Scriptwriters Stavros Kazantzidis and Allanah Zitserman began developing Horseplay with the vision to create a tale about murder, lust, greed, revenge and turf.
They had been inspired for some time by 17th century Jacobean theatre, particularly tragedies such as The white devil by John Webster and The changeling by Middleton and Rowley, where characters inhabit worlds that are evil, and where ‘everyone has a plan’ which collides with each other’s. "We thought the best world to put this type of dark, twisted, sometimes farcical, tale would be in the horse racing world. As Melbourne is the centre of that and the Melbourne Cup is the ultimate horse racing event, we decided to set it on Melbourne Cup Day!’" says Kazantzidis. Horse racing proved to be fertile ground in which to dream up an ensemble of characters driven by greed, lust, and revenge. Comments Zitserman, "Horse racing has such a colourful spectrum of people – the jockeys, the trainers, the gamblers, the women…!"
The writers immersed themselves in the history of horse racing in Australia. That the world’s first moving footage of Australia was Melbourne Cup (1896), by the famous Lumière Brothers, made their decision of the film’s setting all the more auspicious. As they discovered, horse racing played an important part in Australia’s social fabric for a number of reasons but principally because race day was where everyone could go no matter who they were. As Zitserman says, "It was the common theatre back in the 1800s".
The past inspired the writers in other ways and it was old Ealing comedies such as The lady-killers (Alexander MacKendrick, 1955) and Kind hearts and coronets (Robert Hamer,1949) that struck a chord when developing the tone of the script. As Kazantzidis says of Horseplay, "Its tone hovers between naturalism and absurdity".
A first draft was delivered to executive producer Martin Fabinyi of Mushroom Pictures who had met the pair six months earlier at an industry party and suggested they write a movie for him. "They had dropped their initial idea and gone with a whole new concept which turned out to be Horseplay." He was taken with both the parochial and universal themes and aspirations of the story. "The protagonist trying to turn his luck around strikes a chord with everyone and racing is popular everywhere," comments Fabinyi. Mushroom Pictures then decided to finance further development of the script in order to fast track the project.
Once all the elements of private financing were in place – with Macquarie Film Corporation, pay television operator Showtime and local distribution from Buena Vista – the project was put to the board of the Australian Film Finance Corporation just as Kazantzidis and Zitserman’s Russian doll was released in cinemas. As Zitserman acknowledges, the timing was perfect and the project was subsequently accepted for production funding.
Horseplay has 19 speaking roles and although each character has their own journey, the one linking character was that of Max. A reckless schemer who dreams of training a Melbourne Cup winner, he may have the personality of a straight man but concocts plans so bent they trigger a chain reaction of mayhem that gathers speed collecting all in its path. Cast in the role of Max was Marcus Graham, who had recently returned from working in Los Angeles and had actually starred in The white devil for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2000.
Graham was attracted to the black comedy of the piece and its setting in the racing industry which, once he started doing some research into its history in Australia, really came to life. "It’s full of amazing characters. There was one jockey who was always drunk. He won three Melbourne Cups. He’d turn up at six in the morning and fall down drunk, then get on a horse and win!"
Tushka Bergen, who plays Max’s furiously ambitious wife Alicia, sent in her audition by tape from Los Angeles where she is based. She leapt at the rare chance to do comedy and to play a character like no other she has done before. As Bergen observes, "Alicia is, to put it mildly, a piece of work. She’s a complete money-grubbing, wealthy woman. And no, I did not base her on anyone except the nasty side of myself!"
Also sending his audition in by tape was Jason Donovan who returned from London to play the part of Henry, a self-obsessed businessman and so-called best friend of Max. A veteran of the entertainment industry, Donovan’s longevity is, in large part, a credit to his versatility as a performer. His role in Horseplay continues that trend, revealing him as an actor with great comic instincts. For Donovan it was important for him to keep his performance real. "I think you can overplay a character like mine. I do believe in observing people and digging to try and find a method to how you deliver your dialogue." Donovan’s involvement in the film has a sweet symmetry to it as it brings him full circle with the Mushroom Group who first signed him as a recording artist, along with Kylie Minogue, back in their Neighbours days in the 80s. The ‘family’ connection went further, literally, when his father Terence Donovan was cast as neighbour, Mr Portman. Although the characters do not meet in the film they spookily share a similar personality trait of extreme sleaziness.
An icon of the Australian film industry, Bill Hunter, brought his considerable talents to the role of Alicia’s protective and rather violent father, Barry. Hunter’s familiarity with the horse racing industry sparked his interest in the script. "I think it’s an extreme case in that we’re talking murder, corruption, a horse not running to its merits but things of that ilk do happen and it’s about time it was put on the screen," remarks the actor.
The ensemble was filled out with respected theatre actress and AFI-award winner Amanda Douge as the seemingly naïve Grace, hapless wife of Henry and best friend to ‘princess’ Alicia; dynamic young musical theatre and pop singer Natalie Mendoza as the explosive ex-girlfriend of Max; and talented newcomer Abbie Cornish as Becky, a disgruntled teenager with extreme determination.
Playing a couple of thugs is two of Australia’s most highly regarded stage actors – Robert Menzies and Jacek Koman. They team up with one of Australia’s most glamorous blondes, Krista Vendy, who appears in a cameo role as Tiffany, a dame in distress.
In casting all these roles Kazantzidis says "I felt with Horseplay that we’re entering into a fairly ordinary world and our people are not superheroes or detectives, just ordinary folk trying to deal with life. I didn’t want to cast people that were baddies or nasties. I wanted to cast everyday folk that people could relate to."
Production designer, Paddy Reardon, began talks with Kazantzidis a year out from pre-production and recalls the director’s wish for a realistic look; one that was neither consciously under nor over-designed. "Stavros didn’t want the comedic aspects to get out of hand with help from the production design," says Reardon.
With a look firmly anchored in reality and with the decision to expose the negative normally without a filter, a stylistic edge was introduced via the use of colour. Using the racing silks of owners and jockeys as a starting point, Reardon set about refining and reducing the palette. Purple was chosen as the key colour – its association with royalty and power suited the characters of Barry the kingpin horse trainer and his pampered daughter Alicia. The spin-offs from purple were metallic blues (for action vehicles) and oranges and golds (for Max). In line with the wish to keep a reality to the appearance of the film, it was shot virtually all on location. Paddy Reardon along with Location Manager Steve Brett were thrilled to secure a number of, as yet undiscovered, glitzy homes in which to film.
The costume design for Horseplay played a large part in creating the look of a film populated with characters with lots of money and (mostly) driven by their social status. Kazantzidis and Zitserman worked closely with costume designer Edie Kurzer on selecting the gear for their characters. Says Zitserman, who confesses a fetish for clothes herself, "as the film is set mainly on Melbourne Cup Day, the clothes need to very expensive looking because on this day women go absolutely bonkers and everything’s thought of down to jewellery, bows and hats. It’s a very glamourous occasion."
The film attracted the interest of the Versace Classic label who came on board as a sponsor, exclusively dressing the characters played by Jason Donovan and Suzy Cato (Mrs Portman). The female characters in particular offered a lot of scope for individual styling. In the case of Alicia played by Tushka Bergen, it is a very structured pointy look. Says Bergen, who was dressed in classy Carla Zampatti outfits, "I wear lots of suits with shoulder pads in bright colours, including a red military-looking one in which I horse-whip Marcus wearing big high-heeled black boots!"
By contrast Grace, her best friend played by Amanda Douge, is more of a free spirit. Says the actor, "Grace gets it slightly wrong. She’s one of those people who are unaware of where they miss so are free enough to wear what feels good." One of Douge’s favourite outfits was a floral hot pink cat-suit, which excitingly came with a matching dress. Max’s volatile girlfriend Jade, played by Natalie Mendoza is into an eclectic retro look. Says Mendoza, "If Max hadn’t ruined her life completely she would be a cool kind of hip chick." As the terrible schoolgirl trio (aka the three witches), Cindy, Cassandra and Kimberley dress to show off their tanned bodies with the trendiest labels around. It’s a very adult, sexy look which can be summarised as "the shorter the better".
The shoot was scheduled to coincide with the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival and in particular the running of the Melbourne Cup, which traditionally takes place on the first Tuesday in November. So on November 4, the day before the shoot proper began, producer Allanah Zitserman arranged for the cast to attend the Cup as guests of its principal sponsor Toohey’s. It turned out to be the perfect bonding session for the cast before the rigours of filming began. Holed up in the splendour of the sponsor’s marquee, the cast absorbed the experience. For many it was their first time at a race meet. Thanks to some tips received whilst researching his role, Marcus Graham came away $200 ahead whilst Tushka Bergen and her mother used a most unscientific method of placing their bets and still were $80 the better at the end of the day. Coming from a family whose father was a bookie, Amanda Douge was one of the more knowledgeable participants but nevertheless was struck by the sheer numbers who attended and the hierarchical structure that is firmly entrenched at the course. "There’s the boxes up the top where clearly the people who own the track are (the kings), then there’s the tents for the dukes, and finally down below people just going along for a good time. It rained on the day so the only people who were comfortable were those in the boxes and the tents!"
Access to shoot the Melbourne Cup was a key concern to Zitserman in the pre-production period. "It is their biggest day in the whole year and to have several more cameras and strangers in their way, it was not exactly the easiest thing to ask them," recalls the producer. However with Toohey’s on board, their relationship with the Victorian Racing Club was instrumental in swinging the decision to allow access. The VRC recognised the film may be helpful in their quest to open up racing to a younger crowd and encourage people to view going to the track as a regular social event, and not just a once a year activity.
The Melbourne based shoot commenced on 5 November 2001 and wrapped seven weeks later on 21 December.
Director of photography on the film was veteran David Eggby, for whom working on Horseplay was not only a chance to work in his home town for the first time since he did the original Mad Max in 1979, but also an interesting contrast to the big-look action pictures that are his speciality these days. "Working on a tight budget is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many ways can enhance the outcome. It was great to work with such a strong cast and on a comedy," says Eggby. He shot on Panavision equipment using Kodak stock, mainly 250-D with some 100-T.
Cinematically, the horse race of the Melbourne Cup is the set piece of the film and for editor Andrew Macneil there is much in the history of filmed racing to live up to. Taking the classic Ben Hur as a standard bearer, Macneil spent hours pre-shoot studying this and other celluloid masterpieces. In Horseplay Macneil created the race with three elements – documentary footage shot on Cup day, footage shot later in a re-staged race and coverage of all the characters watching the race on television. The task was daunting and as Macneil reflects, "Any time I felt overwhelmed I would think of the editor of Ben Hur who had to do it all in black and white (though the film was shot in colour they cut it in black and white) so couldn’t distinguish the colours of the different teams, and didn’t have the technology we have today." The editing schedule on Horseplay was nine weeks. (On Ben Hur they spent four months just on the race.)
Like the film, the film score straddles the genres of high drama, suspense and comedy. Multi-award winning composer Nigel Westlake is planning to collaborate with several of Australia’s finest instrumentalists including virtuosic tabla player Bobby Singh, guitarist extraordinaire Slava Grigoryan and percussionist Graeme Leak and orchestral players from the Australia Ensemble and the Sydney Symphony orchestra. These elements will combine in a hybrid film score that draws on a wide range of musical approaches combining the best of instrumental playing with sampled and synthesised sounds.
For the collaborative team of Kazantzidis and Zitserman, they are hoping Horseplay will appeal to a broad audience who enjoy a ripping yarn. Martin Fabinyi has great hopes for the film both locally and internationally where he believes the horse racing motif will strike a common chord. "It’s funny, sexy and action-packed. What more could you want?"