Peruvians on the Silver Screen
It was spring. Snow in Oregon’s high country was melting, and the rivers were swollen with icy water. On the banks of the Crooked River, filming was underway on Warner Brother’s movie The Postman. Director Kevin Costner already had problems. A group of local wranglers had been hired for horse scenes, but they all declined to do a scene that required riding across the rising river.
Shaun Gavin, the Assistant Location Manager, approached Jackie MacNeill to ask if she had a horse that might do the scene. Jackie and her husband, Murray, owned a portion of the property where The Postman was being filmed; and Gavin knew they raised Peruvian Paso horses. The hope was that Jackie and one of her horses knew the river well enough to attempt the crossing.
"I hadn’t ridden Pepe [MJM Pepe El Padrino] for over a half year," Jackie remembers, "but I just knew he’d do it. Besides, the thought of a Peruvian Paso getting attention from Warner Brothers was too much temptation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I agreed to do it."
The "big event" was scheduled for Friday morning.
Jackie had always called Pepe her "water baby" because he loved nothing more than playing in water and swimming. He’d had a ball during a five day camp-out on the Oregon coast where he’d carried the MacNeills on long stretches of Pacific Ocean beach; and for years, Jackie had used him to teach young horses how to cross rivers. That was the good news. The bad news was that Jackie was coming down with the flu and had the typical chills and fevers. She felt terrible, and that was in her best moments.
"It was the worst-possible time to be going into ice-cold water on a wintry day in February," Jackie remembers, "but it was ‘now or never’. I decided I’d be sick the following day and then get better the day after that."
There was plenty of time to grow nervous while trailering Pepe five miles to the river crossing.
"I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life? What if something went wrong, and I made the Peruvian breed look bad!"
That’s how you recognize a true aficionado! Jackie worried about making the breed look bad rather than about drowning!
To get to the crossing, Jackie had to unload Pepe and ride him to the "hamlet" Warner Brothers was building. Wearing layered, lightweight clothes – just in case she wound up in the river – Jackie rode pretty much the same path that Kevin Costner and his mule, Bill, follow in one of the movie’s early scenes.
When they got to the hamlet, they had to ride through a behind-schedule construction site where generators screamed, pneumatic nail guns banged and dogs barked at Pepe’s heels. As Peruvians will do, Pepe collected himself and went into his best gait, looking regal and attracting attention even among workmen who were surrounded by famous people and interesting sights.
"The crossing was staked out, and my instructions were to cross straight from one stake to the other," Jackie recalls. "Pepe and I checked out the site where we were supposed to jump off a steep bank into the river. I didn’t like the look of it … so Warner Brothers and I compromised. I rode downstream to a safer entry point and then brought Pepe back along the shoreline to the stake. From my new vantage point, I could see that I’d been right not to jump my horse where I’d been told. There were submerged rocks, and Pepe could easily have broken a leg."
At that moment "a wonderful man" in a kayak paddled up to her.
"I’ll be downstream from you," he informed her. "If you fall off, grab the back of the kayak."
Great! That was just what Jackie needed to hear. Seeing the look on her face, the man in the Kayak tried to comfort her.
"Don’t worry. Even if you miss the kayak, I’ll catch up to you before you hit the rapids."
Great! Now she was more worried than ever!
"At that point, Pepe and I were in deep water, above my knees and above his shoulders," Jackie reports, "and it was very cold. I knew that if I sat there and chatted any longer, I’d lose my nerve."
Jackie told the man in the kayak not to worry because she had no intention of going into that freezing water. He laughed and said "See ya". Then he paddled into position, downstream, beyond range of the cameras. Jackie and Pepe scrambled out of the water to the designated starting point. Then, with cameras rolling, they plunged back in.
"Pepe entered the river like he’d done it every day of his life," Jackie says. He cautiously checked out the footing and then increased his speed. Right then it occurred to me that I was a 53-year-old grandmother; and Pepe was my first Peruvian foal, now 16 years old. I decided to focus on our ‘experience’ rather than our diminished athletic capacity!"
In the middle of the river, Jackie encountered two surprises. The water was deeper than she thought; and even though the surface seemed to be flowing at a reasonable speed, there was a very strong undercurrent.
"I could feel Pepe fighting the current, doing his best to follow the straight path that had been laid out for us."
When they reached the opposite bank, Pepe reached for it with a foreleg.
"His hind legs slid out from under him and into a deep pool," Jackie describes the anxious moments that followed. "Afraid I was loosing him to the current, I kicked him for the first time in my life. He surged forward, and we were out of the river."
The job was only half-done. The return trip waited.
"Pepe couldn’t wait to get back in," says Jackie, who didn’t share his enthusiasm. "I forced him to walk around a few minutes and look everything over."
On the return trip, the strong current nearly forced Jackie and her horse downstream. She had to angle Pepe into the current in order to stay lined up with the stake on the riverbank ahead.
"Pepe was determined to do what I wanted," is how Jackie describes it. "I guided him but didn’t force. He did the rest, by himself. I truly believe that almost any other horse would have wound up downstream from the markers. He was amazing!"
Just as they reached the deepest part of the river, someone yelled, "Go faster!"
"With that swift current, there was no way I could kick him with my heels." Jackie remembers, "so I just asked him with my voice. He leapt forward and went as fast as the river would allow. As we came out of the water, he was excited and went into a wonderful gait, showing off his beautiful action in the forelegs."
Was it Jackie’s imagination or did the man in the kayak look disappointed because nothing had happened to justify his wages? Jackie’s spectating husband and friend, Barb Dulley, showed no signs of disappointment. They were ecstatic, and, one supposes, relieved.
"The Warner Brothers crew seemed pretty excited, too," Jackie recalls with a smile.
One of the consultants asked if he and his wife could stop by Jackie’s house to ride one of their Peruvian horses.
The "wonderful man" in the kayak was equally full of enthusiasm.
"I’m not a horseman," he advised, "but I’ve done this a lot of times with other people, and this was the best."
He went on to say that he thought Peruvians should be used more often for hazardous movie work because of the willing disposition and temperament. That wasn’t the first time people working on the movie had complimented the breed’s temperament. There was plenty of praise from the crew that camouflaged the MacNeill’s house so it wouldn’t show up in the film. The roof and part of the house were draped with a net. A screen resembling a giant green bulletin board was erected and draped with more netting. Holes were drilled, and $ 25,000.00 worth of cut trees were "planted". Most of this work was done around the stable area, and the Peruvian horses were unflappable, even when a giant crane squeezed in between two pipe corrals and started hoisting 60’ trees and lowering them into the drilled holes. A man in a basket attached to the crane hung over the corrals for hours while he adjusted the tops of the trees. When it was all over, the workmen had nothing but praise for the Peruvian disposition.
Suddenly Jackie’s husband, Murray, noticed how wet her clothes were.
"He said I was turning blue," Jackie says with a grin. "He got permission to put me in a Blazer that Warner Brothers had nearby and turned on the heater full blast. Then he rode Pepe to the horse trailer and loaded him up."
Jackie spent a week in bed, recovering from complications of her flu, but she never regretted her experience, not even when the number of horses in the scene was increased, causing her big scene to wind up on the cutting room floor.
"Even later when the depth and speed of the water were reduced, the wranglers’ horses couldn’t get up enough speed to give the scene the desired excitement. Warner Brothers wound up building a bridge to make the crossing as dramatic as Director Costner wanted.
It was disappointing, but the MacNeill’s attitude was summed up in a short conversation between Murray and the Assistant Location Manager.
"What do we owe you for this?" Shawn Gavin asked.
"Oh, nothing," Murray answered. "We had fun."