star-crossed thoroughbred does lend even more immediacy to this already fast-paced, seemingly real-time look at the leadup to the race and the event itself, long known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”
The Hennegan family’s ties to the horse racing community run long and deep, and the brothers were able to use those connections to get unprecedented access, not only to the six teams represented but onto the hallowed track at Churchill Downs itself. The result is a fast, fun look at the sport they love and the people who make it possible, both within the stables and in the infield.
John Hennegan spoke to us from his home in Brooklyn last week.
How did you decide what shape the narrative would take?
John Hennegan: Everybody knows the Derby. We wanted to show how the horses actually get there. So we followed six trainers and their horses to the 2006 Derby. There are all these prep races that lead up to it. You can see who are the decent horses in those races, but you don’t know who’s going to shine and who’s not.
You followed Barbaro but obviously had no idea at the time what was in store.
John Hennegan: We just looked at all the stories — we wanted to know who had the best stories. Barbaro had won a couple of races, but people were still mispronouncing his name. He was a good horse, but certainly not a legend. Frankly we wanted to keep it very simple. Horse racing is a very technical sport, but on a basic level it’s very easy to grasp. So I guess for lack of a better word we dumbed it down a little bit, because we didn’t want anyone to be intimidated by it.
Your film does have an immediate, journalistic quality, more like really good television.
John Hennegan: It’s all totally in the moment. There’s not a bunch of talking heads reflecting on something that happened 20 years ago. We didn’t get Morgan Freeman to come in and do a voiceover and tell you what’s happening.
We take pride in the fact that there’s no voiceover in our film. Our story is telling the whole thing. I’ve always thought that a voiceover is a weak storytelling device. I mean, I loved it in Goodfellas (laughs). But other than that I don’t really care for it.
There are some key points to explain, but for the most part it’s just that we’re there with cameras showing you everything that’s going on. We literally stepped in shit making this thing (laughs). But we worked hard to step in it.
This is almost a reaction against the now-standard Ken Burns pan-the-stills thing.
John Hennegan: If you take a pie chart, 85 percent of documentaries are socially conscious. So already we’re in the minority of a minority field. We wanted to make a documentary about something nice that we like. Something that we would want to see. There’s a lot of fun and laughter.
Probably we could be accused of falling into that old template, you know, where you follow six people to the big game. But we knew all along that the racetrack is its own star. People there are the biggest characters on the planet, and Derby Day is the day where they all come out.
Horse racing in general is kind of like that on a small level 365 days a year. You can walk into the Aqueduct Racetrack in New York today, and after walking about ten yards you’ll already have some crazy stories from all the characters that hang out there.
People can’t get a sense of how fast these horses are until they see them at the track. Your film really captures that sense of speed.
John Hennegan: We specifically shot it that way because we wanted to make horse racing cool again. We think it’s the coolest sport you’re not paying attention to.
You even got cameras inside the gate for the start. How did you convince them to let you get your cameras that close to those multi-million-dollar horses?
John Hennegan: Our father was an offical for the New York Racing Association for 40 years. My brother and I grew up around the track. So coming from the racetrack we had a little bit of an inside line. The Derby folks knew we know our way around horses and that our end goal was to help make the game popular again.
The Derby is a party, and that’s what they want people to see. For 90 percent of people it’s just about the experience. A guy says in the movie that the Derby is one of the few things that stays constant in a constantly changing world. There’s a 21-year-old guy asking, “Where else in the world would you rather be on this day?” For me that just sums it all up. And that’s why we decided to call it The First Saturday in May.
What kind of crew did you use?
John Hennegan: Me and my brother shot everything ourselves, just the two of us. On Derby Day we did give cameras to some people with horses in the race to shoot home video style, but basically it was my brother and I shooting over 500 hours of footage.
When people ask why we did it that way, I answer, “Ignorance is bliss.” (laughs). We were both so driven to do this. We quit our jobs because we didn’t want to work for other people anymore.
The movie’s been doing really great in terms of reviews. In May, we were runner-up for the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, out of 180 films. That and two bucks gets us on the subway (laughs).
What would you guys like to do next?
John Hennegan: We’d like to get paid (laughs)! We haven’t really been paid in a couple of years. But we’re getting to that point where people will listen to us. We’ve made a calling card.
I’m sure having Barbaro in your film hasn’t hurt you publicity-wise.
John Hennegan: Yeah, we kind of had to follow through after people wanted us to make it all about Barbaro. It was never our intention to make a film about one horse.
Most people are telling us we made the right decision. They’re sort of applauding us for not making the film all syrupy just to capitalize on the fame of this horse. This is a movie about people, the people that devote their lives to these horses.
I do, however, think we caught possibly the greatest Kentucky Derby in our lifetime. You have to remember Barbaro wasn’t even the favorite, he was more like one of three co-favorites going in.
It seems like The First Saturday in May could get wide play on HBO, which takes quality sports programming seriously.
John Hennegan: HBO actually called us. They already did a Barbaro documentary. The thing is, my brother and I have footage nobody’s seen before. We have all this footage that’s just gold. So we sat on it.
What we’re really trying to do now is play at all the theatres we can, all the festivals we can, and then release it ourselves at the end of April to a couple of key theatres. The thing right now is to get some buzz.
You know, we really are indie filmmakers. We’re not some offshoot of Miramax. You’re talking to half the operation right now (laughs).
The First Saturday in May screens at 11:30 a.m. Mon. Oct. 29 at the Trustees Theatre and 9:30 a.m. Thurs. Nov. 1 at the Lucas Theatre.