Oregon-Filmed Lean on Pete Hits the Big Screen

The movie adaptation of Willy Vlautin's novel follows a luckless boy and his racehorse from North Portland to Eastern Oregon.

By Emma Mannheimer February 27, 2018 Published in the March 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

0318 arts lean on pete nixesh

Lean on Pete took cast (including teenage Charlie Plummer) and crew from Portland to southeastern Oregon for filming.

Adolescent plus animal equals amity: a tried-and-true film formula. But Lean on Pete isn’t here to charm you. The movie, shot in Oregon and based on a 2010 novel by award-winning Portland writer Willy Vlautin, hits cinemas at the end of the month and depicts an unforgiving reality where, despite constant reassurance, everything won’t be OK.

Directed by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete spins an austere working-class tale of the kind that doesn’t often surface in this city. “It’s not about the people that live in the Hawthorne District,” says Haigh. “It’s about people who live in Delta Park. It was important to me and Willy to represent that side of Portland.”

The story follows a luckless boy, Charley Thompson, and his chosen companion, an equally downtrodden racehorse named Lean on Pete. Pete is named for a real horse Vlautin once crushed on: “I used to bet on Pete all the time, and I swear, on him, I mostly won.” (Vlautin, whose résumé includes 22 years helming the alt-country music group Richmond Fontaine, now abstains from betting.) 

Charley—affectingly portrayed by rising star Charlie Plummer—is a painfully reticent 15-year-old who moves from Spokane, Washington, to Portland with an occasionally absent father who loves his son but is less fond of parenting. Bored and low on funds, Charley kills summertime by jogging around North Portland’s Delta Park. One day he happens upon Portland Downs (a.k.a. Portland Meadows), a horse-racing track where he finds work and some semblance of community with sleazy trainer Del Montgomery (a grizzled Steve Buscemi) and a jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny).

Mined from Vlautin’s own frustrations with childhood’s lack of autonomy and his complicated relationship to horse racing, the story sets Charley’s childlike compassion for Del’s aging, mild-mannered horse within the shady underbelly of the world he’s stumbled into. “That idea’s a kid’s dream, right? You always want to save somebody,” Vlautin says.

Tragedy strikes, and with it Charley’s chance to play savior, which involves a trek through the desert of Eastern Oregon in a faithful translation of the book.

Vlautin says he always visualized Lean on Pete cinematically: “The words become a movie inside my head, like a movie I haven’t seen.” With Haigh, “I just got lucky.”

Haigh first read the book some six years ago. “I fell in love with it,” the 44-year-old director says. “I love how tender and compassionate Willy can be in his writing, and the journey.”

In 2012 Haigh traveled to Oregon to spend time with the author. “I always knew this was Willy’s world,” he says. “For me to do it any type of justice I needed to spend time in that area with him.” They went to races, hung out with jockeys, and got to know one another at Portland Meadows. It wasn’t until May 2015 that Haigh, who had just released the critically acclaimed 45 Years, was announced as formally attached to the project. He spent nearly three months tracing Charley’s circuitous route, staying in low-budget motels, camping, and writing the first draft of the script.

Vlautin provided initial notes, secured the expertise of Portland jockeys Twyla Beckner and Tad Skaggs, and even scored a cameo as a barfly, but otherwise stayed out of Haigh’s way. “I’m not precious about it, because it’s a different form. What Andrew decides to leave in and take out, that’s his,” says Vlautin. “Where I get hung up is like, ‘That character wouldn’t wear those boots!’”

No matter the boots Charley dons, his road only gets rougher. Moviegoers, on the other hand, are rewarded with sweeping shots of Oregon’s epic terrain. “You can describe the landscapes of the West forever,” says Vlautin. “But when you see ’em in a movie with music, it just becomes like heaven.”

Haigh’s decision to cast Oregon as itself was a major boost for the local film industry. “Movies in today’s climate tend to shoot in locations that double as other locations,” says Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film (shorthand for the Governor’s Office of Film and Television), which promotes development of the industry in this state. “We get these films that show Oregon and its diversity and beautiful locations. It’s a moving postcard of ‘wish you were here,’ basically.”   

Millions were spent for Lean on Pete’s production, which employed roughly 200 people during shooting. Locations stretch from Delta Park and the Sandy River to rural areas outside of Burns. “It’s set in Oregon—why would I want to shoot anywhere else?” Haigh asks.

From The Goonies to Stand by Me to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to My Own Private Idaho, Oregon is no stranger to the silver screen. Lean on Pete, with its finely wrought exploration of the human need to give and receive affection, looks set to join the state’s cinematic canon.

“Here is a kid who, all he wants from life is stability, security, someone to care for him, and someone to care about him,” says Haigh. “Really, those are profound truths about what all of us need, regardless of where we are or what we’re doing.”

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