Locally made Lost Stallion gallops into Greensboro

by Mark Burger

Lost Stallions: The Journey Home, a family film shot in and around Winston-Salem in May 2007, gallops into theaters this weekend – opening this Friday at the Carousel Grande Cinema (1305 Battleground Road, Greensboro).

Set in the summer of ’69, right around the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the story follows Jake (Alex Hugh), a rebellious teenager reeling from the recent death of his father. The boy is sent to Harmony Ranch for the summer, in order to work through his problems. It is there that he begins to develop a sense of self-worth and self-esteem, particularly when dealing with Troubadour, a young stallion whose rebelliousness mirrors that of Jake.

When Troubadour runs away, Jake and his new friends (Rachael Handy and Evan Tilson Stroud) set out to find him, embarking on what might euphemistically be called the adventure of a lifetime.

The big name in the film is unquestionably Mickey Rooney, playing the “Chief” of Harmony Ranch. The venerable actor’s career stretches all the way back to the silent era, thereby earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as well as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, which bestowed on him an honorary Oscar in 1983. During his 80-year career, the 87-year-old star has appeared in well over 300 projects.

On the other hand, Lost Stallions: The Journey Home marks the third released feature for director David Rotan, a 2000 graduate of the School of Filmmaking at NCSA, following Pirate Kids: Blackbeard’s Last Treasure (2004) and the follow-up, Pirate Kids 2: The Search for the Silver Skull (2006).

Rotan admits he’d love to have a career as durable as Rooney’s, but he wasn’t intimidated by working with someone who was a veteran star even before he was born. “It was a really cool experience,” Rotan says. “It was interesting to sit with him and talk about old-school Hollywood.”

“At one point,” Rotan recalls with a laugh, “I asked him: ‘What makes you keep doing this?’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said to me, ‘What else would I do? I’ve been doing this since I was two years old. This is what keeps me alive.'”

Lost Stallions: The Journey Home (which was variously known as Harmony Ranch, Stallion Heart, or simply as Stallions during production) was filmed in 18 days on a tight budget of under $1 million.

Aside from Rooney and his real-life wife, Jan Chamberlin Rooney, who plays his wife in the film (the first time they’ve done that onscreen), the majority of the cast and crew was from right here in North Carolina. Among the familiar local faces in the cast are Megan Blake (of the upcoming Eyeborgs), R. Keith Harris (whose career I’ve written about extensively in this column) and Jim Austin, who has appeared in all of Rotan’s films – including his award-winning NCSA student film, Freckles & Flower Cream.

Many of the principals, Rotan had worked with before or knew through his NCSA connections, including screenwriter Lovinder Gill, who is not only an NCSA School of Filmmaking graduate but also a current faculty member.

Gill, whose credits include Chicks 101 (writer/producer/director) and the upcoming Wesley (producer), was tapped by Rotan and the producers to fashion the story as a continuation of the original Lost Stallions (2003), a solid seller on DVD and produced by the same production company, Totality Films.

Instead, Gill decided to forego any direct ties to the original film and create, if only by a stretch, a prequel (of sorts) to the original film. Rotan was receptive to the idea, and after a quick rewrite, the film went almost immediately into production.

The first day of shooting was in Walnut Cove. “We took over Main Street,” Rotan recalls with some glee, “and turned it into 1969.”

What likely would have cost millions elsewhere cost considerably less in North Carolina, thanks to the large contingent of classic automobile collectors and a quaint small-town atmosphere that hasn’t been lost to the ensuing years.

“If you know where to look and what to look for,” Rotan says, “you can find it.”

Working closely with the state parks service, some of the film was shot at Hanging Rock and on Pilot Mountain. “The three things we brought in: Horses, wolves and minors,” Rotan recalls with a laugh. (The old adage about working with kids and animals comes to mind.)

Nevertheless, Rotan says, shooting went very smoothly, and he attributes much of this to the professionalism and enthusiasm of those he works with, among them brother John, who served as the film’s cinematographer.

Rotan acknowledges the wealth of talent in the region, both in terms of actors and technicians. “I’d like to try to keep all of my films, if I can, in North Carolina. I want to work again with people I know.”

Although Rotan’s three released films have all been aimed squarely at the family market, “I would like to do something that’s a change of pace,” he confirms, but the family films have proven successful. There’s always an audience for them, especially when they’re done well – because they also appeal to grown-ups as well as kids.

“I gave each of the characters an emotional journey,” says Gill, “and I think it’s a fun family movie that adults will enjoy as well.”

Although both are NCSA graduates, Rotan and Gill only had a passing acquaintanceship during their student days.

“We knew each other a little bit, but we always had a mutual respect for each other’s work,” Gill says. “Looking back, a lot of us hadn’t worked together when we were students, but we knew of each other’s work, and we knew that we did good work. We kept in touch and hoped that some day we’d find something that we could work on.”

Not only did Gill write the script and get paid for it, but it also served as the thesis for his MFA, “so there was a nice little combination situation there,” Gill says with a laugh.

“All in all, the film’s been a good experience,” he adds. “As a filmmaker, to have Mickey Rooney say the dialogue you wrote … and Mr. Rooney, God bless him, he just knows …”

When he’s not making movies, Rotan lives near Washington DC and works with – an interactive website that offers tips and advice on everything from auto repair to recipes, from food and drink to careers and education… in essence, everything you ever wanted to know about almost anything but were afraid to ask.

“Pretty much,” Rotan confirms with a laugh. “It’s really fascinating, and it’s not unlike filmmaking.”

Both Rotan and Gill expect to attend the film’s opening this Friday, and hope to bring along the cast and crew members who reside in the area.

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