Movie magic

The amazing journey of U.S. dressage rider and Olympic hopeful Laura Graves

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Thank you for all for seeing me. Before I tell you about about this killer idea for a movie, I just want to say that upon further review, I realize my FoodMan concept, about a superhero who can eat whatever he wants without gaining weight, might be a little boring in the age of “Iron Man” and “Captain America.” I do think it would resonate with audiences, and Paul Giamatti would be PERFECT for it — but you made your feelings about it very clear, so I won’t bring it up again.

This movie is better anyway. The story revolves around a young woman who’s smart, ambitious, beautiful — think Jennifer Lawrence. Think Judy Greer. Also, there’s a horse. Think National Velvet meets Seabiscuit.

Also, it’s a true story.

* * *

OK, to get you in the right frame of mind, we start each scene with a quote from Xenophon of Athens. He was something of a historian back around 400 B.C. … and he’s basically where the whole idea of horsemanship begins. In fact, he wrote a treatise called “On Horsemanship.” It will all make sense when get to the end, I think.

* * *

“Our wish is to explain, for the benefit of our younger friends, what we conceive to be the most correct method of dealing with horses.”

— Xenophon of Athens

We start in the Vermont countryside. Lots of green rolling hills. It’s autumn, so you have the leaves changing colors. Orange! Red! Yellow! You have this big, beautiful James Horner score, sweeping music, and lots of Vermont. You can smell the leaves. You follow this dirt road until until we arrive upon a little farmhouse. Camera settles in on three girls, the youngest is a blonde girl about six years old. This is the young Laura Graves. She’s sitting on the stairs with her two sisters, and she’s listening to her father and mother talk with a family friend.

FATHER: “So, I’m not sure I get what you’re asking me here. Ponies?”

FRIEND: “Look, your washing machine is how old?”

FATHER: “Twelve years. Still as good as new.”

FRIEND: “Right. Twelve years old. You work at the hardware store, Ron. You can get a new washing machine for, what? Nothing. But the wife and I … I’m just saying, you give us the washing machine and we’ll trade you a couple of ponies.”

FATHER: “What are we gonna do with a couple of ponies?”

FRIEND: “Honey, wouldn’t you love a pony?”

(Camera pans to Laura, who has this hugely hopeful look on her face).

FATHER: “Oh, don’t bring her into this. I don’t know. We’re busy enough around here without ponies to worry about. We don’t have the money to be feeding ponies.”

(All the girls begin to beg, Laura the loudest).

LAURA: “Please, please, please. I’ll do anything.”

MOTHER: “Well, we have been talking about this for a while now. And we could use a new washing machine.”

FATHER: “All right.” (Looks at Laura). “I expect you and your sisters will not make me regret this.”

* * *

“As our first topic, we shall deal with the question, how a man may best avoid being cheated in the purchase of a horse.”

— Xenophon of Athens.

We follow as those two ponies on the farm predictably become four and then eight and then more. Laura is the one most in love with them. Her sisters like to ride, so does her mother, but it’s Laura who spends all of her hours around the horses. You can imagine how beautiful it all is, with those Vermont sugar maples and beeches and yellow birches. Beautiful. More James Horner music. We see Laura grow up with horses, see how she rides.

This is important: She rides gracefully. You know how in other movies, you have the heroine riding off wildly, full gallop, with the horse jumping and sprinting free. She hates jumping on her horse. Laura doesn’t ride like that. She rides the horses precisely, like an intricate dance. She rides with no hands, no reins, certainly no whip. She does not RIDE the horse so much as she tangos with it, each leading the other. This, in sporting terms, is called dressage. It is an ancient kind of riding, most often associated with royalty and gentlemen and the Ivy League and people of means.

But Laura has a natural knack for it. Her family can see it right away. She has a gift, a horse whisperer’s ability to know exactly how to coax a horse to do what she asks. When she is 14 years old, her parents decide to get her a proper horse, one that she can use in dressage competitions. Of course, they have no money and dressage horses can cost upwards of a million dollars.

But they find this one place overseas that is selling young dressage horses cheap. They get a VHS tape in the mail of the horses available for $10,000. Laura immediately finds one that she loves, a cute little horse with what seems like a sweet disposition. Laura’s mother, Freddie, notices a bigger horse running around. She says, “That one has a lot of spirit.” Laura says something to the effect of, “Yeah, too much spirit.”

Ron, the father, calls the horse farm and says they would like to buy the sweet horse Laura wants. Of course, it has already been sold. He puts his hand over the phone and said, “It’s gone.”

“What about the other one?” Freddie asks.

“What about the big one?” Ron asks. He listens for a minute and finally nods.

“OK,” he says, “We’ll take it.”

Next scene, the horse arrives. His name is Victor. Laura waits anxiously to see the cute horse, but as Victor comes off the plane, he’s not cute at all. He’s muddy and gross and he doesn’t want to go anywhere. It takes six people to calm him down enough to get him into the trailer that will take him back to the Graves farm. Laura looks horrified.

“Well,” Ron says. “You have yourself a horse.”

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“Many a horse will fall short at first, not from inability but from want of experience. With teaching, practice, and habit almost any horse will come to perform … only you must beware of a horse that is naturally of a nervous temperament.”

— Xenophon of Athens

Victor is a very nervous horse. Very, very nervous. It goes without saying that he doesn’t let want anybody to ride him; heck he doesn’t even want anybody to get near him. He’s scared of everything — garbage cans, birdhouses, flags, it doesn’t matter what. They send him to a trainer. He lasts two weeks there before the trainer is broken. Think Sam Elliott as the trainer.

Laura tries to get through to him. Natalie Portman could be good also if Jennifer Lawrence or Judy Greer are not available. Lots of fun scenes here of Laura getting on him, falling off, getting on him again, falling off again. She and the family decide that the horse cannot be called Victor anymore. Victor is a serious name. And there’s is nothing serious about this horse. He’s emotional, frightened, but sweet when he doesn’t feel threatened. He’s honest, that’s what they think. They name him Verdades, which is Portuguese for truth. He is Diddy for short.

Diddy doesn’t seem to be getting any less nervous, no matter how hard they train him. There are scenes where he literally would not even let Laura ride her; he would be so wild and uncontrollable that they would just put him right back in the stable. They couldn’t bathe him. He goes bonkers whenever he hears a camera click or velcro being pulled or, let’s be honest, anything else.

And then, when he’s four, he’s enormous but he will let Laura (and only Laura) ride him. She’s riding him, and he seems OK, but then he sees something that frightens him, no idea what it is. He bucks and throws Laura. She lands hard and breaks her back. At first, her mother doesn’t even come over because she has seen Laura thrown so many times already. Then she realizes this is something serious and she rushes over.

FREDDIE: “We have to get you to a hospital.”

LAURA: “No. First, someone has to get back on Diddy and ride him.”

(Several of the people on the farm look at each other as if to say, “Uh, not me.”)

LAURA: “If someone doesn’t get on him now, he will never let anyone ride him again.”

FREDDIE: “Laura, I think …”

LAURA: “Mom, I have a broken back here, OK. Just promise me.”

She’s taken to the hospital. By the time she gets back, she realizes that it’s over. She will never get Diddy to be the sort of horse that she can compete with in dressage, and of course she couldn’t afford any other horse. So she decides it’s time to give up. She gets jobs. She bartends. She works as a cosmetologist. She waitresses. She lives paycheck to paycheck.

* * *

“Temper of spirit in a horse takes the place of passion or anger in a man; and just as you may best escape exciting a man’s ill temper by avoiding harshness of speech and act, so you will best avoid enraging a spirited horse by not annoying him.”

— Xenophon of Athens

Laura can’t quite give up on Diddy, of course. She keeps trying to train him between jobs. For every seeming breakthrough, there’s an equally discouraging setback with him … but the breakthroughs do come. It turns out that when he’s not scared out of his mind, Diddy is an extraordinary horse with beautiful balance and dazzling grace. She slowly, very slowly, works him through all of the various things that frighten him like those garbage cans or, especially, television cameras with covers on them. Those television cameras, which are at every dressage competition, scare Diddy more than just about anything.

After an emotional conversation with her parents during which she comes to realize that she cannot give up on her horse riding dream yet — you know, Paul Giamatti could play the father — she moves down to Florida with Diddy to become some kind of student trainer. This could be an emotional scene.

RON: “Look, Laura, in this family we work. Right? How many times have we said it …

LAURA: “Work until there’s no work left to be done.”

RON: “And then …”

LAURA: “Work some more.”

RON: “Right. Well, how much do you want to be ride horses?”

LAURA: “More than anything.”

RON: “Then ride them. Just go ahead and do it. We don’t talk much about dreams because for the Graves family, there are no dreams. There are jobs. Go to Florida. Ride Diddy. Go to work.”

LAURA: “I love you Dad.”

Maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, but using poetic license and all, Laura goes down to Florida and it’s back-breaking work for almost no money. She’s moves on to start her own barn, and she spends all her time shoveling manure and brushing horses and hustling for every dollar. She’s living on ramen noodles and popcorn, saving every penny she makes to give Diddy new shoes.

And slowly you see more and more clearly that when Diddy is brave, he is, in fact, magical. She talks to him constantly, tries to instill in him courage. He sees a garbage can, and he’s scared, and she says to him, “That’s just a garbage can. You have to be kidding me. I cannot remember the last time I saw a garbage can eat a horse.” He suddenly calms as if he can hear and understand her.

Laura saves up everything and goes to a competition. And she absolutely bombs. But when the race ends, Debbie McDonald, a dressage coach, runs after her.

DEBBIE: “Laura, Laura, wait.”

LAURA (virtually in tears): “I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”

DEBBIE: “Laura, wait! We watched your competition. And we were really impressed. You and Diddy, you have a special bond. We see a lot of potential here. Just tell me when you have time for a lesson, and we will meet you there.”

And this is the turning point. Laura and Diddy begin working with Debbie and they start to get better and better. They enter some competitions and they do better and better. We have another montage here, more music, more beautiful scenes of the horse …

And then they go to the World Games in France.

* * *

“If you wish to pull up a spirited horse … you must not suddenly wrench him but quietly and gently … coaxing him rather than compelling him to calm down.”

— Xenophon of Athens

At the World Games, there is a pivotal moment. The horses are all moving when suddenly, out of nowhere, Diddy just stops. They whole crowd shouts “Oooh!” This, apparently, is some kind of dressage disaster. Diddy looks as if he will regress back into the crazy horse he had been.

Instead of panicking, Laura leans down and tells Diddy, “It’s OK. We’re here.”

And he responds to her, straightens up. The competition is amazing, lots of Horner music, beautiful dance between Laura and Diddy, the judges awestruck, kind of a moment like the end of “Babe.” She ends up finishing fifth in the world against the best riders on their million-dollar horses. It’s a fairy tale story like few others.

But, I should say one other thing. That’s not the ending. No, the ending hasn’t been written yet.

The ending, it seems, could happen in Rio at the Olympics.

Of course, we don’t know yet how the Olympics will turn out. We don’t even know if Laura Graves will make the Olympics. But it looks like a pretty good bet now. These days, coming off that strong showing at the World Games, Graves is getting a little bit of financial help so she has a real chance. Yes, of course, she still ends every month with her bank account zeroed out, and she still subsists for the most part on ramen noodles and popcorn. But with a little bit of assistance, she feels sure that she won’t run out of money for competition or for Diddy.

So in Rio, I feel sure, we will get a big finish, win or lose, medal or no medal, and the movie audiences will go mad, I tell you, and then we have this fade to black and the last quote from Xenonphon of Athens pops on the screen.

It reads like so:

“But the best advice of all is not to get an over-spirited horse for the purposes of war.”