It was only a matter of time before the local filmmaker and UofL film professor Remington Smith decided to place a much-needed spotlight on the Kentucky Derby. His 15-minute documentary, “The Derby,” has been garnering attention and awards at film fests around the country, and now it’s available to watch online courtesy of PBS.
“The Derby” first debuted on March 28 at the Indie Grits Film Festival, where it won the Reel South Award for best documentary short about the South. It also screened at the RiverRun Film Festival, one of only 31 film festivals in the country that is Academy Award-qualifying for documentary shorts.
While “The Derby” does show the fun, fancy and carefree side of the big day in May, it also goes behind the scenes and meets the many men and women who make the event seamless — whether that’s the folks washing and walking horses every day, those bringing drinks to your table or those offering up their yards for parking.
Smith made his first short film, “The Woods,” in 2016, and it recently was selected for distribution by the horror platform Alter. He currently is working on a feature narrative film called “Land Lord.”
Insider caught up with the filmmaker to find out more about what he learned while making “The Derby.”
Insider Louisville: When did you know you wanted to make a documentary about the “other side” of the Derby?
Remington Smith: Originally, I was going to shoot some Derby footage for a narrative film I was considering, but after the first round of filming in 2013, I knew I wanted to do a standalone project.
After living here for so long, you see the same tourist videos about the Kentucky Derby, but not a lot of what it’s like for people who live and work here.
So I thought it was a much-needed perspective no one was promoting. The central idea was always about the class collision on display at the Kentucky Derby, which was reinforced for me by living near Churchill Downs for three years and watching Lexus SUVs parking on the lawns of my neighbors who were also working class/working poor.
Insider: When did you film the footage?
Smith: I shot in 2013, 2016 and 2018. I was working on various other projects during that time (“Rubbertown,” “The Woods,” a feature vampire film I’m developing), which also helped shape the film in terms of aesthetics, cinematography and structure. But it took a while because I wanted to shoot everything myself so the perspective was obviously mine and felt subjective.
Insider: The film contains many vast contrasts throughout the 15 minutes. Was it harder to get the people to talk to you in the infield or Millionaire’s Row?
Smith: Both the folks at the infield and Millionaire’s Row were friendly, but at first, they were probably concerned when the camera came out, which is understandable. But I was very open and upfront about what I was filming for, and that’s how I was able to interview someone in Millionaire’s Row — they were willing to talk, but only if it was anonymous, so I came up with a creative way to make that happen and we both got what we wanted.
That’s one of the things I love the most about filmmaking, the collaborative nature of it, and that includes documentary interviews.
Insider: Did anything surprise you while filming?
Smith: Overall, not much, after living so close to the Derby for several years. I will say seeing kids playing chess at the infield was the most surprising moment, along with somehow getting into Millionaire’s Row. I probably surprised myself more than anything else.
I thought the film would be more of a polemical rant about wealth inequality, but I can never ignore the humanity of individual people I interview. So hopefully viewers will pick up on some underlying macro critiques/commentary on class and immigration, but still feel like it’s not a hit job on anyone. It could be easy to slip into caricature, so I tried to find that line.
Insider: Did you grow up going to the Derby?
Smith: No, not at all. Derby was always a time when my step-dad would make extra money as a cab driver so we could catch up on bills. Even for me, I was days away from graduating from UofL and I took a temp job at the Pendennis Club on Oaks to make some money. Before shooting “The Derby,” I had only been inside Churchill Downs for a concert at the infield. It was always a separate world.
Insider: What’s the main theme you’d like people to take away from this film?
Smith: I’d hope that people who live and work here feel like I did a good job showing the Kentucky Derby from the perspective of folks who live and work here. Most of the people I know avoid the Derby craziness or are trying to make some money off of it.
So that’s very different from the tourist perspective or the promo video. The normal top-down look at the event stresses the fancy hats and mint juleps but ignores the people working behind the curtain, you know? So I wanted to offer an alternative look.
Check out “The Derby” for free on the PBS website.