“Throw your heart over the fence and the horse will follow”—a line from one of C.W. Anderson’s forty horse books for children—perfectly captures the spirit of the upcoming film Billy and Blaze, based on Anderson’s “gentle masterpiece” for children published in 1936. Written and directed by Cynthia Rogers Erkel and co-produced with her husband Michael Erkel—both of Afton—the film has been cast, filmed, and produced locally. In Anderson’s tenderly illustrated horse lover’s classic, Billy receives a bay pony for his birthday, and names him Blaze for the flame-shaped splash of white on his nose. The devoted relationship between horse and boy leads them to unexpected success. This is the pilot film for a series based on Anderson’s nine books, including Blaze and the Forest Fire, Blaze Finds the Trail, and Blaze Shows the Way. Currently in post-production, the artistic and heartwarming film is expected to be released this fall.
Clarence William Anderson (1891-1971) was born in Nebraska and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, becoming a renowned painter of Man o’ War in the 1920s and illustrator of adult horse books. An accomplished equestrian and judge of hunters and jumpers through the American Show Association, Anderson’s artwork hung in galleries and museums throughout the country and graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. However, it was his children’s books, with their sweet black and white illustrations, that sealed his reputation—and are still in print. Billy and Blaze and its sequels have been treasured by horse lovers for decades, but they represent only nine of over forty books he wrote and illustrated about horses.
“This movie was made for me and for all the children who have loved these books,” said Erkel’s daughter Rebekah Musser, whose own children grew up with the books. “We grew up riding horses from an early age. It was a family tradition that we got our own horses at the age of 13.” “I remember these books vividly from my childhood,” recalls children’s book author and Gazette staff writer Lisa Martin. “They were what we would today call ‘easy readers,’ only 48 pages with simple vocabulary, and I loved both Billy—always neatly dressed with a tie and his shirt tucked in—and his beautiful, noble horse.” Billy’s adventures revolve around proper care of the horse, while teaching lessons about courage, loyalty, and kindness.
The film’s cast is made up almost entirely of local Virginia riders, and major equestrian investors have provided vital support to the project. Searching long for a Billy, the Erkels finally found Henry Lesko, a champion rider in his own right who really has won silver cups just like Billy. Tad Coffin, winner of the 1976 Olympic Gold Medal for riding, is type-cast as Billy’s Olympic equestrian grandfather and riding instructor. Coffin sells handmade, custom riding saddles from his Performance Saddles business in Ruckersville. The Erkels’ daughter was an ideal choice for Billy’s mother Sarah, and Ian Wade plays his father, Philip. Gideon Harris, the horse trainer on the Branner’s farm where Grandfather rides, is played by Alfred Carter Yates of Charlottesville.
Cynthia and Michael Erkel have been working on the Billy and Blaze project for 15 years. Driving home after shooting an ad campaign for children’s furniture—which featured horse statues in the bedroom—they began to reflect on the dearth of horse movies for children. Horse owners themselves, both their daughters loved the Billy and Blaze series—why wasn’t there a movie? Their research led them to C.W. Anderson’s niece, novelist Phyllis Anderson Wood. She had been approached by Hollywood in the past, but rejected their attempts to add more tension, intensity, and action. When she learned that the Erkels shared her commitment to preserve the integrity and gentle, reverent mood of the books, she agreed to the project and became both an advocate and a good friend. “Our film closely follows the book’s plot and illustrations,” said writer/director Erkel. “It is a wholesome movie, akin to Lassie Come Home. Besides telling the story of a boy’s devotion to his horse, it’s about awakening a gratitude for the beauty of the natural world around us.”
The Erkels’ Welkin Studios obtained the rights for the entire series from Simon & Schuster, and they soon formed Billy & Blaze Film Partners, LLC, to produce the film. As an experienced film director (Hurry Scurry 2018 and others) and published children’s book author herself (The Farmhouse Mouse 1994 and others), Cynthia Rogers Erkel took the opportunity to embellish the story with the other people in Billy’s life “who must have existed somewhere between the lines.”
The story of how the film came together is one of serendipity. “Many things that happened felt like destiny,” said producer Michel Erkel. For example, Cynthia wrote Olympic rider Grandfather into the script over ten years before she met Tad Coffin, who acknowledged that Billy and Blaze was the first book he ever checked out from the library. They have also been able to connect with Anderson’s stepson, Charles Ruckstuhl, and Eileen McGaffrey, who had ridden with “Andy” Anderson and was able to share sketches and memories. An original C.W. print suddenly showed up at a local antique store.
Local filmgoers will also recognize many of the filming locations, including the Ramsay estate and Seven Oaks Farm in Greenwood, the Batesville store, the Meander Inn (now the Nellysford Country Inn) owned by Rich and Mary Tousignant, the McCormick house in Covesville owned by musician Karl Durland—where Billy takes piano lessons on his 1892 Steinway—and various estates in the Shenandoah Valley. “We made Misty Mountain Campground our home” during much of the filming, said Elizabeth Boykin Vagnoni, production manager. The fall horse show in the film takes place at the Warrenton Horse Show Grounds.
Blaze is described in the book as a “beautiful bay pony”—a common horse coat color characterized by a reddish-brown body with a black mane and tail. The Erkels were lucky to find Banbury Cross Abu, a bay owned by the Moskos of Glendevon Stables in Maryland. Rex, the dog whom Billy and Blaze rescue from a fox trap and who becomes part of their loyal threesome, is played by champion German Shepherd Xerxes (full name Fil-Am Xerxes Vom Haus Morrisson), owned by Steven Siwecki. Other film credits include Pat Hommel, associate producer; James Suttles, director of photography; Becky Hannam, executive assistant; Rob Powers, music composer; and Leigh Glassmire, costume designer. The project was featured in the July 2018 issue of Chronicle of the Horse, and Henry Lesko as Billy, along with Blaze and Rex, appeared at the 2018 Washington International Horse Show in November, 2018.
The film’s trailer has been shown at three Equus film festivals—a travelling equestrian festival—with another showing coming up soon in Raleigh, North Carolina. With the help of Marke Levene, who has developed products for the World Wildlife Fund and the National Cathedral, the Erkels are also merchandising a line of toys and other products related to the film, including a statue of Blaze, a horse jewelry box that plays the theme music, a game board, and a plush pony toy. Learn more and watch the movie trailer at www.billyandblazemovie.com.