Movie producer Mark Ciardi loves underdogs, which is why “Secretariat” focuses more on the horse’s owner than the legendary thoroughbred.
Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane, was a Denver housewife when she took over her ailing father’s horse farm and helped Secretariat become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Her story is the heart of the inspirational film, which opens tomorrow and co-stars John Malkovich as Secretariat’s flamboyant trainer.
“The rest of her family wanted to sell the farm, but Penny was determined to keep it,” Ciardi, 49, said in a phone interview from his home near Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two sons. “She was a woman in a man’s world who had to overcome a lot of obstacles.”
Ciardi’s own success in the film industry is as unlikely as Chenery’s rise to the top of horse racing in 1973. A former major-league pitcher and fashion model, he and Mayhem Pictures partner Gordon Gray launched their producing careers in the late 1990s while working out of Gray’s garage.
“We had talked about opening a sushi restaurant, but when that fell through, we decided to make movies,” Ciardi said. “We had no training or background. We just figured it out as we went along.”
Over the past decade, Mayhem has produced a series of popular films about underdog athletes, including “The Rookie,” “Miracle” and “Invincible.” All three were distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, which has a deal with Mayhem that runs through 2011.
Miracle on Ice
The subjects of those movies are a 35-year-old, high-school teacher who became a major-league pitcher; the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that upset the mighty Russians; and a 30-year-old teacher/bartender who made it as a National Football League receiver. But Ciardi said sports isn’t their main appeal.
“If you’re just making a movie about sports, I don’t think anyone really cares,” he said. “Sports fans have become very sophisticated and they can watch ESPN all day. Our movies are more about the emotional journey off the field.”
Ciardi’s professional journey took him to Milwaukee, where he had a brief stint as a pitcher for the Brewers in 1987, and Europe, where he spent several years as a model after his baseball career ended. He said his athletic background helped him succeed in his current job.
“There’s nothing harder than trying to make it in professional sports,” Ciardi explained. “Though I didn’t have a long major-league career, I think that confidence transferred to everything I did after that. I’ve never been afraid to try something new.”
Ciardi’s first movie, “The Rookie,” was a direct result of his baseball experience. One of his minor-league teammates was pitcher Jim Morris, who gave up the sport because of arm injuries and became a teacher and baseball coach in his home state of Texas.
A decade later, Morris promised his high-school players he would try out for a major-league team if they won the district championship. When they won the title, he kept his pledge, signed with the Tampa Bay organization and ended up pitching 21 games for the Rays in 1999 and 2000.
Ciardi rediscovered Morris while reading a magazine article about his former teammate’s comeback just before he got called up to the majors. The fledgling producer decided the story would make a terrific movie, but he wasn’t the only one.
“Every studio was interested,” Ciardi said, “but somehow we got it. I think it was meant to be. If I was ever going to do a movie in my life, this was it.”
Ciardi has produced two films starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the former football player and professional wrestler. Following the success of the family comedies “The Game Plan” and “Tooth Fairy,” Mayhem is planning a third collaboration with Johnson, an action movie called “Protection.”
“He’s one of the nicest guys in show business,” Ciardi said. “He can do comedy, he can do action, he can do just about anything.”
That’s not true with horses, who can be temperamental on movie sets. Six horses -- four thoroughbreds, one quarterhorse and a four-legged wonder that specialized in tricks -- were used to play Secretariat. The crew shot close-ups with a small camera that was attached to a stick and stuck out of a car that moved alongside the horses as they ran.
“We used a $600, off-the-shelf Olympus camera with high-def capability on the video,” Ciardi said. “Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.”