Locally made Lost Stallion gallops into into Greensboro

by Mark Burger

Lost Stallions: TheJourney Home, a family film shot in and around Winston-Salem in May2007, gallops into theaters this weekend – opening this Friday at theCarousel Grande Cinema (1305 Battleground Road, Greensboro). Setin the summer of ’69, right around the time of the Apollo 11 moonlanding, the story follows Jake (Alex Hugh), a rebellious teenagerreeling from the recent death of his father. The boy is sent to HarmonyRanch for the summer, in order to work through his problems. It isthere that he begins to develop a sense of self-worth and self-esteem,particularly when dealing with Troubadour, a young stallion whoserebelliousness mirrors that of Jake. When Troubadour runs away,Jake and his new friends (Rachael Handy and Evan Tilson Stroud) set outto find him, embarking on what might euphemistically be called theadventure of a lifetime. The big name in the film isunquestionably Mickey Rooney, playing the "Chief" of Harmony Ranch. Thevenerable actor’s career stretches all the way back to the silent era,thereby earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records aswell as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, whichbestowed on him an honorary Oscar in 1983. During his 80-year career,the 87-year-old star has appeared in well over 300 projects. Onthe other hand, Lost Stallions: The Journey Home marks the thirdreleased feature for director David Rotan, a 2000 graduate of theSchool of Filmmaking at NCSA, following Pirate Kids: Blackbeard’s LastTreasure (2004) and the follow-up, Pirate Kids 2: The Search for theSilver Skull (2006). Rotan admits he’d love to have a career asdurable as Rooney’s, but he wasn’t intimidated by working with someonewho was a veteran star even before he was born. "It was a really coolexperience," Rotan says. "It was interesting to sit with him and talkabout old-school Hollywood." "At one point," Rotan recalls witha laugh, "I asked him: ‘What makes you keep doing this?’ and he lookedat me like I was crazy. He said to me, ‘What else would I do? I’ve beendoing this since I was two years old. This is what keeps me alive.’" LostStallions: The Journey Home (which was variously known as HarmonyRanch, Stallion Heart, or simply as Stallions during production) wasfilmed in 18 days on a tight budget of under $1 million. Asidefrom Rooney and his real-life wife, Jan Chamberlin Rooney, who playshis wife in the film (the first time they’ve done that onscreen), themajority of the cast and crew was from right here in North Carolina.Among the familiar local faces in the cast are Megan Blake (of theupcoming Eyeborgs), R. Keith Harris (whose career I’ve written aboutextensively in this column) and Jim Austin, who has appeared in all ofRotan’s films – including his award-winning NCSA student film, Freckles& Flower Cream. Many of the principals, Rotan had workedwith before or knew through his NCSA connections, includingscreenwriter Lovinder Gill, who is not only an NCSA School ofFilmmaking graduate but also a current faculty member. Gill,whose credits include Chicks 101 (writer/producer/director) and theupcoming Wesley (producer), was tapped by Rotan and the producers tofashion the story as a continuation of the original Lost Stallions(2003), a solid seller on DVD and produced by the same productioncompany, Totality Films. Instead, Gill decided to forego anydirect ties to the original film and create, if only by a stretch, aprequel (of sorts) to the original film. Rotan was receptive to theidea, and after a quick rewrite, the film went almost immediately intoproduction. The first day of shooting was in Walnut Cove. "Wetook over Main Street," Rotan recalls with some glee, "and turned itinto 1969." What likely would have cost millions elsewhere costconsiderably less in North Carolina, thanks to the large contingent ofclassic automobile collectors and a quaint small-town atmosphere thathasn’t been lost to the ensuing years. "If you know where to look and what to look for," Rotan says, "you can find it." Workingclosely with the state parks service, some of the film was shot atHanging Rock and on Pilot Mountain. "The three things we brought in:Horses, wolves and minors," Rotan recalls with a laugh. (The old adageabout working with kids and animals comes to mind.) Nevertheless,Rotan says, shooting went very smoothly, and he attributes much of thisto the professionalism and enthusiasm of those he works with, amongthem brother John, who served as the film’s cinematographer. Rotanacknowledges the wealth of talent in the region, both in terms ofactors and technicians. "I’d like to try to keep all of my films, if Ican, in North Carolina. I want to work again with people I know." Although Rotan’s three released films have all been aimed squarely atthe family market, "I would like to do something that’s a change ofpace," 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 gaveeach of the characters an emotional journey," says Gill, "and I thinkit’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. "Weknew each other a little bit, but we always had a mutual respect foreach other’s work," Gill says. "Looking back, a lot of us hadn’t workedtogether when we were students, but we knew of each other’s work, andwe knew that we did good work. We kept in touch and hoped that some daywe’d find something that we could work on." Not only did Gillwrite the script and get paid for it, but it also served as the thesisfor his MFA, "so there was a nice little combination situation there,"Gill says with a laugh. "All in all, the film’s been a goodexperience," he adds. "As a filmmaker, to have Mickey Rooney say thedialogue you wrote … and Mr. Rooney, God bless him, he just knows …" Whenhe’s not making movies, Rotan lives near Washington DC and works – an interactive website that offers tips and advice oneverything from auto repair to recipes, from food and drink to careersand education… in essence, everything you ever wanted to know aboutalmost anything but were afraid to ask. "Pretty much," Rotan confirms with a laugh. "It’s really fascinating, and it’s not unlike filmmaking." BothRotan and Gill expect to attend the film’s opening this Friday, andhope to bring along the cast and crew members who reside in the area.