Jockey begins before dawn at the Turf Paradise racetrack in Phoenix, as its titular character, Jackson Silva, shoots the breeze with a friend and fellow horse-racing lifer. “It ain’t the same anymore, Leo,” Jackson laments as they lean against the outside rail. Later, he takes a horse out for its morning exercise, then meanders through the grounds alone, sharing a friendly word with everyone he passes.

“You gonna get after it?” he says to a rider on a horse.

“You want to say hello to this guy?” the rider replies. “His name is See Ya Later Alligator!” 

“Beautiful,” Jackson replies, giving the horse a pat.

These moments set the scene for a film that’s both an impressionistic character study and an engrossing slice of racing life. But a lot of it is also real life. Jockey is a work of fiction, written by Texans Clint Bentley and Greg Kwedar, and directed by Bentley, but its filmmaking process was more cinema verité. Turf Paradise is a working track in Phoenix that remained so during filming, and only one of the three people from the scenes above—Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Jackson—is a professional actor. Leo is played by a real jockey, Logan Cormier, who was cast right off the track; the moment with the rider wasn’t scripted. See Ya Later Alligator plays himself.

Bentley and cinematographer Adolpho Veloso were still filming from another scene when Collins took a walk around the back of the barns. “A bunch of people started interacting with Clifton, as Jackson,” Bentley says. “That guy was taking his horse out to exercise him and just walked up and started talking to Clifton. We just filmed what unfolded. Clifton was so smart to stay in character and go with it. It was one of those incredible moments of serendipity that could have only come from shooting on a live track.”

Jockey began playing in theaters around the state on January 28, almost exactly a year after its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where Collins won a Special Jury Award for Best Actor. His quietly expressive and physical performance is indeed a star turn, though it retains the veteran character actor’s gift for disappearing into a role (something he’s also done in Nightmare Alley, Westworld, and the Hulu season of Veronica Mars). In addition to Collins, the film stars Molly Parker (Deadwood, House of Cards), Moises Arias (Hannah Montana, The King of Staten Island), and almost no other professional actors, with music by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National.

Jockey has elements of both a western and a sports movie, but Seabiscuit or Rocky it is not. Instead, the film is made of darker stuff, à la The Wrestler, or even North Dallas Forty—especially in the way it highlights horse racing as both spiritually rewarding and physically destructive work (a portion of the film’s proceeds will be donated to the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund). “How many times have you broken your back?” a doctor—not an MD, but the on-track veterinarian—asks Jackson in front of an X-ray early in the film. Later, we see the jockey eating a dinner of half an apple and a carrot, just like a horse, trying to shed weight.

It’s a film told largely in close-ups, with very little action, most of which was fudged by taking advantage of what was already happening at the track, with a little movie magic that Bentley declines to reveal. “But it’s not so different than what a bunch of twelve-year-olds would have done if they were making a racing movie,” he says. “It was very lo-fi, but it sells it.”

Bentley says his own cinematic influences were neorealistic, mostly foreign films that made him feel like he had disappeared into the characters and worlds. But his biggest inspiration was more personal: his late father, Robby Bentley, was both a jockey and a horse trainer. Known professionally as Robert or R.G., he worked the same travel-heavy, small-time circuit as Jackson Silva.

A photo of R. G. Bentley briefly appears in the film—it was taken during a race in 1984, right after he was thrown off a horse at the finish line, the shot making it look like he was actually running ahead of the horse, still upright (though not for long). Nobody working at Turf Paradise actually knew Bentley’s father, but a lot of them had seen that picture.

Now a Dallas resident, Clint Bentley was raised on a cattle ranch in Florida—the cows were Mom’s department—but by the time he was in college, his parents had sold that ranch and moved to one in Goldthwaite, at the northwest edge of the Hill Country. While spending time with his parents, Bentley wound up falling for the daughter of a neighboring family, and his now-wife, Rachel, also introduced him to Kwedar. A Fort Worth native and Austin resident, Kwedar is also a former Texas A&M accounting major who first caught the film bug while also playing semi-professional rugby in Australia.

Kwedar later volunteered at an orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, while Bentley made a student film along the border, experiences that eventually led to their first film, 2016’s Transpecos. A darkly comic thriller about the border patrol and narcotraficantes, it also featured the charismatic Collins and established the duo’s quasi-journalistic approach to screenwriting and filmmaking. They based themselves in Marfa and spent a lot of preproduction time just hanging out with people at and around the border, including U.S. Border Patrol agents (though unlike Turf Paradise, the agency itself did not cooperate).

Growing up, Bentley used to travel around the country with his father in the summer. “And I would go out and help him sometimes at a racetrack when he was a trainer,” he says. “I was a filmmaker by that time, and had the earliest inkling that there was a movie to be made. It felt like a rich world, but I didn’t really have the shape of a story.”

Some of that shape, as well as the film’s emotional core, came with the loss of his father, who died of ALS in 2015 at the age of 58. After his funeral, “people started telling stories of his time as a jockey that he had never told me, and I had never heard,” Bentley says. “That really turned on the light bulb.”

The filmmakers did preliminary research at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, where they spent a few nights sleeping in a tack room (stable-adjacent rooms where jockeys often crash, especially if they’re on the road and cash poor). It was also Kwedar’s first time at a racetrack, which lent a perspective Bentley found extremely helpful. “He would notice things that just seemed natural to me, and ask trainers and jockeys questions that I would not have thought to ask. It kind of showed that whole world to me anew.”

Once they got to Phoenix, Kwedar and Bentley and producer Nancy Schafer just drove around the track on golf carts and went into the barns, meeting everyone they could and inviting them to audition or tell their own stories on camera. Collins, Parker, and Arias also embedded with real-life counterparts. Completely new characters and stories came out of that process, often on the fly.

“You can’t expect the same things from [nonprofessional actors] that you can from a trained actor in terms of how they approach a scene,” Bentley says. “But if you can figure out a way to give them space, it adds so much more than whatever extra effort goes into it.”

Not that such moments always went perfectly. “You try and figure out, when are you pushing the boundary to where you’re just making these people’s lives more difficult as they’re trying to do their work,” Bentley says. “[Sometimes] you’d realize, ‘We’re not getting what we need as a film crew, and we’re also really pissing them off!’ ” It probably helped that the twenty-day, low-budget shoot had no craft services, director’s chairs, or talent trailers. Everyone was just part of “the backside,” moving through the stables, barns, and jockey rooms.

Turf Paradise is among the last of the old racetracks. Now many of them have become full entertainment complexes, with adjoining casinos and shopping malls. During the shoot, there were typically more people working at the track than actually watching races. Bentley’s documentary-style approach wound up creating a visual archive. “Before even making the movie, that’s the thing I started to realize,” Bentley says. “This world of horse racing feels like it’s from a bygone era. I had a strong desire to capture it before it fully faded away.”

The original version of this story misstated the details of Greg Kwedar’s time at Texas A&M, as well as Clint Bentley’s connection to the border. Texas Monthly regrets the error.