Disney+ is ready to introduce a new generation of horse girls to Black Beauty. The timeless tale of one horse's unbreakable bond with a special young person gets an update courtesy of director Ashley Avis, who first read 19th century author Anna Sewell's novel when she was a child.
"Like so many people, it really impacted me. I just wanted to be part of the world of horses," she tells ET. "I grew up on this book, and it very much influenced my entire life and the way everything has panned out with my love of horses."
Kate Winslet voices the titular mare, who in Avis' reimaging is born in the wild of the American West. Beauty is soon rounded up and taken to a stable, where she meets a spirited teenage girl (Mackenzie Foy) and both of their lives are forever changed.
Along with these new photos from the film, ET can exclusively announce that Black Beauty will debut on Disney+ on Nov. 27. Read on for a chat with Avis about paying homage to the original and how she hopes this movie will do good in the world.
What was the inspiration for wanting to tell your own version of Black Beauty?
I read Beauty and just became a horse crazy kid, like many other women do. [Laughs] The Black Stallion was another seminal novel for me. I asked my mom if I could take riding lessons and I competed until I went to college, [then] my life went a different direction. I wanted to go to the Olympics when I was younger, but that wasn't the way fate was directing me at the time. About a decade passed before horses reentered my life, and the way this happened was really interestingly serendipitous.
I met [producer] Jeremy Bolt about three years ago. I knew him for the Resident Evil franchise, so I went into that meeting not quite sure what to pitch, because I don't really write in that particular genre. But he's such a kind, lovely person. We talked about stories that had inspired us to go into our line of business, and I mentioned The Black Stallion. The scene on the beach between Alec and Black, in the '70s version of that film, it's five minutes set to score and it's the connection between a horse and a human. It's just one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in cinema. If Black Beauty inspired my love of horses, The Black Stallion helped to inspire my love of film. And Jeremy said, "Well, that's interesting you say that, because my partner and I have wanted to remake Black Beauty for 10 years." The only things they knew that they wanted to do [were] they wanted to modernize the story and they wanted Beauty to be female. And then they left it up to me.
In telling this story within a contemporary setting, what did you want to bring that was new?
Growing up with that novel, it was really, really, really important to me to not just create a brand-new Black Beauty story. I really wanted to do the work to find the parallels of the original story. It's such a beloved book, so that was really important to me. The biggest challenge I had was figuring out origin story for Beauty, because there's not really a direct parallel to Beauty being a carthorse in London in the late 1800s. So, I went back to research why Anna Sewell had written the novel in the first place. A lot of people don't know that she was crippled when she was really, really young and she was carried by horses.
In that day and age, people didn't really understand horses or animals the way we do now, as empathetic creatures that are highly intelligent and can understand the emotions that we can. So, she wrote [Black] Beauty to get into the hands of grooms and stableboys and people that were working with horses to inspire them to look deeper and to stop certain cruelties that were happening in her time. She died six months after the book was published, so she'll never truly know the influence she had. But laws were changed. So, in changing Beauty's origin to a wild horse in our version, it very much parallels Anna Sewell's original intentions, and I'm hoping to make change for an under-illuminated cause for horses today.
Not only is Beauty gender-swapped from the source material, but Jo is as well. Both are female in your version. Why was that important to you?
I always identified with little Joe Greene in the original novel. Even though he dips in and out in the book and Beauty has so many different chapters in the original novel, Joe Greene is the one she comes back to at the end. As a female filmmaker and as a writer that has always identified with strong female characters, I thought that it was very timely -- as did Jeremy Bolts -- to have Jo be female.
What was it like pitching Kate Winslet to voice a horse -- albeit, an iconic horse? Did the title sell her immediately, or did she take convincing?
It was really special the day that I got the call that Kate said yes, because I grew up on Titanic. I still haven't told Kate this, but when I watched Titanic for the first time, I remember my dad telling me the story -- and I still don't even know if this is true, I think it may be Titanic lore -- but my dad told me at a very young age, he goes, "Kate sent a letter to beg for the role of Rose. And it was through her gumption and talent and elegance that she was able to get what she wanted." Since I was a little kid, I've clung to that. That's actually the reason that, as a director, I always write letters to actors that we're approaching for our projects.
I haven't gotten up the gall to ask her if that's true yet. She's so lovely, so I'll ask her one day, but I spent probably four or five hours writing her a letter about why I really wanted her for the voice of Beauty. She was the first choice from the very beginning. I heard Beauty's voice in her voice as I was writing the screenplay. Usually as a writer, you don't want to do that -- think about certain actors -- but her elegance and her intelligence and her fire and her spunk directly correlated to the character. I couldn't have imagined somebody better, so it was special when we got the call that she had said yes. I heard she really responded to the screenplay, which was why she signed on.
Having written this with Kate in mind, what was it like the first time you got to see her voice paired with your footage?
It was unbelievable. I've been editing my own work for about a decade, and Constantin [Film] was so generous in believing in me, never having cut a full feature before. I spent well over 100 hours cutting in her voiceover, every single beat I cut in and I nestled within the score to find the perfect pacing. When we were recording, the one line in Black Beauty that made me start crying a little bit in the room was the famous line from the novel, which is, "It is good people that make good places." When she recited such an iconic line from a book that I've loved so much, it was just... She transforms the movie. She's just spectacular.
Beyond Kate's casting, do you have something in the film you're particularly excited for fans to see?
I do. And I'm really excited to know that you are releasing the beach photo, that is just so spectacular. The beach scene in Black Beauty is very much an homage to the scene in The Black Stallion. And when people see that beach scene, [know] Mackenzie did her own stunts. We only did it once. We had two tracking vehicles following her on Beauty and when she releases her hands from the reins -- at a gallop down the beach at perfect sunset, which we timed so specifically -- you see this moment come across Mackenzie's face which is so real. It's the fear of letting go of the reins on a horse moving at top speed, but then the joy that crosses her face as her arms go up like she can fly. The authenticity of that moment -- which is a moment that pretty much every little girl dreams of -- to get to see that happen and for her to actually experience that, I think that that just comes across so beautifully in the movie.
The movie is out next month. Do you have an ideal Disney+ viewing experience for people watching at home?
The biggest screen that you can access! Another favorite movie of mine is Lawrence of Arabia. I've always been drawn to those big dramatic landscapes, coupled with very intimate, personal stories of the characters. The landscapes and world that we built are really visually spectacular. So, just try to watch it on the biggest screen you can.
Black Beauty is streaming on Disney+ on Nov. 27.