‘Ride Like A Girl’.
Watching the 2015 Melbourne Cup, Rachel Griffiths didn’t initially know there was a female jockey in the race.
When the commentator first mentioned Michelle Payne’s name, her ears pricked up. When Payne then crossed the line – the first female jockey to ever win the Cup – the room full of women she was in erupted in cheers.
Griffiths continued to be captivated as Michelle’s brother and strapper Stevie Payne ran out to put the sash on horse Prince of Penzance, and the jockey told her naysayers to “get stuffed” in her first interview after dismounting.
She jumped on Google straight away to find out more about her, and within minutes she knew Michelle was the youngest of 10 children, eight of whom were jockeys. Her mother had died when she was six months old – “which officially makes her a Disney princess, because she has an unexpected dream and doesn’t have a mother” – leaving father Paddy to raise all 10 children on his own, including Stevie, who has Down Syndrome. Michelle had had a fall in the past and recovered from tremendous injury.
It was evident to Griffiths that Michelle must have had to overcome enormous challenges to be where she was. She immediately jumped on the phone to producer Richard Keddie (Oddball, Little Fish) and asked: “Did you just watch the Cup? We have to make this movie.”
For her debut feature as a director, the Oscar and Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning actress had long been searching for a girls’ coming-of-age film. She didn’t want a “worthy” film, but one that was exciting, engaging and would land with women. Michelle Payne – who had become famous overnight – had a story fit that framework.
“It was a unicorn of a story,” Griffiths tells IF.
Keddie saw straight away what Griffiths did. “I thought it was fascinating at first. Then the more I met the family and dug in, the more extraordinary I found the story… I’m totally driven by story on everything I’ve ever done, and it’s the best story I’ve ever seen,” he tells IF.
The producer believes the resulting film, Ride Like A Girl, has the making of an Aussie classic, in the vein of Phar Lap or The Man From Snowy River – it’s a film about an underdog succeeding against the odds, with themes of bravery, humility, family, love and joy.
“If you go through all those themes – which are fairly resonant in Australia’s classic films – this has all of them writ large. And it’s all true. You’d never make this story up. What Michelle and the family went through, and how Michelle won this race – no one would believe you.”
Both Griffiths and Keddie set out to make a PG, four-quadrant film for all Australians.
“I was always talking about the film having a slightly aspirational, rural lyricism. We could have made a much grittier film about a family of 10 without a mother, as we can all imagine,” Griffiths says.
“But I very much wanted this film to have that old-fashioned, matinee film feel.”
Distributor Transmission Films has seen the four-quadrant appeal; it’s pitching to a broad, female-skewed audience across urban and regional centres, with a parallel family campaign.
Due to go out on more than 250 screens this Thursday, it will be the biggest launch campaign for the distributor since Garth Davis’ Lion.
“The film appeals to all ages so it was important for us to make the film accessible and available to families and younger children during the September school holidays. The activities around the Melbourne Cup will act as a deep in-season booster for the film,” joint MDs Andrew Mackie and Richard Payten tell IF.
There has been a phenomenal response from exhibitors so far, Keddie says. “It’s in as good a place as it could be at this time out from the release. Honestly, I’ve never had a film that’s affected people so much.”
The first step to bringing Ride Like A Girl to life was making contact with Michelle. In Griffiths’ words, Keddie “bombarded her management.”
“We got nothing back, because everyone in the world was bombarding her,” she says.
Determined, Griffiths then heard through a friend that Michelle would be doing a photo line-up at Randwick Racecourse.
“I flew up and waited in line for 40 minutes as we snaked slowly towards Michelle on a photo wall. I put my arm around her and said ‘I’m Rachel Griffiths, I want to make your story, and I promise you I’m going to make a beautiful, family friendly film, that you can watch with your family and they won’t want to punch either of us in the face.’ She laughed, and I said, ‘Can I talk to you?’, and she said, ‘Yeah, sure’.”
However, it still wasn’t certain. “With Michelle it was slow. She was very wary. She didn’t seek newfound fame; she was just this incredibly passionate woman who did what she did, and was shocked at the fame and all of the rest of it. So it was a hard gig for her,” Keddie says.
However, just before Christmas, Griffiths and Keddie got a call from Michelle’s manager. Griffiths was certain it was a courtesy call; that he was going to politely turn them down.
“It was the opposite. He was to tell us that we’d been successful in what had been quite a wild bidding war of parties, local and international, and that he was entrusting us with her story,” says Griffith.
In 2016, the project received development funding via Screen Australia’s Gender Matters: Brilliant Stories; a program designed to boost female-led stories and the number of women in key creative roles across the Australian industry. It is the first film funded under that program to enter production.
Being funded via Gender Matters kept the filmmaking team “honest to the DNA of the project”, says Griffiths.
Producing the film with Griffiths and Keddie was Susie Montague (Pawno), while Elise McCredie penned the script with Andrew Knight. Griffiths was keen to lift women where she could throughout the production, particularly in the camera department. Women were heads of department across casting, editing, production design, costume design and hair and makeup. Director and producer attachments were also deliberately female.
Keddie was always adamant this film should be directed by a woman. However, he notes the fact that women led the overall project had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with ability. “It was such a pleasure to have this incredible team of women to work with.”
Griffith says the film works best in its balance, noting that Knight, for instance, understood the laconic voice of Michelle’s father Paddy Payne, and that DOP Martin McGrath – a long-time friend of Griffiths who shot Muriel’s Wedding – had grown up shooting racing. “It’s a girl’s story set in the context of a man’s world.”
Initially there was thought that Ride like a Girl would be a working title. “I always loved it. It was never sure whether or not we’d get a better one. We never did,” Griffiths says.
“It was just a really loud statement of reclamation that doing something as a girl is not second to doing it as a boy.”
When it came to casting, Griffiths had all her first picks in Teresa Palmer for Michelle Payne, Sam Neill for father Paddy Payne and Sullivan Stapleton for trainer Damien Weir. Other key actors include Genevieve Morris, Broke Satchwell, Sophia Forrest, Anneleise Apps, Katie Castles, Veronica Thomas, Zara Zoe, Aaron Glenane , Henry Nixon, and Magda Szubanski.
Griffiths had worked with Palmer on Hacksaw Ridge, and had observed her as an “incredibly physically emotionally committed actor” in Berlin Syndrome.
Overall, she saw a “gorgeous warmth in her” and felt she had been undervalued so far, too often cast “to make the guy more likeable or hotter”.
“She reminds me of Michelle in a way. She’s had a much more challenging background than people would necessarily know about her. She’s a very loving and very family-oriented person, she’s extremely open-hearted and has a phenomenal work ethic,” Griffiths says, noting the actress and Michelle got on like a house on fire.
“There was pressure to get some Hollywood superstar, because we were raising $5 million private equity in this film, which is a big ask in an Australian film… But I knew she had to be Australian and I knew she could do it.”
When it came to Stevie, Griffiths always intended to cast an actor with Down Syndrome, initially thinking of casting from Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre. However, Keddie suggested Stevie should play himself, something he was keen to do.
“I thought well, ‘Who are we to tell this man that he is not allowed to tell his story?’ We did a little audition, we were all crying, and that was that, really,” Griffiths says.
It is ambitious first feature for Griffiths – it’s high budget, it’s a sports film, there are animals and children. Griffiths admits it was challenging, but Keddie says they were always on the same page about the kind of film they wanted to make – a film that people be inspired by.
The finance for the production was raised from a variety of different stakeholders, including Screen Australia, Film Victoria, the Ministry for Racing and Regional Development, Ballarat City Council, private investment and sponsors Holden, Racing Victoria and Tabcorp.
When it came to the racing, Griffiths says they’d pitched the film to investors on the idea it would be a different sort of racing film, as it was from the jockey’s position rather than the horse or the trainer.
The racing unit ran parallel to the main unit, headed by director Jamie Doolan. Keddie trialed lots of cameras and styles when it came to the shoot approach, and worked closely with racing consultant and jockey Chris Symons. There was always a vet present on set for the horses. It was a risky shoot and there were a lot of broken cameras.
Keddie says: “It’s an unbelievably dangerous sport. I had no idea how dangerous it is. So it was really hard filming it and protecting everyone; we knew if someone or a horse got hurt that it would reflect terribly on us. We were super careful about it all. I put Chris in charge of everything; anything I wanted to do, anything we needed Chris to sign off on. He’s an incredible animal lover, and incredibly sensitive to the process.”
In many ways, Griffiths says she, Keddie and Montague wanted to deliver the “first great Australian sports film”, arguing Australia has yet to truly deliver one.
“I think it’s partly because we in Australia have an aversion to the real hero’s journey. We don’t mind the accidental hero… we will take the underdog. But usually, the underdog has not necessarily had a prize they’ve been after – the journey’s a bit thrust upon them, and that’s what makes them the underdog. But our film opens up with a five-year-old girl saying, ‘I just want to win the Melbourne Cup’, which is extraordinary, because it’s the real Michelle Payne saying that at five year’s old.”
However, while the film is about a jockey, Keddie argues it’s so much more than a racing film, just as Billy Elliott isn’t just a film about dancing.
Griffiths agrees: “Ultimately it is a father-daughter, brother-sister story. That human connection and goodness lies at the core of the film. My biggest job, despite having children, thoroughbreds and racing, and a 22 year timespan, was… not to get so overwhelmed by the logistics and the mechanics that you forget that we go to see movies to see people connect with one another.”
An original version of this story appeared in IF #190 August-September.