Euros Lyn talks directing heartwarming drama Dream Horse, capturing the spirit of the valleys and setting viewings of Gavin and Stacey as homework...
Some real-life events feel like they're just tailor-made for the big screen. There's no need for a scriptwriter to take creative flights of fancy or to invent a three-act structure, just to document what was already a heartwarming, underdog story. Dream Horse certainly fits into that category.
The film tells the story of Dream Alliance, a thoroughbred racehorse, who was bred by Janet Vokes, a barmaid in a small town in South Wales whose only experience in raising animals had been with breeding whippets and racing pigeons.
After being introduced to the idea of owning a racehorse in a chance meeting in the pub where she worked, Vokes began a journey that saw her begin to own Dream Alliance, a racehorse who she reared on an allotment in Cefn Fforest near the town of Blackwood.
Realising it would cost £15,000 a year to keep the horse in training, Vokes convinced 23 different people to join her in an ownership syndicate. These weren't wealthy investors, just friends and people she knew. In the end, each member of the syndicate originally contributed £10 per week to help develop the young horse and keep him in race training.
It was an investment that would see the horse go all the way to the very top...
Dream Horse, like just about every film that was originally on the calendar for 2020, British drama Dream Horse has had a bumpy road to release.
Filmed in 2019 with Toni Collette playing Vokes and an all-star cast that also includes Damian Lewis, Owen Teale, Joanna Page and Siân Phillips, Dream Horse was all set for a spring release in 2020. The film premiered to much acclaim at Sundance and was booked to hit cinemas in April of that year, until the pandemic firmly slammed the brakes on.
Now, over a year on, it's finally hitting cinemas and we spoke to director Euros Lyn about the film's journey, working with horses and how he got Toni Collete to master a Welsh accent with a bit of help from Gavin and Stacey...
The film is finally coming out after a series of postponements, you must be relieved it’s finally coming out. Has it been odd to put the film in a drawer having seen its premiere last year?
"The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and the buzz was really exciting. Then the pandemic struck and put the kybosh on our planned release. I’m so excited that the film is finally getting a theatrical release and its core message of the power of community, and triumph of hope over adversity feels more relevant than ever."
How did you first get involved in the film?
"Like almost everyone in Wales, I knew the story of Dream Alliance from 2009. His win at the Welsh Grand National made all the headlines and his story became the stuff of legend: The horse born on an allotment that grew up to beat the best in the world. Katherine Butler, the producer had been developing the project with writer Neil McKay and when she approached me to direct, I immediately jumped on board."
What attracted you to the project?
"This is a story set in the South Wales Valleys where I grew up, a place that’s had more than its fair share of hardship, and I was excited by the opportunity to portray my country on the big screen. I loved the character of Jan Vokes, the film’s heroine who won’t give in to hopelessness and who brings her village together and inspires them to have hope."
How was the casting process for the film? Did it take you a while to get the right cast together?
"From the first moment I read the script, Toni Collette was the actor I wanted to play Jan: A woman with a steely determination and warm heart. Very few Hollywood stars can play ordinary people convincingly and Toni has that rare talent. Damian Lewis often plays tough, morally bankrupt characters and people don’t know that he’s got a razor-sharp comic sensibility and enormous warmth."
"The trio was complete when Owen Teale came on board as soft-hearted strongman Brian. There’s so much acting talent in Wales and casting the ensemble of syndicate members was a joy."
How involved were the real-life people behind the characters? Did they have much involvement in the creative process?
"We spent a long time talking to the real Jan, Brian, Howard, Angela and other syndicate members, researching their backgrounds, getting to know them and really understanding their hopes and fears. Jan and Howard also loaned us many of their personal photographs and mementoes of Dream which can be seen in the film as dressing props. They also visited the set many times whilst we were shooting."
You’ve got a cast from all around the world, but a core of Welsh actors, was that important to you in the casting process?
"People from the valleys are distinctively warm-hearted. The actors who make up the Syndicate all come from the valleys and you can sense their warmth onscreen, including the incomparable Dame Sian Phillips, Karl Johnson, Steffan Rhodri and Joanna Page."
And how was it working with Damian and Toni on their Welsh accents? It’s an easy accent to caricature, but a difficult one to get right…
"Damian is of Welsh heritage and his familiarity with its sounds meant the accent came easily to him. Toni comes from Australia and had to work much harder to master the Welsh accent. Her homework included watching Gavin and Stacey, listening to Radio Wales and working with a fantastic dialect coach called Nia Lynn to get her accent note-perfect."
You shot in Wales, was that something you lobbied for or did it just work out as the best way to get things done?
"The true story of Jan raising Dream on an allotment really happened in Wales. How could I ever consider shooting the film anywhere else? Wales has become the place to shoot in the UK with many TV series and movies taking advantage of the talent of our crews, cast and incredible scenery."
How was it working with horses?
"We were fortunate to work with a company who provides horses for film and TV called The Devils Horsemen. They’d just shot a racing sequence for The Crown and we were able to capitalise on what they’d learned from that experience. We also worked with racing trainers Tim Vaughan and Robbie Llewellyn who trained 20 thoroughbreds and 10 hunters for our racing set pieces. We had seven Dreams in total. Two acting Dreams, three racing Dreams, a colt and a foal. We kept his distinctive white blaze and socks consistent with white horse make-up."
What was the hardest day on set?
"Every day had its challenges – from ducks drowning out the actors' words with their quacking, deerhounds who wouldn’t stay still, and horses who were more interested in their next feed than doing another take..."
You’re currently making Heartstopper, Alice Oseman's graphic novel series, how is that going?
"I’m halfway through shooting a TV series adaption of Alice Oseman’s graphic novel, Heartstopper. We’ve got an amazing cast of young actors and I can’t wait to share their wonderful work with the audience."