'Jockey': Sunrises and Sunsets, Horse Racing Without Horses, and Docu-Style Storytelling

Clint Bentley’s new film, Jockey, is an intense character study that contrasts the ending of a veteran jockey’s career with the ascendance of a younger jockey. Under the watchful eye of director of photographer Adolpho Veloso, the filmmakers use some exciting photography and lighting techniques to complement the strong script and award-winning acting.

In a world as glitzy as horse racing, the sport of kings, it’s shocking to see how the jockeys that ride prize-winning horses live their lives. Several of Jockey’s scenes are what you could call pseudo-documentary. For example, Clifton Collins Jr. guides a group of real-life jockeys through a conversation about their injuries. As the jockeys sit around and compare their experiences being trampled and broken by racehorses, compare their broken backs, shattered legs, and punctured lungs, I couldn’t help but think about Quint, Hooper, and Brody aboard the Orca in Jaws. In the case of Jockey, these are real injuries suffered by real jockeys.

Working closely with Bentley, Veloso employs a variety of techniques to help tell Bentley’s story using image and light. I had a chance to talk with Veloso about how he used photography to help tell the story of Jockey.

Sunset of a Career

Collins Jr. plays Jackson Silva, a jockey at the end of a long career. As Veloso put it, it can be scary to see your career coming to an end: “none of us can know what night may hold.” Carrying this metaphor through to the screen, most of the scenes focussing on Silva are shot in the fading day. We’re given the closing of Silva’s career in the form of a sunset.

If fading light is the metaphor for the end of Silva’s career, it won’t come as a surprise that one of Silva’s important races is the brightest scene of the film. It’s a moment of shock to see the screen bright and bold after an hour of fading light. This is Silva’s moment in the spotlight, given to us figuratively and literally.

Out of all the things you do in life, there’s that one minute that you feel like you’re the most important thing in the world because everybody’s watching you.

In contrast, the younger jockey, Boullait, is shown to us at the beginning of his career. Unlike Silva, scenes focussing on Boullait are filmed predominately at sunrise.

What we end up with throughout the film is a duel of sunrise and sunset. Without spoiling the plot, the most intense scenes between Silva and Boullait are shot in slightly brighter light. Not the bright light of the big race, but bright enough to hold a promise of a future.

Horse Racing Without Horses

Unlike almost all horse racing movies, most of Jockey’s racing scenes are shot in the absence of horses. Veloso explained that he wanted to keep the focus off of the grand experience of racing, instead of centering on the experience of the jockeys themselves. Veloso focuses the camera tight on Collins Jr., keeping the viewer in touch with the character and emotions of Silva instead of with the spectacle of the races.

Getting such tight shots without endangering the horses required some out-of-the-box thinking. According to Veloso, Collins Jr. mimicked the movements of a jockey in the back of a pickup truck with one of the producers throwing mud in his face. Even Silva’s best and brightest race of the film is filmed this way — tight, almost claustrophobic.

A test run of a new horse that promises Silva the winning ride that he pines for are the only time we get a different view of the track. Instead of a tight shot of Collins Jr., we get a shot from his point of view — wide and fast, giving us a new look helps us to understand the promise that this new horse might have for Silva. Instead of dark and intense, this moment feels poetic. As Veloso explained to me, he wanted viewers to feel like they were being launched down the track along with Silva.

Shooting Documentary-Style on a Major Production

Many of the characters, even speaking roles, in Jockey are played by non-actors; real-life jockeys. Veloso explained that shooting on location at a track familiar to the jockeys was critical to ensure that the non-actors felt comfortable in front of the camera. Keeping these non-actors comfortable also meant that Veloso had to shoot with a small footprint. There’s no point in shooting someplace familiar for non-actors just to have them walk onto a set with millions of dollars of lights and cameras.

The goal for Veloso was twofold. First, to keep the real jockeys comfortable so that the filmmakers could capture these jockeys the way that they are, without artifice. Veloso wanted to avoid intimidating the jockeys with fancy movie gear. Second, to shoot the scenes gritty. After all, it’s not feasible to knock holes in the roof or walls of an operating racetrack to put lights or lenses through. This helped the filmmakers use the track as a character, reflecting the upstairs/downstairs feel of a jockey’s life. Similarly, the fading grandeur of the track also mimicked the almost washed up and broken Silva.

Upstairs/Downstairs Through The Lens

Because Bentley’s father was a jockey, Bentley grew up seeing the hardships jockeys endured. Bentley has been quoted as saying that jockeys might just be the toughest athletes on the planet. Keeping with the idea that the glamour of horse racing is for owners and trainers, Jockey’s interior shots reflect the gritty and hard lives of the jockeys.

From my perspective, the scene where the jockeys sit around and talk about all of the injuries they’ve suffered is the most powerful in the film. In this scene, Collins Jr. is surrounded by real-life jockeys sharing their stories. The scene itself wasn’t scripted, instead, Veloso set up cameras to follow the conversation between Collins Jr. and the jockeys. Collins Jr. guided the jockeys by not just interviewing them, but engaging them as his character, Silva. Encouraging them to open up. Veloso’s input on how to shoot this scene carries the real-life aspects of it through to the screen. It’s a big test to shoot a major production like a documentary, following your subjects instead of setting scenes up. In this case, it worked out brilliantly for Veloso and Bentley.

You can catch Jockey when it’s released wide next week.

Veloso is now looking forward to the wide release of his next projects, El Perfecto David and Becoming Elizabeth.

All images were provided by Sony and Adolpho Veloso.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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well done. I live 3 miles from Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, KY. Beautiful boutique racing venue. I have shot photos of Jockeys, and racing grounds. I look forward to this film.

It'd be interesting to be invited into both the glamour and the toil. Nice work!