Chat with Michael Ratner, Director of ‘Gonzo @ the Derby’

Pop Culture
Michael D. Ratner directed for ESPN the 30 for 30 film “Gonzo @ the Derby.” (ESPN)

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson, a native of Louisville, went to the Kentucky Derby to cover the race for Scanlan’s Monthly, an edgy, short-lived publication. In the process of this writing assignment, Thompson created a revolutionary style of writing: gonzo journalism. What Thompson birthed was creative and daring, a strange combination of autobiography, criticism, humor, stream-of-consciousness and investigative writing.

The article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was also the beginning of Thompson’s life-long collaboration with illustrator Ralph Steadman. One of the most well-known pieces to come from their partnership is the novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Ratner (OBB Pictures)

A new ESPN “30 for 30 Shorts,” directed by Michael D. Ratner, titled “Gonzo @ the Derby” brings Thompson’s Kentucky Derby piece to new audiences. It premiered here online the week before the 2016 Kentucky Derby and was part of the 6 p.m. edition of “SportsCenter” the day before the run for the roses.

Ratner, 26, is now the youngest person to direct a 30 for 30 film, and “Gonzo @ the Derby” was an official selection at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ratner is the founder of the multi-media production company OBB Pictures, which has produced comedy and music pieces and specializes in sports-related content. His full-length documentary “In Football We Trust” was an official 2015 Sundance Film Festival selection.

Shortly after the release of “Gonzo @ the Derby,” Ratner was at the Cannes Film Festival, but he was happy to answer questions for America’s Best Racing when he returned.

Are you a horse racing fan? If so, how did you become one? What is your involvement in the sport?

I was not a horse racing fan; I was just a Hunter S. Thompson fan. But after making this film, I have definitely found myself paying more attention.

Have you been to the Kentucky Derby? If so, what do you think of Thompson’s portrayal?

I have not been to the Kentucky Derby, although I plan to go to my first one next year. How could I not after Hunter’s portrayal?

What motivated you to make “Gonzo @ the Derby”?

ESPN came to us and said they were looking for something in the world of horse racing, so we came back to them with a story that really had very little, if anything at all, to do with the horses. Like Hunter, I was more interested in learning about the experience of attending an event like the Kentucky Derby, where you’re there for days despite the fact that the race itself is only two minutes long. I also wanted focus in on this major moment in Hunter’s career, and journalism itself, and celebrate it. It was groundbreaking on so many levels, and I thought that “30 for 30” was the perfect platform for it. 

What was the research process — and the entire process — like? 

It was an amazing research process because we had the ability to speak to the people who were actually involved in the story.  When I first read Hunter’s article, my first thought was I had to speak to Ralph Steadman, who was on the trip, and Warren Hinckle, who commissioned the article for Scanlans. From there, we had the opportunity to talk to the people who knew Hunter best, like Douglas Brinkley, John Walsh and Sean Penn, which was fascinating because they had information and insight that no one else knew and they could tell stories that nobody else could.  

Gonzo @ the Derby poster. (ESPN)

When did you first read “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”? What was your reaction?

I first read Hunter’s article in high school.  My thoughts were, “Man, what a badass. What a crazy, smart, cool, wild, funny, badass!” I was inspired and wanted to read all his work.

What was it like to be with Ralph Steadman? 

Amazing! His studio made me feel like a kid in a candy shop … so many iconic images, so much creative energy. He had stories that had me laughing, and stories that I couldn’t believe. He was Hunter’s partner and his knowledge was the backbone of this [documentary]. He was the only one there with Hunter through it all — well, his body that is — I don’t know if either of their minds were there the whole time. 

Who sings the fantastic rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” at the end of the short, and where can we download it?

Rayland Baxter sings the rendition and it was produced by Nick Bockrath of Cage the Elephants. As of now, it isn’t available for download, but we may get it up online soon! 

What do you want your audience to take away from “Gonzo @ The Derby”?

The hope is that a younger generation who might not know of Hunter will come to appreciate his work and realize how much of an influence he had on the way sports are covered today. To take it even further, I hope this younger generation will go check out all of his amazing work so that his influence and legacy will remain as strong as ever. He made this world a much more interesting, creative place … and crazy. 

What is next on the horizon in your career?

I’m show-running a new scripted comedy that we are really excited about for Verizon Go90, we have a couple more feature docs coming out shortly, and finally we have a new dramatic mini-series in the works and a narrative feature. We’ve got a lot of things we are juggling in the pipeline at OBB.  Hopefully, one or two of them have some horses for you guys. 

Who was your pick in the 2016 Kentucky Derby? 

I bet everything on Oscar Nominated to finish first since I work in the film industry … I was only off by 16 spots. 

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