'Free' director wins horse bet

Thursday, June 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A star was born during the filming of Running Free - literally.

Director Sergei Bodrov cast three pregnant mares for his movie about a colt that grows up to lead his fellow horses to freedom.

"Everyone thought I was crazy because we were in production and the horse wasn't even born," says Mr. Bodrov from Malibu, Calif., between takes of directing Russian Roulette.

"It was a challenge because he had to be born and he had to be good. We were waiting, waiting, waiting. We even had to move our production a couple of weeks because we couldn't find the right moment.

"But then when it came, it was beautiful."

And when the other two came, they all took turns playing the colt.

Running Free, an original story by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear) and Jeanne Rosenberg (The Black Stallion),proposes an answer to the mystery of why a herd of non-native wild horses lives in the Namibia Desert in southwest Africa.

Lucky (voiced by Lukas Haas) is born to a mare shipped from Germany to Africa in 1914 along with many other horses crowded into the bottom of the ship. When he arrives, he is too young to work. Richard, a kind stable boy (played by Chase Moore), takes him to his master's stable.

There we learn about human nature - its best and its worst - from a horse's point of view. When the bombs of World War I chase the people in the German colony away, Lucky shows the other horses how to survive by finding food and water in the desert.

Mr. Bodrov knew from the beginning that it would be a challenge to direct horses, as well as a dog, goat, cheetah, lions and baboons. But it was an offer he couldn't refuse. Eventually, his cast included 60 horses, and his crew included 10 animal trainers.

"I had no choice," he says in his heavy accent. "I read a lot of scripts and I couldn't find something interesting. When I read this, I thought if I will succeed, it will be something special. My ambition was to make a simple but classical movie. I believe this movie will work for the long run."

The theme of liberty got to him because he didn't get enough of it growing up in Siberia.

"It's an important issue for me in each movie," he says. "I always wanted to travel, to cross the ocean, but for a long time, I couldn't even mention it."

Born in 1948, he has worked under the former Soviet system and in Russia, writing more than 30 films before turning to directing in 1984. He has found there's more freedom in what he chooses to make, but less money available to make them - although getting financing has been less of a problem since Mr. Bodrov's direction of Prisoner of the Mountains, an adaptation of a story by Leo Tolstoy, won awards at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.

But Mr. Bodrov continues to pick projects for one basic reason: they move him.

In the case of Running Free, he also brushed aside warnings about how difficult it would be to direct horses. He loves the animals.

"I wanted to be a jockey growing up," he says. "But I grew too tall - 6 feet."

He used Method acting with the horses, meaning he tried to put them in situations that would evoke the reactions he wanted to capture on screen.

This was heartbreakingly effective in the scene where Lucky is supposed to be grieving over his dying mother. He had the gray mare's trainer tell her to lie down and then brought her colt to her.

"He was really emotional seeing his mom lying down and not getting up. And he made this sound, complaining 'Why is this happening, can you help me?' It was movie magic."

Other times he simply had his crew following the animals around looking for opportune moments that would portray the drama.

He found it especially tough creating the scene when the master's horse, Caesar, kicks and injures Lucky's mother.

"It was hard to do because we didn't want to hurt the horses. I was looking for natural moments."

He got his opportunity when the horse cast as Caesar tried to mate with the gray mare.

"He was after her, and she wasn't interested."

Mr. Bodrov caught their tussle on-screen - and that became the fight scene.

Some "natural" moments worked against him. At times, the horses he was working with got carried away in the grand expanse of the desert and ran away.

"They felt suddenly they're free, and then you spend five to six hours to find them," he says.

While Mr. Bodrov has a strong adult cast anchoring the film, when he cast the children, he didn't look for actors as much as he did children who would have a feeling for the animals.

"I looked for 100 boys to play Richard, and the first question I asked was, 'Do you like horses?' And I found this guy [Chase Moore] who was a horse lover."

As for the young Bushman girl who teaches Lucky how to survive in the desert by finding edible plants and eggs filled with water that Bushmen bury in the sand, Mr. Bodrov went for weeks to villages before finding Maria Geelbooi, a 12-year-old who makes her screen debut in the film.

"It was not easy to find her," says Mr. Bodrov. "But, in the end, I think she was amazing. She was exquisite and so shy in the beginning. When we were shooting near the ocean, it was the first time in her life she saw the ocean. I hired a plane and it was the first time in her life she was on a plane."

Mr. Bodrov has spent most of his life traveling between Russia and America. Recently, he bought 60 acres of land in Arizona and, after doing this film, he says he is sure he will have horses of his own there.

"I am a horse person," he says simply. "I grew up with them. I love them."