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A 12-Year-Old Horse Jockey Races Towards His Dream: Filmmaker Q&A with Jonny Madderson

Dylan is a 12-year-old boy who strives to become a professional jockey. One of his first races was the Glenbeigh Races, a prestigious grassroots horse racing event in Glenbeigh, a rural southwestern area of Ireland. His training involves boxing, and his inspiration is supplemented by quotes from Rocky IV. Because he’s such a lightweight, he...

Dylan is a 12-year-old boy who strives to become a professional jockey. One of his first races was the Glenbeigh Races, a prestigious grassroots horse racing event in Glenbeigh, a rural southwestern area of Ireland. His training involves boxing, and his inspiration is supplemented by quotes from Rocky IV. Because he’s such a lightweight, he has to add five stone (70 pounds) of lead in his saddle to give him a better control of his horse. This short documentary by Just So London follows Dylan while he trains to be the best against “bigger and stronger, and taller and older” boys, and how he’s “going to be something serious in the making.” I spoke with director, Jonny Madderson, about making Five Stone of Lead.

How did you first hear about the jockey community in western Ireland?

I was reading the sports papers and saw an article about an established jockey who’d just won a big race at the Cheltenham Festival. There was a throwaway line about how he’d come up the ranks through flapping racing. I had no idea what this was and googled it. I was blown away by the images I saw. Alongside this, although I’m based in London, it just so happened that in 2015 I had a few film projects over in Ireland. The west coast [of Ireland] is an inspiring part of the world, and it gets in your blood. It’s wild and rugged and feels like the edge of the Earth. The people there are natural storytellers. It’s a great place to make a film. It all felt like a perfect storm.

Why did you choose to craft the story around Dylan?

Young jockeys racing in silks on beaches in the wilds of Ireland felt almost like something from another age. It’s a very cinematic world, and the fact that these are kids striving to become professional jockeys added the emotional tension. We traveled out to Ireland knowing the ingredients were there, we just needed to find the story. We met Dylan the night before the race. He was this tiny little guy with the presence and charisma of a rock star, and he was stepping up a level to compete with the older kids. His favorite film was Rocky IV … What’s not to love? We had found our man.

Can you talk about what went into filming the day of the race?

It’s a very natural, understated world, and we wanted the filming approach to stay true to that. We had a tiny crew—just Eoin, the DP [director of photography]; Matt, our production manager; and me on the shoot, so there weren’t many spare hands for elaborate rigs and so forth. This approach was partly practical, but even if we did have a budget and more crew I don’t think we would have changed anything; we were so light and agile, and it gave us intimacy with Dylan and the people there. The anamorphics have such a strong look that you don’t need to overcomplicate things with anything too fancy. Even the tracking shots in the racing scenes had a very down-to-earth solution: all filmed with us hanging out the back of a banged-up pickup truck.

Lastly, we got really lucky with the filming conditions. The skies were epic and the quality of light was incredible.

What was the best part of the shoot?

The shoot was an incredible experience, but the best part has been an outcome that none of us could have imagined. When we released the film it caught the eye of legendary 19-time champion jockey Sir AP McCoy. He’d seen something of himself in young Dylan and got in touch with us to invite Dylan to England so he could help him—working on his technique, riding out together, meeting trainers, and so on. It was such a wonderfully kind gesture. Dylan opened the invitation letter from AP on Christmas Day, and even though Dylan is cool as a cucumber, his mum said he was so happy he shed a wee tear. Dylan

is staying with AP later this month on his half-term break. We’ve all been pretty humbled by how our little film could have such a positive impact on Dylan’s life. (Photo attached if of use)

Did you encounter any unique challenges while filming?

The shoot was actually pretty charmed, and the bigger challenge was in the edit. The ambition for this documentary was not to explain the world, but to move our audience and make them feel what it felt like to be there. We wanted to give people goose bumps! In a film that’s only five and a half minutes long, we didn’t want to get bogged down explaining everything, so in the edit we were quite lean and light with the details of the characters’ backgrounds, the amateur nature of the sport, the context of the race meeting, and so on. We just tried to make a simple story about a young lad taking on a big challenge and growing up along the way.

Who are your artistic influences?

As we prepared for the shoot, Eoin and I shared references and images with each other to establish a tone and feel for the piece. A couple of the key influences were Paul Henry’s landscape paintings and portraits Linda Brownlee had taken of kids in Achill [Island], also on the west coast of Ireland. Musically we wanted the piece to feel rooted in Ireland but treat it in a way that felt contemporary and had an edge. We took inspiration from the mandolins and bodhran of the likes of Christy Moore, and we worked Father, amazing composers who really nailed the soundscape.

What are you working on next?

This film is part of a broader independent platform we have recently launched called Postcards, in association with Sheffield Doc/Fest. Postcards was created to explore the limits of the oldest film genre, and our film fund will be awarding commissions of up to £5,000 to up-and-coming and established directors who have amazing [documentary] ideas that concern themselves with form just as much as content. We’ve had a huge number of submissions to the first round, and we can’t wait to get the best and boldest films into production.

Personally I’m working with co-director Jono Stevens on a documentary about an ex-con who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery but turned his life around. It’s a very uplifting redemption story, and it is a privilege to be telling it.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Rachel Link
Rachel Link curates content for National Geographic's Short Film Showcase. Each week she features films from talented creators that span a range of topics. She hopes that this work will inspire viewers to explore the world around them and encourages filmmakers to keep pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling.