Set on the downtrodden and dusty tracks of a live horse racecourse in Phoenix, Arizona, the world of Jockey feels quite a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood. However, with some truly Oscar-worthy performances (notably Clifton Collins Jr. as the titular jockey, for which he received a Sundance Special Jury Award for Best Actor) director Clint Bentley was able to truly create an authentic world that captures both the brutal and the sincere sides of being a professional jockey in the American heartland.

We chatted with Bentley, who spoke about the development process for bringing Jockey to life along with his co-writer and creative partner Greg Kwedar. He shared some insights into how to create a Sundance film both set and produced outside of mainstream Hollywood and LA.

No Film School: Jockey has a very distinctive and dusky film look. What camera did you shoot on? What was the focus of the cinematography in regards to shot types and movement?

Clint BentleyClint Bentley, director of 'Jockey,' an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Elliott Travis

Clint Bentley: Led by our director of photography Adolpho Veloso, we shot on an ARRI ALEXA Mini with Zeiss super speeds. One reason for this was because we simply wanted to be as light and nimble as possible. We’d made shorts with bigger packages in the past, but they were too burdensome. This camera package was the best option for what we were trying to pull off with a small crew.

I knew as a director that I wanted to blend a documentary style with high narrative. I was a bit worried about these contrasting styles at first, but with Adolpho, we were able to figure out our own visual language, which we could then turn those ideas into practice on set. Our goal became to get one really good shot rather than five or six mediocre ones.

We also specifically tried to shoot at magic hour as much as possible. From Adolpho’s perspective we were watching our lead character at the sunset of his career—so setting things in those magic hour moments would help speak to that cinematically.

NFS: What are the challenges of shooting a film on a working racetrack? How did you handle shooting actors with non-actors?

Bentley: Shooting on a working racetrack is a challenge in every way possible. First and foremost there’s the safety of it. It’s a world where people routinely get seriously hurt. So we didn’t want to do anything that would get our crew or actors hurt. We also had to be thoughtful so nothing we did would cause chaos and get a jockey, trainer, or horse hurt.

Eventually, we were able to come up with some creative ways to fold our actors into the action. Sometimes that meant Adolpho going off into a location with just Clifton just for minimal impact. As a director, it really came down to an exercise in trust and letting go of control. We were constantly shuffling the schedule too to make sure that we weren’t holding up anything that they were doing on the track. It was a constant Rubik’s cube.

Almost every [person] besides our three leads were first-time actors, so that was another area of letting go of control to find magic. Greg and I started with a strong script, but in order to get something good and natural, you have to let first-time actors say it in their own voice.

JockeyA still from 'Jockey' by Clint Bentley, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: There are some amazing performances in the film, but Clifton Collins Jr. is a true standout, winning a Special Jury Award. What was your directorial approach to bringing out such powerful performances?

Bentley: Clifton is an amazing human being and an amazing actor. We worked with him on our previous film Transpecos and we just really felt we needed to write a movie for this guy. We knew he could do anything. So we wrote this role for him to showcase every shade of the color wheel that he has.

In terms of working with actors in general, the most important thing you can do is cast great actors. They do all the work for you. And so, with Clifton, Molly Parker, and Moises Arias, they went all-in. They learned the world of horse racing and did their research. Molly worked at a barn with a trainer and bought her own wardrobe. Moises trained with a jockey to get comfortable with the horses.

I really just tried to give them the tools that they needed to build their characters out. Greg and I wrote backstories for all the characters and sent them to the actors. Every night on the shoot we’d sit down with the actors and go through the scenes for the next day. We’d talk them through, they’d ask questions, and we’d even add rewrites based on their feedback. It both made for more powerful performances as well as saved time on set the next day.

NFS: At what point did you think this might be a “Sundance” film? Was that on your mind at all during development? And how did you feel when you found out it was accepted?

Bentley: Every filmmaker wants to go to Sundance. Sundance was the first place I submitted my very first short film to. And it’s the first rejection letter that I ever got. Everything I’ve ever made and made with Greg has been submitted to Sundance and never gotten in. But the amazing thing about this moment is that no strings were pulled. There were no calculations. We made this movie because we simply felt we needed to make it.

Initially, we tried to make it with industry support. But we couldn’t get a production company or a studio on board, so eventually, we decided to just go out and make it with our friends. We even had self-distribution plans lined up. So, the fact that we just submitted on FilmFreeway and that it got in was just a huge honor.

I cried and was in complete shock when I got the call. I think there’s a feeling with some young filmmakers -- I know there was with me -- that you need to know somebody to get in, but they really are just judging based on the work.

JockeyA still from 'Jockey' by Clint Bentley, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: You’re based in Dallas, Texas, which is outside the traditional structures of the industry. How has that developed your filmmaking career? Are there advantages or disadvantages? 

Bentley: The thing about living outside of LA is that in some ways it makes things more difficult. You’re not a short drive away from getting lunch with someone in the industry or with a production company. Greg lives in Austin, and the way we do it is we just spend a week out there at a time and line up as many meetings as possible.

But really, I prefer to be outside of that bubble of being in the same industry as everyone else. Once you get outside of the filmmaking system, you have conversations with people who aren't in the industry and you can actually talk about what they like.

It leads to better, and more interesting, storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young filmmaker in Topeka, Kansas, or some small town in Colombia, anywhere else, you can tell stories and make something that can be very specific—and so specific that it can become universal.

We see a lot of Hollywood movies and they feel bland because they’re trying to make something that appeals to everybody, you know? It’s the films where you can really lean into the particularities—films like Moonlight come to mind.  It's these types of stories, the ones that can actually be particular, are the ones that can be really beautiful and resonate with audiences across the world.

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.