When Ron Davis decided to become a documentary filmmaker at age 38, he didn’t know anything about making movies. He’d never directed a scene. He’d never interviewed a subject. He wasn’t some auteur who’d spent his childhood studying camera angles in obscure foreign films. He didn’t even like documentaries that much.
But he believed in one thing: His gut instinct.
“I knew what a movie should feel like,” he said. “I knew what a movie should be about. I knew all the puzzle pieces, but I didn’t know how to put them together.”
He learned fast. A decade later, Davis has created his own film company, won numerous awards, developed one movie for HBO and is riding high on the success of his latest, “Harry and Snowman,” which is playing in theaters across the country.
The documentary, about an immigrant equestrian who paid $80 for a plow horse and turned him into a world-renowned show jumper, has been praised by major newspapers from New York to Los Angeles.
Davis isn’t some Hollywood player. He works out of Wellington, in a non-descript office complex along busy State Road 7. His film empire is a tiny room — call it an expanded cubicle — that you get to by walking down a narrow hallway lined with therapists. (“The screams start about 6 p.m.,” he jokes.)
It doesn’t take long to realize that the Ron Davis story — an improbable, do-it-yourself tale of pluck, luck and sheer willpower — would make a hell of a Ron Davis movie.
‘Talented, but you don’t know what you’re doing’
Davis’ story doesn’t start with movies. But it does begin with horses.
Growing up in Kinnelon, N.J., he was riding by age 10. As a teenager, he competed in junior equestrian contests every weekend. During his last year of high school, he visited Wellington for three months during the season, participating in hunter-jumper events at the fields off South Shore Boulevard.
Davis did well enough on a regional level, but he saw no future in it, so he dropped out in his mid-20s, moving into sales at a publishing house in New York City. “I thought this would work for about a year,” he recalled. “Fifteen years later, I was vice president of a division of Barnes and Noble.”
One day, someone showed him a video that celebrated a friend’s life. As a lark, Davis decided to make a similar video for an equestrian he knew. He thought it would be a cool present, nothing more. A filmmaker friend saw something else. He told Davis: “You’re talented, but you don’t know what you’re doing.”
So Davis got serious. He took two 12-week night courses at the New York Film Academy. And, just like that, with a certainty that has becomes Davis’ guiding principle, he announced that he was ready to make a film.
He went back to his friend, Stewart Halpern-Fingerhut, a producer on the TV series “How I Met Your Mother,” and they agreed on a documentary about female impersonators who compete in the Miss Gay America pageant. While attending Syracuse University, Davis had attended drag shows and knew impersonators were unfairly stereotyped. He wanted to show how seriously they approached these competitions.
“I knew no one was going to give me money to do a feature film, but I could get money to make a documentary,” he said.
His background in sales helped: Davis cajoled his dad and friends to chip in money. He bargained with companies for sponsorship and product placement in exchange for airline tickets, hotel rooms and car rentals. On weekends, he went from California to Memphis to Orlando filming stories of the participants.
The movie, called “Pageant,” cost about $100,000. Never made a dime. But it got 10 awards at film festivals. The New York Times reviewed it favorably in 2008, and it played on the Sundance Channel.
Davis was a total neophyte. “I didn’t know any of the lingo,” he recalled. “I couldn’t talk to the cameraman.”
Clay Westervelt, the cinematographer on all of Davis’ films, remembers. Westervelt was a seasoned pro, and had a master’s in film from respected USC. He’d worked on TV shows and music videos. He knew the lingo.
That’s why he considered quitting before the shoot.
“I really thought to myself, ‘I’m so tired of working with new directors and explaining everything to them,’” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “But I’m so lucky I didn’t try to back out of it.”
What he discovered in Davis, he said, was somebody with taste, focus and confidence. And, most telling, a guy who wasn’t afraid to ask about what he didn’t know. It’s such a rare quality that Westervelt can’t think of anybody quite like Davis.
“I really don’t know who I’d compare him with,” Westervelt said. “I don’t think I’ve worked with anybody who impressed me so much out of the gate.”
Key to directing: ‘You just have to do it.’
After “Pageant,” Davis realized that co-directing strained friendships. He needed to go it alone.
He read an article in People magazine about Abbey Curran, a Miss Iowa with cerebral palsy who competed in the 2008 Miss USA contest. Curran had started a small hometown affair called the Miss You Can Do It pageant, where girls with special needs have their own dress-up moment in a high school auditorium. And everybody wins a prize.
“The hair on my arms went up,” Davis said about reading the article. “I got chills. I said, ‘That’s my next movie.’”
Davis trusts this immediate response. He doesn’t second-guess it. If he knows anything, he says, it’s how to pick a story.
“You either have a talent for certain things or you don’t,” he said. “You just have to do it. People say I’m brave. I’m not brave. I had as much anxiety and fear as anybody else, but I just didn’t let it show.”
And luck played its part. At a dinner party, he started talking with a guest about his movie. Turns out the guy was a big wheel in HBO’s documentaries division. After a couple years of Davis working on his own, HBO stepped in and bankrolled the production. Davis used the windfall to repay his “Pageant” backers.
If Davis has any directorial trademarks, 2013’s “Miss You Can Do It” showcases them.
He likes inspirational, heart-tugging tales that wrap in less than 90 minutes — he calls long-winded films “docu-boring.” He only tells stories he cares about. And he doesn’t like to tell them in a familiar way — no scenes of kids in doctors’ offices or “JonBenet Ramsey in a wheelchair.”
Davis doesn’t talk much to subjects before filming. He wants their comments to be fresh on camera. “I’m trying to tell my (first) experience of it through the lens.”
With the film completed, and HBO’s pedigree on his résumé, Davis figured his career would get easier. But when he wanted to make “Harry and Snowman,” HBO declined to get involved.
“You have to start at the bottom again,” he said.
‘Horse stories always do well’
By this time, Davis was ready to leave New York and quit his publishing job. When the market crashed, he’d bought some investment properties at the Polo Club in Wellington. Liking the weather and lifestyle, he moved his one-man Docutainment Films here.
The saga of Harry de Leyer and his unlikely horse Snowman seemed perfectly tailored for Davis. De Leyer grew up in Holland, fought in the Dutch resistance during World War II, then moved to America and taught riding at a girls school on Long Island.
One day, he attended an auction and bought a white horse destined for slaughter. Cost: $80. His children named him Snowman. De Leyer tried to sell the horse, but it kept jumping fences and returning to de Leyer. He started riding the family nag in equestrian competitions.
De Leyer and Snowman eventually went on to win the creme de la creme of equestrian shows at Madison Square Garden in 1958 and 1959. Their story became world famous: An $80 horse beating all the high-priced stock of high society. Newspapers couldn’t resist, dubbing Snowman “the Cinderella horse.”
Davis looked at the movie practically. He knew the milieu. He just needed the money. Luck came calling again. He met a woman who had shot footage of de Leyer years before and a businessman who Googled Snowman, saw Davis’ name and wanted in. They provided financing and became executive producers.
Bottom line? “Even if I screwed it up, it’s a horse story,” Davis figured. “They always do well.”
It was harder than he thought. MGM held the rights to de Leyer’s story. It took 11 months to get that settled. For the first time, Davis faced incorporating a wealth of archival material into a film — from de Leyer’s amateur home movies to appearances on talk and game shows. Davis went through three editors to get the film’s tone right. Three soundtrack composers, too.
And while de Leyer loved being the center of attention, it took Davis hours to encourage de Leyer to talk about his experiences as a teenager during World War II. There were other difficulties. While de Leyer was devoted to Snowman, he could be a tough taskmaster to his wife and eight children. His first wife, who died before shooting began, eventually left him.
De Leyer, now 89, didn’t say much about this, so it fell to daughter Harriet to be the audience’s conduit. While some critics have suggested that Davis didn’t fully explore this aspect of the family’s story, she appreciated how sensitively Davis treated it.
“He was very in tune with how things could be upsetting,” said Harriet de Leyer from New York. “He made me feel like it was going to be OK.”
There have been previous books on Snowman and Hollywood interest, but she liked that Davis didn’t “make it more Disney.” And even she learned new details of her father’s World War II years, which included hiding Jews in his family’s barn.
The movie “is everything I hoped it would be,” she said. “My father is all about showmanship, so he was thrilled to have a film made about him.”
“Harry and Snowman” has been the best-reviewed film of Davis’ career. Critics have praised its focus on “the profound partnership between man and horse,” as The Village Voice wrote. It has a 90 percent approval rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes and has won multiple film festival awards. While still screening nationwide, it comes out Nov. 22 on DVD and will be on Netflix early next year, Davis said.
So far, according to online box office estimates, it has made about $400,000. Not bad for a film distributed apart from the big studios.
“Independent films don’t get theatrical releases at all,” noted cinematographer Westervelt. “And independent documentaries? It’s one in a million.”
Davis’ motto: ‘Simple, character-driven stories’
So how do you make a living when it takes years to complete a movie? (Four years in the case of “Harry and Snowman.”) It helps to diversify.
Davis takes a small directing stipend on his movies, but he also has rental properties in Wellington. And he’s got his own product tie-in: He bought the copyright on an old book about Snowman, and had it rewritten as a children’s story.
And now he’s ramping up his film production, working on two movies for release in 2018.
“I Am We” will be a multi-part “docu-series” on DID, dissociative identity disorder, which used to be referred to as multiple personalities. “Life In The Doghouse” is another animal rescue story, this one about two gay men in South Carolina who drove to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and brought 600 dogs back to their shelter.
After the whirlwind of releasing “Harry and Snowman,” he’s hoping to focus on his personal life, too. He’s engaged to Luis Rodriguez, a Realtor in Wellington, and they share their Polo Club home with rescue dogs. (No horses. He hasn’t ridden one in three years.)
While Davis would be happy to see his career move into Hollywood features, he’s not chasing it. He’s sticking to the Ron Davis formula: “simple, character-driven stories” that he can sell and tell.
“I couldn’t make a documentary about something I don’t care about,” he said. “If you have to spend three years of your life on something, you really have to like it.”