As some of you may know, my novel, Out of the Wild is currently in the process of being made into an independent feature film. For the past few years as the project has gone through what is known in the film industry as the “development process”, I have gotten a chance to learn more than I thought I ever wanted to know about the movie business. In a nutshell what I have learned is that it is truly a wonder that any movies ever make it to the big screen at all! The number of stumbling blocks that are in the way of filmmakers these days, especially independent filmmakers, is enormous. The biggest of these hurdles, by far, when it comes to getting a film into production is finding the money to fund the project.
There are people and businesses out there that want to fund films, but usually before they will commit any money to the project, they want to know who the actors are that will be in the movie. However, before actors will even consider reading the script for any movie, the project must first have money behind it. And so is the classic Catch-22 of the film business. Without money the project can’t get actors, and without actors, the project can’t get money.
There are really very few ways around this little paradox. But one of the things that can help, especially for the independent filmmaker, is to actually go out and film a promotional trailer for the project (the kind we might see in the theater for some upcoming film.) By doing this, potential investors get a chance to see the quality of work that they can expect for their money, and even though actors aren’t actually attached to the project, at least they know the filmmakers are capable of creating the finished product.
This is what we did for Out of the Wild. In fact, the finished promotional trailer can be seen on the movie’s website, www.outofthewildmovie.com.
I bring all of this up to not necessarily talk about movie making, but rather to talk about the horses that we used for the filming of the trailer. The horses you’ll see in the trailer were not “movie” horses. They were our own personal horses, the ones we use for the everyday work we do at home as well as for the clinics that we do around the country.
Just like a real movie, the trailer itself needed to adhere to a script. But unlike a full length movie where the script tells the story in scenes that can run from between a few seconds to several minutes, the script for the trailer was written to show very small scenes, each one only a few seconds long at a time.
The horse scenes were not written with our horses in mind, but rather for actual “movie” horses that were supposed to be in the area of the location where we were to film around the time we would be there. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, schedules ultimately didn’t match up and at the last minute our horses had to step in.
I had hoped to get to the location just outside Las Vegas, NV, a couple days early and rehearse some of the things that we would need our horses to do once filming began. So with filming scheduled to begin on Saturday, we arrived at the location on Wednesday only to find the weather uncooperative. Not only was it unseasonably cold, but very windy and rainy as well. The weather remained that way for the next two days and as a result, we were unable to get any work in with any of our horses prior to the actual shoot.
When Saturday rolled around, we found that the only rehearsal time we had with our horses, particularly Rocky who was to play the “lead” role, was to be done either just before a particular scene was to be filmed, or while the scene was being filmed. The opening scene is a good example as it called for Rocky to be standing in the desert at night, by himself, in the rain. Because Rocky was portraying a mustang that had never been handled, he couldn’t be wearing anything such as a halter or hobbles that might help him stand while he was being filmed.
The scene itself was shot at the end of the first day, a day that began around 5:30 in the morning and didn’t end until nearly 11:00 at night. As the crew set up for that particular scene, which included a twenty inch diameter high-watt light that was directed into a large reflective screen just to the side of where Rocky would be standing, a industrial generator running in the background to keep the lights on, a number of people unaccustomed to working around horses moving around him, a makeup lady putting fake blood on him, a camera crew setting up the shot and a guy spraying water from a hose in the air to simulate rain, Rocky’s job was to stand in one spot in the middle of a 150,000 acre desert without a fence for miles and without anybody holding on to him. I stood off camera some twenty feet away giving him help and direction using cues that he and I had worked out as filming had progressed during the day, and which consisted mostly of the subtle shifting of my weight in one direction or another.
Rocky and I began developing those cues during one of the first liberty scenes we did early in the morning. The scene called for Rocky to appear worried and frantic while running around inside a round corral. I was in the pen with Rocky and the cameraman, who was wearing what is known as a stedi-cam, which is basically a sort of body suit that holds the camera while he films and which allows for fluid motion of the camera giving the viewer a feeling of being in the scene. As the camera rolled, I sent Rocky around the pen at a walk, trot and lope, asking him to turn, stop, drop or raise his head, all of which can be seen in the trailer.
In one particularly dramatic scene in the trailer, Rocky is loping around in the pen, and then he suddenly stops and acts as if not knowing where to go. In reality, what was happening is I was standing just off camera and slightly in front of him as he went around the pen. At just the right moment, I slowly raised my left hand, giving him a cue to stop, then almost immediately I lowered the same hand just a bit while simultaneously raising my right hand just a bit, giving him a cue to keep moving. This caused a seemingly abrupt stop of his feet while at the same time maintaining movement in his body. This subtle communication between us, coupled with a bit of slow motion photography allowed for an amazing display of athleticism on Rocky’s part.
While Rocky and I had never done any liberty work together, I used a number of the same subtle body movements with him that I would normally use when working with a horse that doesn’t want to be caught. This included me using certain angles of movement inside the pen, simple shifts of weight in one direction or another, subtle hand gestures, etc.. Most of the movements that you see Rocky doing in the round pen were shot in one take that lasted a total of roughly three minutes and were then spliced together in the editing room later to give the result seen in the trailer.
Another scene called for Rocky to be trotting around in the pen, then slow to a walk, turn and walk over to the lead actor, John Diehl, who was standing outside the pen. He then needed to touch John’s hand with his nose, and then turn and keep moving. The way the shot was set up was with a camera crew in the round corral and Rocky had to go past them without stopping before making his turn. He then had to touch John and move on. The crew consisted of a camera man (with the stedi-cam), an assistant camera man and a sound person standing behind them holding a microphone over John’s head by means of a long pole outstretched over the camera operators.
Rocky and I practiced his movement a couple times while the crew got ready, and then when it was time, I sent him around the pen by lifting my hand and moving a few steps with him in the direction we needed him to travel. As he trotted off around the pen, I stayed where I was until he was about half way to the camera crew, at which time I moved slightly in the direction of the crew, which caused him to break to a walk just as he reached them. When he was almost past them, I shifted my weight slightly in the direction he was traveling, which caused him to slow a bit more and turn toward John, who was standing just outside the fence. On his own, Rocky reached out with his nose and touched John’s hand (which was between the rails and slightly inside the round pen). As he did this, I shifted my weight slightly toward his hindquarters, which was a signal for him to turn from John and continue on his way.
We ended up doing about a dozen “takes” of this particular scene, either because of a camera malfunction, an actor flubbed a line, the camera angle or audio wasn’t quite right, or whatever…but never because of something Rocky did or didn’t do. In fact, with each take, Rocky just got better and better until he was pretty much doing the entire maneuver all on his own. All I really had to do was send him on his way when the director said “action,” and he took care of the rest.
But even with all of this, there is one scene that Rocky and I did that is by far the most memorable for me, even though the scene only shows up for less than a second or two in the trailer. The scene called for John’s character, who is heartbroken at the loss of his family, to be on his hands and knees in the middle of the round corral at night, crying. Rocky’s job was to go to John and stand over him.
This was a scene that we were unable to rehearse due to time constraints and the fact that the round pen was being prepped for the scene before shooting. So, as John got on his hands an knees in the middle of the pen just before the camera began filming, I literally walked Rocky through what we needed him to do, which was to come from off camera, go around John and stop behind him with his head down.
I walked him through everything twice, then looped a leadrope around his neck and held him just off camera inside the pen. Rocky stood quietly until he heard John starting to cry. He turned toward John and nickered very softly, and when the director said “action” I simply let Rocky go. As if he’d been doing it all his life, he walked over to John, stepped around so he could stand behind him and put his head down. The scene was shot another five times with the director asking if Rocky could walk a circle around John before stopping? He did. Could he pass in front of John and then go around behind him? He did that too. Could he walk two circles around John? Yes.
In each case, I could be no closer to Rocky than about twenty feet, so it was from that distance that I needed to be giving him his direction. I quickly found that, even though I was standing in the shadows and difficult to see, Rocky was still able to pick up on the subtle cues I was giving him, which again, consisted of little more than shifts of weight in one direction or another, or the slight raising or lowering of a hand.
As I mentioned, until that day Rocky and I had not done any kind of formal liberty work. Yet within minutes prior to each scene we did, particularly this one, we were able to work out the cues that allowed me to help him get to where he needed to be, and do what we needed him to do. Even so, there was something about this particular scene that was different. Rocky seemed to understand the importance of what the scene was portraying and his responses to both John and the situation were very touching for all who were there watching.
I remember at one point during a lull in the next day’s filming, John came to me and asked how long it took me to train Rocky to do all of the things we had asked him to do. He seemed quite surprised when I told him that I had never actually “trained” him to do any of the things we were doing, and that it was all more or less happening on the fly. In other words, Rocky and I were just figuring it out as we went.
“So he is doing all these things just because you ask him to?” John asked.
“I believe so.” I replied.
John stood quiet for several seconds, and then looked at Rocky who was standing nearby. ‘”He must really trust you.”
“Actually,” I said. “We trust each other.”
About a year and half has now gone by since we finished filming, and while I still have very fond memories of our time on the set, I haven’t really had the opportunity to watch the finished product very much, even though it has been posted on the project’s website for well over a year.
Then recently while at a clinic in New Mexico, all of the riders and myself were invited to a small dinner gathering at the host’s house. After finishing our meal, the host, Erica (an avid supporter of the project) put the trailer on the TV to show to all of the guests. After we finished watching, I answered questions about the project that some of the folks had.
At one point, one of the guests mentioned that while it was fun to hear me talk about the project and how the trailer was filmed, what she really liked was how proud I seemed to be anytime I talked about how well Rocky did. She was right. I was proud of him. But more importantly, I was proud of the time that we’ve spent together and the relationship we’ve developed during that time.
The older I get and longer I’m around horses, particularly our own, the deeper my understanding is that horsemanship is not always about the kind of training we do, or the type of tools we use. It’s about the kind of relationship that can be developed when we accept our horses for who they are, and help them move into what they can be. Ultimately, what we are really talking about here is a relationship built on mutual trust and understanding…the kind of relationship that simply can’t be built on training alone.It’s the kind of relationship that can only be brought out when both parties are giving their best all the time, not just only when it’s convenient.
And for my money, its the relationship built on trust and understanding that opens the doors to endless possibilities, whether those possibilities are working on a movie set together, or just crossing a creek for the first time. If trust and understanding are there, the job will not only get done with relative ease, but chances are both horse and rider will even have a little fun along the way.