A Harrowing But True Horse Story

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

“Write what you know” is indisputably good advice. True stories quicken with their authenticity and dispel any questions over facts or circumstances.

Finding Fortune, a debut film co-written by Kayli Fortun and Charles Bunce, tackles the well-trod genre about a girl and her beloved horse, but it refreshingly rings true, propelled by legitimate emotion. Not only is the story based on a real event about a champion horse mistakenly sent to a slaughterhouse, but all the horse industry details are anchored by an expert. Kayli is an experienced horsewoman.

Written as a TV pilot and clocking in at 47 minutes, the film premiered at the Laemmle Santa Monica in May. It has already won a number of awards, including the Best in Festival at the Glendale International Festival, a Gold Medal for TV pilot at the International Independent Film Festival, and Best Actress Under 18 for Zoe Bunce at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival.

Above: Kayli Fortun with her horse Benny, celebrating his 21 national championships. Below, Finding Fortune principals, from left, actor and co-producer Richard Hadley, director Fortun and co-writer/co-producer Charles Bunce. Photos courtesy Kayli Fortun

Above: Kayli Fortun with her horse Benny, celebrating his 21 national championships. Below, Finding Fortune principals, from left, actor and co-producer Richard Hadley, director Fortun and co-writer/co-producer Charles Bunce. Photos courtesy Kayli Fortun

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Zoe’s father, Charles, who grew up in Pacific Palisades and graduated from PaliHi, and Fortun, who lives in the Palisades, first met at Mount St. Mary’s University. Kayli was an undergraduate in film at the Brentwood campus; Charles was her professor. He teaches history of film, beginning production, post-production, editing and audio. The two entered the master’s degree in fine arts program at the same time and ended up teaming together throughout the entire program.

“As an undergraduate, I wrote this script based on a true story from my Arabian horse industry,” Kayli says. She is a competitive rider who specializes in a category called Saddle Seat, designed to show off the high action of certain horse breeds.

“Arabians are English Pleasure horses, bred to naturally pick up their legs and hold their head high,” Kayli says, proudly. “They really are considered the most beautiful horses.

“Four years ago it happened. This horse in Scottsdale was sent to Minnesota to be bred. The breeder mistakenly sent her back, pregnant, on a trailer destined for the slaughterhouse—a horse worth thousands of dollars.”

Kayli continues, “I showed my earlier script to Charles and he liked it, so we decided to write it together for our master’s thesis—same story line, new characters.”

With limited time—just three semesters for preproduction, production and post- production—the two displayed tremendous ingenuity and resourcefulness. Not only did they “employ” family members and friends, but also relied upon Mount St. Mary’s facilities and Kayli’s friends from the Arabian horse industry for location shots.

Kayli’s mother, Cheryl Fortun, served as production designer and dressed the cast. “Zoe [Bunce], who plays Holland, the lead character, was 11 at the time and was able to wear my mom’s clothes,” Kayli says. “After the shoot, Mom ended up giving Zoe the clothes she had worn in the movie because she looked so cute.”
Kayli’s dad, Kevin, funded the film, at an estimated cost of between $30,000 to $50,000.

“We got lucky,” she says, “because my industry allowed us to use the locations gratis. These included Jade Creek Arabians in Santa Ynez, Taking the Reins in Glendale and Sycamore Farms in Malibu. This was a huge help. Had we paid for everything, it would have been more like $250,000.”

Zoey Bunce (Holland in "Finding Fortune") walks Benny.

Zoey Bunce (Holland in “Finding Fortune”) walks Benny.

Mount St. Mary’s film program, a low-residence, weekend program, leases a 4,400-sq.-ft. green screen sound stage at Hollywood Center Studios. A thriving independent production lot, it provides stages and related services to TV, movie and commercial production companies.

With clever legerdemain, the filmmaking team was able to provide several action scenes, despite the fact that Zoe was an inexperienced rider. Kayli gave her a few lessons, but the goal was simply that she be able go up to a horse and feel comfortable and not look like she was terrified.

“For the opening sequence in the film,” Kayli says, “we went to the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show and found a young rider who was willing to wear Zoe’s outfit and fill in for us in the riding scene.”

As for the horses in the film, Kayli’s horse, Benny (Benedykt), was commandeered to stand in for the lead/lost mare, Noble Fortune.

“This definitely meant that ‘he’ was playing a ‘she’! It made for some difficult camera framing and editing to make sure his maleness wasn’t revealed on screen!” Bunce says.

Nevertheless, Benny was born to be a movie star, Kayli says. “In one scene in the film, he is standing in the center of the paddock and this kid has to come up to him and put her arms around his neck. My horse just stood there for hours in the same spot while we shot the scene from multiple angles and setups. I was outside the fence, which meant that he could have wandered over to me, but he didn’t. No horse would do that!”

Kayli’s passion for horses goes beyond competition to advocacy. She wants to bring awareness to the practice of disposing of horses when they have lost their utility.“There is a whole industry of horse slaughter,” she notes. “At the end of the film, we list true rescue stories and statistics about slaughter.”

While horse rescues/sanctuaries play an important role, they are not the primary outlets for at-risk horses. Studies have shown that just over 92 percent of horses going to slaughter are in “good condition.”

In the spirit of raising awareness, discussion and possibly even social change among a global audience, judges at the 2016 Equus Film Festival awarded Finding Fortune best student film for its creative efforts in paying homage to the horse. In addition, the film won the Sheila Varian award of $2,500 “for a film that inspires humanity through horses.” Varian was a breeder of Arabian horses who lived and worked at the Varian Arabians Ranch near Arroyo Grande, California.

As Finding Fortune makes festival appearances, it is also being shopped out to networks. Currently it is unavailable to the public.

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