Weekend Interview: Nick Ryle

- -

English movie producer Nick Ryle was talking with a friend, about sports, about film, about stories, when the subject turned to champion steeplechase jockey A.P. “Tony” McCoy. “What a great story that would be,” Ryle told his friend. “We should film that.”

The friend, McCoy’s commercial agent Johnny Whitmore, had a ready answer: “Let’s go and see him and talk to him about it.”

Spoken about two years ago, those words resulted in a meeting with McCoy and the making of “Being AP,” a documentary about the champion jockey’s final season of National Hunt racing in England. Recently released in North America and showing in Toronto June 28, the film provides an intimate look at one of the world’s great athletes. McCoy won 20 champion jockey awards and won 4,385 races in a career full of big moments at racecourses major and minor in England and Ireland.

The film follows McCoy’s final year in the saddle – though no one knew that when the process began. A few hours after voting in the Brexit referendum last week, Ryle provided some insight and background on how it all happened.

TIHR: “Being AP” is a racing film, but who is your target audience?
Ryle: We tried to make a film that would appeal as much to somebody who has never been racing in their life as it does to someone who is a proper racing fan. I think we sort of achieved that. There are some universal things that come out of it.

TIHR: What’s the message? What do people who see the film learn?
Ryle: What a lot of people pick up on is the whole injury and the sacrifice thing and what any jump jockey puts themselves through physically to do it. The facts are there, but people can’t get what’s involved until they see it. He’s won 4,000 races, but he’s fallen off a racehorse over a fence at speed, 700 times. The idea of that happening 700 times is unbelievable. That mentality comes across in the film. There was no sacrifice too great to make in the pursuit of riding winners and winning a championship. It was totally all-consuming. It was an addiction.

TIHR: Did you know it would be his last season?
Ryle: I thought from the way he was talking, this was spring 2013 probably, I thought he was going to retire after the ’14-15 season. I had this feeling, ‘He’s sort of getting ready to retire.’ Just the things he said. We didn’t know, but I sold it to BBC Films like that. I told them ‘We’re going to capture the whole thing, it’s going to be great.’ Bless them, they stuck with us. It was quite a relief when he told us he was going to retire. It was a very natural end. We got lucky a bit, but it would have been a good story either way. That’s the challenge of shooting a film in the moment. You don’t know where it’s going to end up.

TIHR: What did McCoy do that made you think the retirement decision was coming?
Ryle: There were two main reasons, his obsession with numbers was one. I thought of the power of 20 championships. It has a nice symmetry to it. It’s such a strong number. It’s not 19, it’s not 21 or 22. And he’s very sensitive to criticism. He’d say, “The one thing I couldn’t stand is people saying he’s not as good as he was, he’s not what he was.” He said, “When I retire I’ll be as good as I ever was.”

TIHR: What was the filming schedule?
Ryle: We followed his racing schedule. Obviously we were going to be there at Cheltenham and some of the other big days the rest of the season, obviously Aintree. What did we need to cover to tell the whole story? We had to be quite flexible to illustrate the story, appointments with the doctor, summer racing, the big race meetings, we had in total about 45 days with him across a year which is quite a lot but you’ve got to do it. You don’t really get to know somebody and get them to relax and be natural in front of the camera until you’ve been with them for a bit. He and Anthony (Wonke) our director, they really liked each other. He’s brilliant at getting people to open up and talk in a very natural way.

TIHR: There’s a fairly intense dinner conversation between McCoy and his wife, Chanelle, at a restaurant where she brings up retirement and he scoffs at the notion. How did you manage to get that on camera?
Ryle: It’s amazing that happened. Anthony is very good at getting people relaxed. The camera is actually quite a long way away. They’re both wearing mics, so we picked up all of the sound, but the cameras were not right there. They were pretty far back which made it easier. If you’re natural, you forget the camera is there. We shot the whole of that dinner which is probably an hour and a half and we got that conversation.

TIHR: How much footage do you have?
Ryle: We’ve got 180 hours in the can (for a 98-minute film). You can’t guarantee something is going to happen when you want it to happen so you have a lot that you don’t use. We were at Cheltenham all four days. After two days I was tearing my hair out. It was all a bit of an anticlimax. I could see the budget leaking away. On the third day he won the Ryanair. Huge relief. It’s risky, documentary making, but it’s also fun. Something comes along sometimes, and it’s ‘oh my God.’

TIHR: Compared to other projects, how did this one go?
Ryle: In terms of production it went pretty well. A lot of films go a lot less well. We were fortunate with our subject, fortunate the way the story turned out, fortunate to have the backing of BBC Films. Having said that, there were some rocky moments, some ups and downs. For us, it’s given us the appetite to do more sports stories. You can capture them in a cinematic way. If you add up the minutes, there’s remarkably little race footage in that film. We’re working on a boxing film at the moment. We are very keen to shoot a fight in a way you haven’t seen before.

TIHR: The film is out on DVD and Blu-Ray in England, and soon will be in North America too. What’s different about the theater experience?
Ryle: We spent five to six weeks on the sound, the editing process took longer, everything was done to make it work on the big screen. We shot in such a way it looked cinematic – wide screen, cinema cameras and lenses. You want people to see it the way it was made to be seen.

TIHR: The Toronto International Film Festival showed the film last year to sold-out audiences and rave reviews. How has it been received elsewhere?
Ryle: It’s done very well commercially and been very well received in the UK and beyond. One thing that matters to me is it’s a film that respected racing and did racing justice. The jockeys and trainers and owners liked it and thought it did racing proud. I think we’ve done that. The reaction has been extremely positive.

* * *
The film’s next stop is Toronto Tuesday for an exclusive Queen’s Plate Week screening at one of the city’s hottest new venues, Early Mercy, immediately followed by a screening at The Crest Theatre in Los Angeles June 29. Further dates, including a potential stop in Saratoga this sumemr, will be announced. Directed by BAFTA and EMMY Award winning British filmmaker Anthony Wonke and produced by Nick Ryle, John Woollcombe, and Alan Maher for Moneyglass Films, Being AP takes audiences on a hair-raising ride through his 21st season as the world’s greatest steeplechase jockey and the excruciating decision to hang up his saddle after two decades at the top.

For more, see the project’s website.