Cutting Unbranded - part two / by Scott Chestnut

After cobbling together an opening and a title sequence I went back to cutting the film by working backwards through the "trips", looking at each section, pulling selects and making a cut.   During the ride, at each stop along the way, Phil and/or Korey would do interviews with the four riders to recap and talk about the next leg.  After transcribing the interviews we had 5 huge binders.  When he wasn't doing other things, Paul would go through the interviews and try to make selects of usable material.  It wasn't a very good system because most of what the riders said seemed redundant to the visuals.  What was really surprising to me was that in our vertie' material, after 150 nights around a campfire, there wasn't one interesting conversation about the wild horse issue or any other social issue - at least not while the camera was rolling.   They seemed like smart guys to me but there was never a serious discussion about, say, politics or even sex.  I kept digging but other than the two big arguments I used in the finished film it was a bit disappointing because I was looking for ways to integrate the discussion of the elephant in the room - the mustang issue - to justify making the ride but there was nothing.  I couldn't figure it out.  Did someone tell them early on to be careful that they didn't reveal too much because they might be made to look bad?  If that's the case, I guess I can understand the worry but still, they had a forum, they could have said anything.  Maybe it was question of focus.  Maybe they were so focused on getting through the trip that they didn't have time for discussion on anything outside of getting to Canada.  In any case, I suppose it was another one of those things that made it harder to cut the movie.

It took almost six months to have a version of the journey we could screen for friends.  That version, though three hours long, played as a complete movie with music and scenes and a fairly good pace.  When I'm cutting a film, I usually cut an intricate temp score that feels customized to each scene which helps the flow and will become a music template for whatever content ends up being in the finished film.  We committed to a scheduled date for the screening and to help meet the deadline Phil worked on the Grand Canyon section.  Later on, he pitched in on a few more sections which was really helpful - because he can cut.

The screening went over well but it was just the beginning of a series of screenings following changes based on notes and comments from groups of friends and the team.  Some notes were good and some were kinda crazy - which is common.  The important thing is to try to understand what motivates the comments people make.  I hate notes but they are critical to the success of a film.   Thanks to God we had no imperious blowhard who insisted on their way or the highway.   We had Dennis, Phil, Ben and Cindy.  Great partners in the process.  One of my pet peeves are comments that are not based on what's on screen but based on prior knowledge from the shoot.  Some people making comments repeatedly reacted to things based on what they experienced off camera and not on what an audience would see and wanted changes based on what was really an inaccurate perception. 

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The Farrier survived and gave the riders credit for saving his life and when they shot the reenactment of the heart attack, they even got the same shirt which had been cut open by the EMTs.  It was hard to believe they were able to put it all together and it seemed like something that should be in the movie but...

After a couple of screenings it became obvious my attempt at a grave omen, i.e. the heart attack, fell flat as a gopher on the interstate.  Everyone felt it portended too much doom and didn't fit the character of the film as a whole.  Some people were really disturbed being convinced the riders were all going to die.   In an attempt to save it, I could have tried to make it less dramatic or figure out what wasn't working but we were long and had bigger fish to fry, so we just got rid of it.   Then I added the stuff of the cactus at the beginning and that seemed to enhance the feeling of risk for the rest of the film anyway.  

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(spoiler alert). Some folks involved wanted the arrival at the border to be triumphant and happy but I didn't think that made any sense.  The real event and Ben's disappointment seemed to illuminate the problem of wild horses and also express my personal take on the theme (I had in my head) which is there are no simple answers especially when humans are involved.  Wild horses are a problem because some people mythologize horses and in the process buy into a way of thinking that isn't supported by facts and the result is an abdication of responsibility for good stewardship of resources.  There are parallels everywhere in society.   The hope for, or belief in, some kind of Santa Claus who solves problems so we all don't have to make hard choices is something you see more and more. Horses reproduce easily in the wild and too many horses overwhelm the rangeland so toxic weeds proliferate.  They don't eat rainbows and they don't poop butterflies.   The truth is the horses that are removed from the rangeland and taken to long term holding by the Bureau of Land Management get old and eventually have to be euthanized. But it's done after feeding them for 25 years.   We euthanize horses but in the most expensive way possible. Advocates think the BLM is sending horses to slaughter but the truth is 80% of horses sent to slaughter are domestic horses that breeders have bred and don't want.  The vanity horse, the unused 4 legged lawn ornament - that's the horse that goes to a slaughterhouse.  The wild horse goes to Kansas and eats expensive hay for 25 years.

Anyway, as a salve to the bittersweet arrival at the border, I tried to create a feeling of triumph and accomplishment for the audience when the riders left their last campsite.  I tried to create a scene where the music swells and there are shots from the trail so that the audience would have some positive emotion, like, look what we've overcome. 

After the ride, Phil had shot Luke being auctioned and I did cut of it but I kept feeling like we needed something more from Ben where he wraps it up.   We shot a few shots of Ben near my house with Dinosaur, Tuff and Gray Horse and I wrote a voice over where Ben could bring it back to the horses and use what I thought was a key word: "gratitude".  I thought if there were any lingering feelings among the audience that would hinder them from loving the film I thought it would be that the horses suffered during the trip but I thought I could help that perception if Ben said something like, I wanted to prove their worth but they did it themselves.  Ben added some stuff to my VO about the land and I added the very last line where he says ..."and a really good horse."  Then we moved the Luke auction later and Phil cut the end credits.  I wanted to give people permission to like the movie and that sometimes means addressing the possible negatives, either head on or in a subtle way.

I cut a new opening describing the fundamentals of the issue and we shot an interview with an expert, Bob Garrett, in Dennis' backyard.  Now we finally had an interview about the issue on which to hang that part of the film.  Ben and Phil went on a trip and shot a round-up and protests and I started cutting that once they returned.  We took that new version to NY to screen for an audience and we got useful comments.  One big comment was the issue part of the film didn't integrate into the ride very nicely and it was too long.  So running out of time to make a Sundance submission, Phil and Ben did a cut down of that material while I worked on other stuff and as a team we tried to work out better ways to integrate the issue.   I wrote the text of all the title cards while working out a way to describe the issues and we got there in the nick of time.  We still needed a firm statement of the purpose of the ride though.  Early on, Phil shot something of Ben talking about it but there were some tech issues so I asked him to re-shoot it.  We needed an economical statement to set everything up so I wrote out text for Ben to use - but something always seemed to go wrong, and it took five different tries to get it right.  And I don't mean 5 takes.  I mean 5 different trips out to a location to re-shoot.   When I asked them to go out to re-do it for the 5th time, Phil was about ready to shoot me.   Such is filmmaking.

Phil cut the book reading section and Thamer describing himself and we locked picture and shipped a cut.  

While we waited for word from Sundance, Phil and I worked together to choose a composer and we settled on Noah Sorota who was really a treat and did amazing work.   Working with him was the first time in my career where I felt I could tell a composer to recreate the changes and hits I had cut into my temp score.  He knew what I meant and he did it perfectly.   Andy Hahn saved our bacon with the maps and titles.   

I could go on about all the choices and decisions that were made in an attempt to make an enjoyable film because there were a lot.  You may have made films before but that doesn't mean you've made THIS film.  So making a film is what my dad used to call a SWAG, a scientific wild-ass guess.   Maybe what I've said in this look under the hood is a bit too inside.  If I've offended anyone, I apologize.   

I want to shout out for Korey who did amazing work on the trail.  His coverage of the true events made possible creating scenes like Dinosaur falling off the cliff or Donquita deciding to follow or Cricket's death.  Over the years I've had to pour through a lot of camera waving but Korey and Phil consistently made every effort to bring back real cinema.

Sundance did not take the film which was disappointing and worrisome but then we won the Audience Award at the Hot Docs festival even though most of the docs that had been at Sundance were there also.  Then a few weeks later we screened the film at Telluride Mountain Film to a packed house and a standing ovation.  At one point during the Q&A, I held the microphones for Val while he led a sing-along to Ghost Riders in the Sky and I wondered if I were in an alternate universe.

In the end, people seem to love the film which is very gratifying.  And if they love it, then back in the editing room we must have made some lucky SWAGs.