Sue Rathbone with Kris Kristofferson and Odd Job Bob on location in Georgia
By Stephanie Lawson
Most horse owners who want to promote their favorite breed will take their horse to an expo, arrange a demonstration at a horse show, or ride in a parade.
Not Sue Rathbone and Ed Fitts of El Brio Vanners in Chester County, PA. Novices in the film world, their idea of breed promotion is to produce a major independent, star studded, destined-for-theatres, full length movie.
Sue, a lifelong horsewoman, and Ed Fitts own a 200 acre ranch where they breed and sell Gypsy Vanner horses. They put all the pieces in place for a family-oriented comedy, The Greening of Whitney Brown, which was shot in Georgia for over a month, finishing in mid-November. The stars include Brooke Shields, Kris Kristofferson, Aidan Quinn, Sammi Hanratty and Odd Job Bob, the family's teenaged Gypsy Vanner gelding.
A videographer who had included their ranch in part of a video promoting the Gypsy Vanner breed approached the couple about financing a screenplay. "We didn't know anything (about the film business) so we hired producers, who made us realize the screenplay wasn't right for a theatrical production," Rathbone said. Instead of using the original screenplay, they hired Gail Gilchrist, screenwriter for the family film My Dog Skip, to write a new one. "She spent a lot of time at our place. Our requirements for the film were that no one dies, life lessons would be learned, and everyone would live happily ever after. And that it be a non-animated kids' movie.
"We wanted to promote the Gypsy Vanner breed, and the film is an investment for us. We also wanted to produce something that we felt was missing – a non-animated kids' movie that taught some life lessons and both kids and parents could also enjoy."
The film chronicles the misadventures of Whitney Brown (Sammi Hanratty), a spoiled, rich Philadelphia teenager, who is forced to leave behind her active social life and move to the country when her parents, Henry (Aidan Quinn) and Joan (Brooke Shields) fall on hard times. Living on her grandparents' old farm, she finds a new best friend in Odd Job Bob, owned by her crusty neighbor Dusty (Kris Kristofferson), who turns out to be her estranged grandfather. By the end of the film she has learned to respect her family, nature, and also herself.
The cast was assembled by the casting director, who was hired by the producers (Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason of Perfect Weekend), Rathbone said. "They kind of led us in the right direction, but we had choices in the casting." Playing the lead, Whitney Brown, is Sammi Hanratty, a fourteen year old actress who, among other roles, played Chuck on the TV series Pushing Daisies and the new Christmas movie "The Christmas Carol" with Jim Carey. Variety recently picked her as one of the top ten up and coming child stars, Rathbone said.
Odd Job Bob
The couple's Gypsy Vanner gelding, Odd Job Bob, also stars in the film, and was trained for the film by Tommie Turvey. Bob, who Rathbone and Fitts imported from Ireland six years ago, has competed in dressage, jumping, western, and driving. He's appeared as an ambassador for the Gypsy Vanner breed, has been pictured on greeting cards and calendars and starred in a children's book.
Rathbone found Turvey in a Google ‘movie horse trainer' search. She selected him after "every search kept coming back to him," she said. Turvey, well known to local audiences for his "Equine Extremist" appearances at Horse World Expo and other major shows, signed on as trainer and stunt coordinator in January, when he began working with Odd Job Bob.
"I love this little kid," Turvey said of Hanratty, the fourteen year old star. "She takes direction so well, you only have to tell her one time. She never rode a horse before this film, now she rides bareback and bridleless."
Because Bob is so prominent in the film, "they rely on me to tell them what will look good," Turvey said. "The director (Peter Skillman Odiome of Malvern, PA, in his directorial debut) is a good guy and gives me a lot of say. Usually in filming I just keep my mouth shut. In this movie they don't do anything without asking my opinion, because Bob is the star of the show, and he's in just about every scene."
Horse In House
"Whitney is spoiled and rich, and when her parents move to a rundown house in the country, the horse is inside the house. The horse does what he wants, but he likes her for some reason, probably because she thinks he's disgusting. He follows her to school and hangs around her and eventually she falls in love with the horse."
Turvey said Odd Job Bob is "pretty docile and hard to motivate. He's the toughest horse I ever trained to lay down, he did not want to do it. The older a horse is and the more trainers they've had, the harder it is. Now he'll back up and sit on hay bales, work at liberty, march and do much more."
Bob has two stunt doubles, as they can't take a chance on his getting hurt while running or jumping. Turvey's assistant trainer Lori Miller got her Screen Actors Guild card in order to be the stunt double for Hanratty. "I'm able to repay her for all her hard work and I feel great about it," Turvey said.
"We're happy with the product," Rathbone said. Next step is editing, and then special effects and music will be added. "We've been working on it for two years and we're about two-thirds of the way now. We have about a year to go, and we're pitching it to major studios in the US and overseas. We hope it will be in theatres sometime next year."
Follow the movie on Facebook "The Greening of Whitney Brown" and "Odd Job Bob" or YouTube or visit www.elbriovanners.com.