- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Writer and director Gary Ross could have predicted a few lines of questioning when he met the press to promote “Seabiscuit.”

Is the film historically accurate?

Can a horse-racing film win over the general public?

However, Mr. Ross couldn’t have anticipated questions about too much plot or character development.

“So many reporters have asked me, ‘Are you a little nervous [about] this much character development before the horse comes in?’” Mr. Ross recounts during a visit to the District last week.

“Nobody would have asked this 30 years ago,” the genial filmmaker says with a wistful look.

It’s hard to imagine the “Rocky”-like true story of a horse named Seabiscuit not being a sure thing at the box office, but in a summer glutted with noisy, aimless sequels, the poky pace of “Seabiscuit” comes across as almost alien — and refreshing to those not addicted to MTV-esque editing and camerawork.

The film’s writer-director brings up David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” strictly for analogical purposes, he assures.

“Does anybody mind that the first half-hour of the movie is before [Lawrence] ever thinks about conquering Aqaba by land?” he asks. “Now, in a quick-cut culture, that’s considered so different.

“I don’t think we give audiences enough credit for wanting real characters in a real story who go through a real journey,” he continues. “In Hollywood, we’re a little too cynical. … We assume they don’t have the attention span, [that] they won’t embrace a narrative.”

He points to a certain boy wizard as proof.

“There are nations of children who read ‘Harry Potter’ novels,” he says, pointing out that the series is complex for young readers.

“They’re choosing that over the thrill ride,” he says.

Besides, he suspects today’s audiences may be stuffed after a steady diet of bang-bang blockbusters.

“People are becoming sated by summer fare and the sameness of it,” he says. “It’s like going to the amusement park. How many times can you go on the roller coaster?”

This all could be wishful thinking on Mr. Ross’ part, given the strong figures “Bad Boys II” earned last weekend, but “Seabiscuit” is not without thrills of its own.

The undersized Seabiscuit became an archetypal American story — an underdog horse and ragtag support team that gave hope to a nation crippled by the Great Depression.

Starring Tobey Maguire, Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper and Jeff Bridges, the film takes great care to re-create many of its historic races, especially a match race between Seabiscuit and the heavily favored former Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Mr. Ross doesn’t mind defending the ancient art of storytelling. His film resume may look thin compared to those of his peers, but he wrote 1998’s “Pleasantville,” 1993’s “Dave” and 1988’s “Big” — all films that invested time in their lead characters.

The true saga of “Seabiscuit” has plenty of larger-than-life characters on which to draw.

The film is based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand and tells of a horse nobody wanted, ridden by a too-tall jockey and financed by a struggling entrepreneur whose son died in a freak accident.

“It was about these guys reaching out to each other,” Mr. Ross says. “The characters were flawed, beat up and broken, but they helped each other through that,” he says, adding that that kind of mutual aid also was a characteristic of the Depression years in which the story is set.

The film’s treatment of jockey Red Pollard’s early years is patchy despite Tobey Maguire’s solid work, and for all Mr. Ross’ misty visuals, the story lurches somewhat erratically during the first half. However, once the three main characters assemble, the film’s promised magic starts to sparkle.

Mr. Ross wrote Red Pollard with Mr. Maguire in mind.

“OK, so he’s five-foot-eight, so that helps,” Mr. Ross says of the casting. More important, the character echoes much of the young actor’s true grit.

“Tobey’s a tough kid. You wouldn’t know it from the roles he’s played. He’s been on his own since the seventh grade, [hes] self-taught and very educated,” says Mr. Ross, who speaks of Mr. Maguire in rehearsed but genuine tones.

The director found the “Spider-Man” star to have grown artistically since the two worked together on “Pleasantville.”

“He’s more in control of what he’s doing; he’s more mature as an actor,” Mr. Ross says. “He’s able to relax and execute a choice without it becoming an angst-ridden experience.”

Mr. Maguire created quite a bit of angst for Columbia Pictures when he asked for shooting of the “Spider-Man” sequel to be pushed back to accommodate both the “Seabiscuit” schedule and the flare-up of an old back injury.

The studio took his suggestion one step further, according to Entertainment Weekly. It recast Jake Gyllenhaal as the web-slinger.

When the dust settled, Mr. Maguire was back in the red-and-blue jumpsuit, but his reputation took a hit.

Mr. Ross says he “went on the record with anybody I could find” to defend Mr. Maguire.

The media spotlight may be trained on Mr. Maguire’s work in “Seabiscuit,” but veteran actor Jeff Bridges gives the kind of full-bodied yet modulated performance that could yield a nomination as best supporting actor.

“Jeff Bridges has such a wide range to play, there’s such a long arc,” the director says. “His character loses his son, and Tobey’s a guy who lost his father … the symmetry of that situation is going to drive the narrative to a certain extent.”

Mr. Ross says that having directed both “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” he considers himself more director than mere writer.

What he can’t promise is that his working pace will accelerate anytime soon. His films typically have at least three years between them.

“I keep saying I’ll work faster,” he says. “I want to, but I never do. This may just be my rhythm.”

Once a film is wrapped, “there’s a recharging period. I let life in. [Otherwise] you’re just going to be making movies about movies at a certain point. You become self-referential.

“I have to live life again to know what I wanna make movies about. … I have to listen to the world, and it’s a very bizarre life being a filmmaker.”

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