Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner

Courtesy KET

Five Questions: Paul Wagner

Documentary filmmaker's 'Thoroughbred' debuts on KET March 8.

Paul Wagner is an Academy Award-winning independent filmmaker who is busy putting the finishing touches on the documentary “The Thoroughbred.” Funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Alltech, Keeneland Association, and Kentucky Educational Television’s Endowment for Kentucky Productions, the film makes its debut March 8 on KET and will be shown on other PBS stations across the country at a later date.

To view a trailer of the film, click here.

Over the years, Wagner’s documentaries have focused on “American cultural groups, sub-cultures, and American folklore and traditions.” Having always wanted to do a film about Thoroughbred racing, he was thrilled when KET approached him to put together a “dream project” on the topic.

In creating the documentary, Wagner and his crew covered the breeding and sales industries in Central Kentucky; racing on the 2009 Triple Crown trail at Aqueduct, Keeneland, and in Dubai; and culminated their filming in Louisville at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

After viewing a rough cut of the film, we caught up with Wagner at the KET offices in Lexington and asked him five questions:

You clearly have an interest in the sport. What is your background in racing?

“My dad grew up across the street from Churchill Downs. He didn’t know owners and people in the Bluegrass—he knew the gamblers in south Louisville. I remember growing up and all of his buddies tended to be bookies. I went to UK (the University of Kentucky) for my undergraduate degree and had friends who were connected to the industry.

“Most of my career as a filmmaker, I’ve been on the East Coast in Philadelphia, Washington, and now in Charlottesville, Va., and I haven’t been involved even as a fan as much as I’d like to be.

“Being a filmmaker, you can ask anybody anything and you can wrangle a meeting with just about anybody, so I’ve had the privilege of talking to, and getting to know, some of the top people in the industry.

“Actually, it’s worked out not to know that much about racing. The film is being made for people who don’t know that much about the industry. The whole idea is to make it for people who only watch the Kentucky Derby and then maybe the Triple Crown races every year, and that’s all they know about horse racing. I want to present the subject at a level where it’s interesting—where it doesn’t get so technical about some aspect of the industry and that the story keeps moving and you get a broad sweep of the history of the sport. I’ve tried to find the heart and soul of the industry; what drives people. Why are they passionate about racing? Why are they passionate about the animal? That’s been my goal: to find the human story.”

You were filming at a breeding farm, at the sales and racing at Keeneland, racing at Aqueduct, Dubai, and Churchill Downs. Any favorites?

“Dubai was amazing. It’s so striking and impressive, but I loved the racing. It was great filming at the Derby. That was an amazing experience. We followed Tom McCarthy with General Quarters and he’s sort of the focus of the race for us. That was really exciting to be with him and follow the race through his eyes.

“I loved getting to know Arthur Hancock. He’s such a legend. To me, that has been the best aspect—getting to know the people; these amazing characters. That is what the story is about, it’s about the passion these people have for the animal.”

What do you want the non-Thoroughbred person to take away from the film and just how many people will see this?

“I want them to appreciate horse racing. I want them to appreciate the history and tradition that it represents. I want them to be thrilled by the competition and the camaraderie among people in the industry and understand the depth of people’s relationship to the animal.

“To me, it’s more a film about the passion for the sport and the dreams they have. Ultimately, this sounds high-fallutin’, but in all of my work I try to look at the subject, and this is Thoroughbred racing, as an expression of our humanity. What is that you can see when you look at the sport and understand about human beings? How does racing give meaning to the lives of the people involved in the sport? That’s the timeless stuff. We want a film that won’t just be acceptable or popular this year, but will stand up and have some stature for five or 10 years down the road even though it focuses on the 2009 Derby and the particular characters working today.

“There nothing in it that I think will change about racing in terms of what we’re showing. We’re not taking a journalistic approach that would deal with current issues that will be resolved over the next year or so. We’re trying to look at the deeper running themes in Thoroughbred racing that will be with it for decades, hopefully. We want something that will stand for what racing means, and has meant, and hopefully what it will mean in the future.

“There are two levels at which the film will be shown. First, March 8 the broadcast premier will be here in Kentucky on KET—that’s statewide and it’s the industry’s heartland. Then, there will be a national broadcast on PBS, but it’s not scheduled yet. We do not have an air date yet, but hopefully we will soon.”

What is your take on the sport today?

“There are problems. I don’t know if I would use the word ‘crisis’ but there are challenges of all sorts out there. You could talk to a million people who would be better versed on what those challenges are and certainly on how to address them.

“You don’t have to look at the sport too long to see the challenges. My response to that is rather than trying to say, ‘Here’s what we need to do about gambling; here’s what we need to do about drugs; here’s what we need to about state versus more national jurisdiction’…my response is to say, ‘Let’s not talk about all those issues for just a second and think about the core value of what we’re all engaged in right now. What is great about this sport? And as we go forward and address all these issues, what are the core values that we need to maintain and what’s driving us? Why do we care about this? Why do we want to solve this?’

“It’s because of the animal. It’s because of the camaraderie. It’s because of the thrill of competition. These are the things that drive us and need to be maintained, whatever decisions have to be made about contemporary issues.

“That’s what I hope the contribution we can make with the film is. It’s not to provide solutions for these tough questions, but to give some courage to say this is worth fighting for, this is worth maintaining, and this is worth presenting to a larger American public. I know my friends—when I’ve taken them to the track—they totally get it. My family, my kids love going to the track. There are basic thrills there that many Americans would be drawn to. They are intrinsic to racing. They’ve always been there. They are apart from off track betting and whether we have slots or not. Those are important issues but what is going to keep the thing successful is to maintain these core values. I hope that is what the film reminds people of.”

You are an Academy Award winner (1984’s “The Stone Carvers” as outstanding documentary film). What film will win this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (March 7)?

" 'Avatar.’

“The curious question is: who is going to win best director? Often the two are paired. If you think it’s the best picture, then why wouldn’t the best director have made it? There is a certain logic there. What’s interesting is ‘The Hurt Locker’ won the Directors Guild of America award for best director. That’s often the predictor for who wins the Academy Award. The funny thing is that it is husband versus wife, or former, ex-husband versus wife. James Cameron (Avatar) was married to Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).

“My prediction is ‘Avatar’ will win best picture and Kathryn Bigelow will win for directing ‘The Hurt Locker.’ ”