Production Assistant Tim Farley’s Flashbacks on Filming.
“I met director Carroll Ballard when he and my dad were looking for an Arabian stallion to play The Black,” says Tim Farley, who was still in college, finishing a photography degree at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California when his father Walter Farley’s beloved novel, The Black Stallion, began its transformation to the big screen.
“I went to talk to Carroll and to Fred Roos, the producer, to see if I could get a job. Of course, they said I could have a job. They didn’t say they would pay me, at first. I was a 21-year-old kid who knew nothing about making movies,” says Farley laughing.
He would end up skipping graduation ceremonies to start on the film, which began production in Toronto in 1977.
“My first job was working in the office,” Farley recalls. “The film was in preproduction at that point. One of my assignments was to make copies of all the script changes for the crew. However, I also ran off an extra set of copies to send to my dad. So, he would send them back with all these comments on them, of course, and they were like, ‘Where is he getting all this information?’ I was his mole! They weren’t real happy about that, to tell you the absolute truth.”
Still, it brought benefits. “Actually, my dad came up with the sequence in the jockey’s room before The Black races. It became a humorous scene in the movie, because they kept adding weight to this little kid. The way the script was originally written had Alec sneaking weight into his pockets, or putting on a weight belt, or something. My dad said, ‘Nobody would do that. The officials add all the handicap weight jockeys must carry. They would never sneak weight.’ He came up with some helpful ideas.”
Farley smiles when he thinks back on it. “It was fascinating driving to the set daily with Mickey Rooney in Toronto, the location for our 1940s New York scenes. Mickey had been in a long career slump, but The Black Stallion brought him an Oscar nomination and he returned to the stage.”
When the production went overseas, Farley went too.
“From set of the Black Stallion when I was 22. Don’t know the photographer, it was sent to my Dad [Walter Farley] and on his office wall,” says Farley.
“The most memorable days for me were on the island. It took us months to get some of those shots,” he says. “My screen credit was ‘production assistant,’ but with only about 30 of us on crew [there], I did a little bit of everything. It was shot almost like a documentary, with a small crew on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.
A small crew and not many — make that no — creature comforts: “It was exciting, even though we had to take cold showers!” Farley says. “Working on those beach sequences, there were no hotels. We stayed in an empty school with cold-water showers. Every once in a while you’d see a tourist come through for an hour or two, but we were pretty far out.”
The remote location brought unique challenges. “We had to do a lot of tracking shots, like The Black running down the sand bar, especially when Alec’s learning to ride and keeps falling off. We had to kind of wing it. We couldn’t say, ‘Oh, we need some dolly track here for 500 yards and we have to go 30 miles an hour. So, how are you going to do that?”
The answer was improvise: “They came up with a Citroën 2CV. It’s like a French version of a Volkswagen Beetle. We took the doors off and the seats out. We used that as our [camera] dolly to race down the beach. The horse was going pretty fast.”
Rarely without his own camera, Farley often photographed the star horse, Cass-Olé. “He and Kelly had a good relationship because they spent so much time together before the movie started. But Cass-Olé was kind of like the character of The Black. He was very independent, knew he was gorgeous, and that everybody loved him. He’d take control if you’d let him. On the other hand, Cass was gentle with Kelly. Corky Randall trained Cass for months to be able to work him at liberty and have him listen to voice commands.
” Dad [Walter Farley] editing my pix after getting back. [from filming],” says Farley
“I was one of the lucky people there watching a young Kelly Reno portray Alec Ramsay together with Cass-Olé as The Black. Those scenes on the beach with the magic of the boy and the horse getting to be friends on the island really did happen,” Farley says. “Also, at the end of the movie, where you see that big double rainbow and the horse rolls on the ground and Kelly rolls on the ground — it was totally impromptu. It’s during the credit roll at the very end of the film.”
When filming finished, coming home took some adjustment. “It was almost like in the movie — when Alec arrives back in America — that first sequence when he’s in a real bathroom with running water. That’s kind of what happened to us too,” Farley remembers.
Forty years later, the memories from those months working on the film are still vivid and exciting. “Learning something new every day … you never knew who might show up — Harrison Ford, Matt Dillon, Francis [Ford Coppola], even Scorsese. I met Fellini at Cinecittà [Studios, where the shipwreck scene was filmed in Rome].”
But the best part, Farley says, was “just being part of this small family that included the wonderful horses and horsemen, from cowboys to Hollywood.”
(Lead image) Tim Farley trying his hand at liberty work rearing the Black Stallion that starred in the long-running (now closed) Arabian Nights Dinner Attraction in Orlando. Walter Farley was close friends with the family and gave permission for the black stallion namesake to only be used there. Curious tidbit. Glenn Randall Sr. (Corky’s father) did the original horse training at Arabian Nights.
Stunt coordinator Glenn Randall Jr. wore many hats during the making of the movie classic.
Shortly after Glenn Randall Jr. came onboard as stunt coordinator on The Black Stallion he was headed to a horse show in Texas. “They told me they’d committed to this black Arab. They wanted me to go see him. I said, ‘fine,’” recalls Randall, whose father, Glenn Randall Sr., trained Roy Rogers’ Trigger. “Myself, the producer, and I think the assistant director flew to Texas to see this horse.” A black Arabian stallion named Cass-Olé was being shown by Francesca Cuello when Randall met the girl’s father, Dr. Leo Cuello, at the competition.
“We were sitting in the upper bleachers in the arena. They had a little restaurant up there. It was a magnificent horse,” says Randall. “We had a talk and during the conversation he [Cuello] said the deal he’d made is we’d have to take their trainer to get possession of the horse. I said, ‘Really. I’d like to talk to the trainer.’”
When he did, Randall says, “I realized he was a show-ring trainer and had no knowledge, at all, of the type of training we were going to have to put on this horse. So I went back and said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ve got problems. If you want us to take your trainer along and let me hire another trainer and pay yours to watch while we train him, that’s fine with me.’”
Costs nixed that option.
“I said, ‘Well, then I can’t do the movie,” Randall continues. “The doctor spoke up and said, ‘I understand what you’re saying, Glenn, but the problem is the horse belongs to my daughter.”
Dr. Cuello’s daughter, then a teen, would only be assured that the horse would be safe if her trainer went along. But, Cuello allowed, “If she will let the horse go without the trainer, that’s fine with me.”
After winning her class, Francesca joined the group with her father and met Randall. “They introduced her and told her who I was. I said, ‘Would you walk with me for a little while? I want to go get a Coke.’ We went to another table away from her dad and the producers and all the other crew and I sat down and started talking to her.”
“I said, ‘I love your horse. He would be a wonderful black stallion you could be proud of. The problem is, we’re going to have to train your horse to do things he doesn’t know how to do. He’s going to have to work at liberty and learn a lot of different things. Your trainer is not qualified to do that type of training.’
“I explained to her who I was and what my background was. I said, ‘If you want the horse to go, you’re going to have to put your trust in me. I promise you that I’ll protect him with my life.’ We went back to the table and her dad said, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘I’m going to let the horse go because I trust Glenn.’ So, that’s how we got the horse.”
Randall proceeded to pave the path ahead. “I told the producers I’ve got to get a trainer and we’ll have to ship the horse to California and put him in training four to five months. Then I talked [brother] Corky into doing it,” says Randall.
Already established in Hollywood, his older brother wasn’t keen on the proposition. “Corky didn’t want to do the movie. I talked him into training the horse and it wasn’t easy. He wasn’t known as a horse trainer, as such. He’d been around my dad all of his life and we trained horses and what have you, but he was more of a ‘boss wrangler.’ He was probably one of Hollywood’s top ramrods, or boss wranglers. The Black Stallion launched his career as a horse trainer.”
Having gotten the horse and Corky on board, Randall was sent to the boy who would become the lead with the Black Stallion, Kelly Reno.
“Kelly came to California … got them a motel in Newhall with a swimming pool [near the Randall Ranch]. I spent half my time teaching him how to swim and we’d take him to the barn and let him work with Cass-Olé. His mother was not real sure about us. I promised his mother, ‘On my life, nothing is going to happen to him.’ So, now I’ve given my word on the horse and the little boy!”
He also brought two of his veteran trick horses to double Cass-Olé for difficult scenes. “They were sorrels, but we dyed them black. I had a lot of training on them. The horse that was tied up, wrapped up in ropes [after escaping the shipwreck and reaching the island], that was my horse dyed black.”
Randall’s horse also doubled where The Black gets loose and runs down a street back in America. “We shot that in Toronto — jumped over a car and that kind of stuff,” Randall recalls. “That’s what they hired me for. Doing all the stunt work and setting those things up. I would help them find locations, hire the people that would get the job done, and supervise the whole damn thing. I’m more structured in my work. I have to plan everything and look at every avenue of danger and provide for it.”
When the production got to Sardinia, Randall remembers that director Carroll [Ballard] and the director of photography, Caleb Deschanel, were adamant about having the horse swim 150 to 200 yards offshore.
“We swam our horses a little bit, but I said, “These horses aren’t amphibians. They can only swim a short distance.’ The producer said, ‘We’ve got to have them. What are we going to do?’ I said they’ve got some Camargue horses in France that were raised in the swamp and all they do is swim.’”
(Camargue horses are indigenous to the marshy Camargue wetlands of the Rhone delta in the south of France.)
Heeding Randall’s advice, they bought a white Camargue horse, significantly smaller than Cass-Olé, but it worked. “We dyed him black and used that little horse to do faraway swimming.”
Not only horses had water challenges. By this time, Kelly could swim, “But he wasn’t real brave about it,” Randall says. “One time they wanted to see Kelly far out, about 100 yards off the beach in Sardinia. Carroll just wanted him sitting on this rock outcropping. I gave Kelly a mask and said, ‘We’re going to have to swim out there. I’ll be on the back side of the rock, so they can’t see me but I’ll be right there with you.’
“He said, ‘OK,’ so we swam out to it. I said, ‘Let’s swim around the rock a little bit and get comfortable.’ We started swimming around and I looked down and it took my breath away. The water was so clear you could see 150 or 200 feet down. It was like jumping out of an airplane. It was a shock. When Kelly looked, he almost walked on water back to the rock! But, he did real good for a little kid.”
“I knew it was a good movie after I saw it,” he reflects on The Black Stallion. “I was kind of surprised, but the book had staying power. I did Raiders and ET and a lot of other movies that had legs too and are still being shown today.”
Randall’s credits — working as second unit director to stunt coordinator to stunts — saw him part of a long list of blockbusters, from Indiana Jones and Star Wars to The Mask of Zorro, and more.
“You’re also looking at a generation of films that will never be done again in the fashion that we did them. Back in the day, when my father did Ben Hur, they spent nine months just training the horses for it. In the stunt world, I had to do all my stunts for real. Now they’ve got cables, CGI, blue screen. It’s just a different way of making movies.”
These days, he’s retired and far from Hollywood. On the opposite coast from L.A.’s San Fernando Valley where he grew up, Randall lives on the 30-acre horse farm he built in Aiken, South Carolina, after leaving the movie business behind. “A little piece of heaven,” he says.
I met Hollywood horse trainer Corky Randall in 1997 on my first assignment for Cowboys & Indians. The horses were in training for The Mask of Zorro, one of his last films before retirement. My memories of the Hollywood horse training legend surfaced repeatedly while I was writing about the 40th anniversary of The Black Stallion, the movie that launched Corky’s training career.
“Training is really more understanding the animal than anything else,” Corky told me at one point. “It is also a profession that if you’re going to be very good, or a master, it has to be in your blood or your mind.”
Corky had both. He was a two-time winner of the PATSY Award, the animal trainer’s Oscar.
Born in Gering, Nebraska, in 1929, Corky had polio as a child. His father disagreed with the polio treatment of the day. Instead, he had Corky jumping rope and exercising, and his grandmother rubbed his legs. By age 9 or 10, Corky was galloping Thoroughbred colts in the morning for his father before going to school.
No big wonder that his father, Glenn Randall, Sr., would see horses as part of the regimen that would make his boy well. Randall Sr. trained Roy Rogers’ Trigger and the horses on Ben Hur (yes, the chariots!).
Having survived polio, once Corky started wrangling horses at Republic Studios during high school, he never considered another lifestyle.
While he’d made his name as a horse trainer on The Black Stallion 20-odd years before I met him, Corky still made a point of crediting his brother’s role in his success. “If it weren’t for ‘J.R.’ — ” Corky would say.
J.R. as in “junior”. “Junior” as in Hollywood stunt coordinator Glenn Randall Jr.
In one of the last interviews I did with Corky, he declared Cass-Olé , the black Arabian star of The Black Stallion, his all-time favorite equine actor. “He was so smart and such a character,” Corky said. “Cass-Olé loved to be around people and he loved to make pictures. He was almost human. He even had an expression on his face and horses usually don’t have expressions.
“You run into exceptional animals. They come like people. Some are just outstandingly brilliant in certain fields. They’re kind of like little kids. They like to show off and they’re just very easy to work in a picture. They seem like a well-trained actor — they just fall in there and do their part.”
Corky died in 2009 at the age of 80. I will never forget the sound of his gravelly voice, his kindness, and his willingness to discuss horses and Hollywood.
Nor will I forget something that Corky once said and that I remembered time and again while writing about that very special film: “I think there are still a lot of successful pictures to be made with horses, if you can capture the relationship between the animal and the person, like they did on The Black Stallion.”
Jeanne Rosenberg stumbled into co-writing her first screenplay and it set the stage for a movie career.
Film critic Leonard Maltin joked that Jeanne Rosenberg was an “accidental screenwriter” when he introduced her at TCM Classic Film Festival’s screening of The Black Stallion in Hollywood last year.
A graduate of USC Film School [now USC School of Cinematic Arts], Rosenberg had planned on a documentary film career, until a script analysis she wrote on her favorite childhood book, The Black Stallion, changed everything.
After graduation, she learned the movie was in the making with Carroll Ballard directing. A horse lover from her earliest memory, Rosenberg was determined to wrangle a meeting with Ballard when the film was in preproduction in Canada.
“I called and said, ‘I’m coming your way. Maybe I’ll just stop in. Do you mind?’ I was flying from Los Angeles to the Midwest. They were in Toronto,” Rosenberg says.
“We were supposed to meet for coffee one morning. He was late. I was making notes on a napkin. He showed up, grabbed the napkin out of my hand, and kept the notes.” Then came a life-changing phone call: “Carroll would like you to come back. We need help on the script.”
“It was total chaos when I arrived. Melissa Mathison [who would later write ET: The Extra-Terrestrial] got off another plane,” says Rosenberg, “We met and became this writing team as we were about to shoot. Carroll hadn’t committed to a screenplay. All the actors were there. Everyone! Carroll liked to keep everything open and see what developed. He was driving everyone crazy, of course,” Rosenberg says laughing.
“There were times when we would actually write in the evenings and hand pages to Carroll ahead of time. But usually we were right there [on set] hunkered somewhere in the grass, or in a chair, ripping off pages and throwing them at Mickey Rooney, who would scowl and scowl and then do it. We were writing on set virtually moments before the cameras rolled.”
Rosenberg remembers talking with Carroll about the scene where young Alec, played by Kelly Reno, first sees retired jockey and racehorse trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney, in a role that would earn him an Oscar nomination) in the big barn.
“Carroll wanted something dramatic. Honestly, I didn’t know that much about narrative filmmaking at that point and I write this scene where Henry’s lurking through the barn, through the shadows, but when it’s the reveal he has a gun in his hand. I show it to Carroll and he goes, ‘No, no, no!!’”
The rewrite worked: “Instead of the gun,” Rosenberg says, “Henry has shaving cream all over his face. It was scary and then, here is this cantankerous, maybe dangerous guy, with shaving cream all over his face!”
A true equestrian, who owns and competes on reining horses, Rosenberg flashes back to when shooting began on 7.7.77, a date emblazoned on her mind.
“We shot the second part of the movie first. I was in Toronto,” she explains. “Part of my job on set was really to protect the horse relationship. I kept reminding Carroll that no one can get close to The Black except for Alec. No one else can lead The Black. I know we lost that a little later in the story, but I was constantly reminding him.”
Meanwhile, her equine education expanded. “I’d never seen liberty work before. I had never seen a trainer stand and raise his arms and get the horse to rear on cue, to go from A to B, and go to a mark. It was extraordinary. It really took my mind somewhere else, made me see whole new possibilities.”
And she got schooled in patience and frustration. “Carroll kept refusing to let us write the island sequence. Of course, we did it anyway,” Rosenberg says. “I did not go overseas. Melissa was there. I know it was really hard and really gorgeous. A tough shoot, the kind of shoot that Carroll Ballard loves, out there in the elements with a much smaller crew. Everyone pitching in to carry gear — here, there, and over rocks.”
It was an extraordinary visual experience captured on film. “That’s what Carroll wanted to make. He has an amazing eye and is quite a storyteller.”
“There are so many angles — high angles and low angles and tracking shots — so many things that are so much easier now. Just send the drone out or put the camera on the cable. It was so hard then and they did it so well.”
The Black Stallion: A Heartwarming Epic For The Ages
BY Elizabeth Kaye McCall
November 25, 2019
Still fantastic at 40, one of the best-loved horse movies of all time almost didn’t get made.
It was 3 a.m. when Carroll Ballard’s phone rang with a call from Francis Ford Coppola, who was then in Sicily filming The Godfather: Part II. The two had gone to film school together at UCLA and the middle-of-the-night call was Coppola telling him he thought they should do a film together. Months and ideas later, Coppola sent Ballard a copy of a novel that producer pal Fred Roos had heard about from his then girlfriend. It was her favorite childhood book: The Black Stallion.
“I didn’t like the book when it was first presented to me,” says Ballard, 83, in a rare interview at his hilltop home in St. Helena, California. “I thought, What is this? Leave It to Beaver? I wanted to make War and Peace!” But he finally “wised up” about the opportunity at hand, and in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction convergence of events — including a typhoon in the Philippines that destroyed the set on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — the modern classic, turning 40 this October, came to life.
Ballard munches on a quesadilla in a sunroom looking out on the pond flanked by his vineyard, as recollections of years spent on his visual masterpiece return. “I wondered for a long time, How is it that this book became such a big hit. Because I was dwelling on the old trainer and the kid talking,” he says. “Stuff I thought was totally predictable. But, there is this thing. I really didn’t see it for a long time. There is a mythic element in the book. It’s every child’s desire to have a powerful friend who can do things and who will make him powerful too. That’s what’s in this film. It’s mythic and in the form of a black horse.”
Based on Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s novel, The Black Stallion is the story of a young boy named Alec Ramsay who survives a fiery shipwreck off the coast of North Africa. The accident kills his father (played by Hoyt Axton) and the boy finds himself stranded alone on a deserted island with a wild Arabian stallion that he befriends and names The Black. Later, after Alec is rescued, he returns — with the horse — to his newly widowed mother in America. There, after meeting a once-successful retired racehorse trainer who helps him enter a match race between two champions of the track, he puts his bond with The Black to the test.
Turning Farley’s novel into a film proved daunting. “I could never figure out how we were going to put the two parts of the story together,” Ballard says. “I agreed to try and make a movie, but it was three years later that we finally got the go-ahead.”
Fate stepped in. “I don’t know that we would have, if it hadn’t been for this huge typhoon in the Philippines while Francis was shooting Apocalypse Now. It wiped out all their sets. It was a catastrophe. They had to cancel the whole production, and they all came back. He didn’t have any money to finish the movie. A way out for him was to sell the script of The Black Stallion to United Artists,” Ballard says.
The production was dead in the water, he says, when Coppola made the deal with United Artists to make the movie. “Nobody liked the script, but Francis had so much power in the business at that point that UA went for it — they green-lighted the movie. It would never have seen the light of day without him.”
But that was just the beginning of a whole new set of problems. “There we were with a script nobody was too interested in, and I did not know what this movie was going to be about,” Ballard says. “I had a few little ideas, and then we’re out there — 150 people and horses. What do we do now? Aggh! I think it was touch and go all the way through the movie whether we could pull the two halves of the story together.”
Ballard grew up on Lake Tahoe’s waterfront when the area was a wilderness. He originally intended to go into design, but an unplanned route to Hollywood started to take shape when he joined the Army and the sergeant in his unit had a film club. He faced immense logistical and creative problems in the making of The Black Stallion, and he’d never helmed a full-length feature film.
After film school, he’d made several documentaries for the U.S. Information Agency, Beyond This Winter’s Wheat and Harvest (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award), directed a short called The Perils of Priscilla, and made 1969’s Rodeo, which had Larry Mahan and Freckles Brown playing themselves in a look at the National Finals Rodeo back when it was in Oklahoma City. His first really big picture came in 1977, when he was the second unit director on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.
Eleven-year-old Kelly Reno had no acting experience. But the pairing of him with a black Arabian stallion named Cass-Olé proved a winning combination. Raised on a 10,000-acre Colorado ranch, Reno knew how to ride already and reportedly took the role because he wanted to learn how to swim. That was fulfilled by stunt coordinator Glenn “J.R.” Randall Jr., who booked Reno into a hotel with a pool near the Randall Ranch in Newhall, California, so he could teach him there. Reno spent half the day swimming and the rest of the day at the barn with horses. It wasn’t just a young lead and a horse that Ballard had to contend with. Besides another black Arabian named Fae-Jur, equine doubles ranged from sorrel Hollywood trick horses to gray “swimming horses” from the Camargue in France, dyed black for the role.
Though author Farley was a true horse lover, Ballard says they didn’t necessarily see eye to eye when it came to equine casting: “Fae-Jur was not his idea of what the Black Stallion should be. [The horse] was small and very feisty. I felt that was the magic horse. You could believe he was a spirit of some kind. Cass was a gorgeous horse — and big. He was magisterial.” Already a champion Arabian, Cass-Olé did the lion’s share of The Black’s performance on film and notched the starring horse credit.
Featuring Mickey Rooney as ex-racehorse trainer Henry Dailey and Teri Garr as Alec’s mother, the last half of the story was shot first. “We filmed [the second half of the story] in about three months in Canada. Then we went to Italy to do the front part of the film,” Ballard says. The location in Italy was the island of Sardinia. “It was a very backward place at that time, and we were out in very isolated places,” Ballard says. “I told Francis we couldn’t shoot this according to a regular movie schedule. He said, ‘We’ll just take as long as it takes.’ We spent two months in some beautiful places with the horses. We did this and then we tried that.”
Horse trainer Corky Randall brought the talent and experience that allowed Ballard to capture some of the most challenging horse scenes ever filmed. The son of Glenn Randall Sr., who trained Roy Rogers’ Trigger, Randall was an established Hollywood ramrod (boss wrangler), when brother Glenn Jr. — the film’s stunt coordinator — convinced him to do the training. The Black Stallion would establish Randall’s legacy as a Hollywood horse trainer.
“Corky picked up that this wasn’t going to be the kind of movie where the horse is going to walk in here and do this and that. He could improvise,” says Ballard, crediting Randall for the signature beach scene where boy and horse become friends. “We were just shooting there on the beach and said, ‘Maybe we [can] do something here with Kelly and a little piece of seaweed and a close-up. Maybe we can get him going back and forth. Corky picked up on it and said, ‘OK, Carroll, where’s the frame line?’ Corky’s right out of frame when the horse is backing up and rearing and coming forward. The whole thing was done in one shot, and Corky did the whole thing. He just went in and did it.”
Not much of the filming happened that easily, especially the portion in Sardinia. “It was a tough shoot, the kind of shoot that Carroll Ballard loves, out there in the elements with a much smaller crew — everyone pitching in to carry gear — here, there, and over rocks,” says screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg, who teamed with Melissa Mathison to create a whole new screenplay from scratch, sometimes literally writing scenes on the fly. “I didn’t go overseas, but Melissa was there. [Carroll] has an amazing eye and is quite a storyteller. … There are so many angles — high angles and low angles and tracking shots — so many things that are so much easier now. Just send the drone out or put the camera on the cable. [But back then] it was so hard, and they did it so well.”
At a certain point, Ballard had to stop shooting in Sardinia and move the production to Cinecittà Studios in Rome to shoot the shipwreck sequence even though he still didn’t have all the shots he wanted from Sardinia. “There’s a tank — it was the same pond they used for Cleopatra,” Ballard says. (Tidbit: An old growling toilet at the editing location was recorded to create the sinking-ship sounds in the film.) “That was a month of nights — about five nights a week, every night all night. We finished the shooting in Rome, and I didn’t know how we were going to pull it all together. There were really important scenes I wanted to do on the island that I hadn’t gotten, things we couldn’t finish in time.”
One involved the snake scene, where The Black stomps a cobra about to strike the boy. “We’d made a deal with a movie snake guy. They promised the snakes had been defanged. They were real cobras. The day we were going to shoot, these two guys showed up in a little car and in the back seat they had two big baskets. They wanted to show me the snakes. I said OK, and out of this basket came this snake. It was the scariest thing you’ve ever seen. I said, ‘Gee, that’s really scary. I’m glad they’re defanged.’ The guy said, ‘They’re not defanged! We don’t do it that way. The way we do it is this,’ and he reached over [to] this little refrigerator. Inside was a hypodermic needle. He said, ‘If the boy gets bitten by the cobra, we just inject him with this.’ ”
Ballard details what followed as if it were yesterday. “A couple hours later, two grips come walking down the beach carrying this gigantic pane of glass. It was out of a store window from somewhere, and they put the glass on the sand and strapped it up. The cobra is on one side of the glass and the boy is on the other, and these cobras were scary. We filmed some, but we weren’t able to get enough angles on the snakes.”
Three months later, back in Sardinia, the weather had drastically changed. “We had two weeks to do pickups to fill in the holes. It’s so cold, the snakes can hardly move. So, how are we going to shoot this scene?” Ballard recounts the impromptu solution. “We’ve got to warm up the snakes. Let’s dig a hole in the sand and put some heaters down there so they heat up the sand. We’ll put boards on top and put sand on that. Meanwhile, the wind is blowing like crazy, the sheet of glass is moving around, and the sand keeps blowing against the glass and it’s sticking!” The exasperation he felt remains all these years later. “What we were trying to do was get a shot of the snake being scary, and we had this huge contraption and all the heaters going and the snake trying to warm up — this whole deal, trying to get one ridiculous shot of the snake.”
An entirely different scenario transpired at Cannon Beach, Oregon, late in the production. (Fortunately, Kelly Reno had not yet started growing facial hair or experienced a growth spurt.) “We just wanted a shot of Kelly riding Cass-Olé along the beach. It was long after we did most of the filming. We were just doing pickup shots. I was really worried about the hardness of the sand. I was worried Kelly might fall.” Ballard suddenly shifts into storyteller mode with a spot-on rendition of horse trainer Corky Randall’s voice. “ ‘Carroll, that little horse can’t outrun a flea.’ So we decided to do the run. We’re shooting along, it was going great, and all of a sudden Cass took off down the beach and disappeared into the sand dunes. It was terrifying. All Kelly had was that little wire bridle. It ended up being the footage we used.”
But for Ballard, that wasn’t the toughest scene to get right. “To me, the hardest, most crucial scene in the whole movie was the scene with his mom, where the boy tells her about the shipwreck,” Ballard recalls. “Kelly understood that was an important scene, and he had to express all the things to Teri [Garr]. He pulled it off. He made it believable.” This single scene linked the two parts of the film. “It pulled the whole thing together,” Ballard says. “It’s where the boy tells his mother about wanting to be in the match race with The Black. Of course she didn’t know he was secretly training for that and is furious and afraid. Then he pulls out the little Bucephalus horse figurine his father gave him on the ship before the wreck and tells his mother the story his father told him about Alexander the Great and his horse. By the end of the scene and what he shares, the mother agrees.”
When it was all put together, they had shot an eight-hour movie. “That’s why it took us a year-and-a-half to edit,” Ballard says. “There was so much, and we tried to somehow make sense of it. There is some beautiful footage, a lot of funny quirky scenes, but I [didn’t think there was] a way to string them all together. I think we extracted the story.”
Once completed, The Black Stallion got shelved by United Artists. “I thought the film was an utter failure,” Ballard confides. “The studio guys that came to see it thought it was unreleasable. They said, ‘What is this? Some kind of art movie for kids!’ ” Thanks to Coppola’s clout, The Black Stallion finally debuted at the New York Film Festival in October 1979 and quickly became a box office hit. Named the best film of the year by Roger Ebert, it earned two Oscar nominations, including one for Mickey Rooney. At the 1980 Academy Awards, The Black Stallion won the Special Achievement Award. At the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the film won Best Cinematography for Caleb Deschanel, Best Music for Carmine Coppola (Frances Ford Coppola’s father), and the New Generation Award for Ballard. The timeless tribute to the horse-human bond was added to the National Film Registry in 2002.
Produced for under $4 million, The Black Stallion has grossed roughly $38 million.
“To me, it was always kind of a mystery how the film became successful,” Ballard says. “When I was making it, I felt it was completely out of control and I wasn’t going to be able to fix it. But there was enough continuum that kept everything in balance.”
As the sunroom grows chilly and Ballard prepares to head back to the main house, he shares a parting anecdote — and it’s a great one that reaches back to the days when he was making 1969’s Rodeo. “While we were filming, I heard this story about this bull called Tornado that nobody could ride,” he recalls. “It had been years, many rodeos, and nobody could ride Tornado. He was the most fearsome monster. At the  National Finals Rodeo, Freckles Brown … draws Tornado the bull and he rides him, and that night he could have become the governor of Oklahoma.”
Ballard later asked the Rodeo Hall of Fame cowboy what it took to ride a bull. “Freckles said, ‘Well, you’ve just got to feel it. You’ve got to feel where the center of gravity is and where it’s going next. And you get your head right there because that’s how you stay in balance on top of that uncontrollable movement that’s going on underneath you. You’ve just got to hear where it’s going and get your head right there.’ ”
For the director, it’s an apt analogy — for Rodeo, for The Black Stallion, for making movies in general: “To me it was always an interesting parallel,” Ballard says. “Making movies is sort of the same process. It’s kind of uncontrollable. It’s going all over the place. Every day it’s a whole other bunch of unpredictable events and you’ve got to get your head there to stay in balance.”