Filming the mystique of the American Cowboy | TheFencePost.com

Filming the mystique of the American Cowboy

Cameraman Vincent Fooij films Earline Goettle and Cal Stucky as they prepare vaccine. Photo by Pat Hansen by Pat Hansen

Avon, Mont.

Under an sapphire blue sky a herd of Black Angus cattle trailed by nine riders on horseback and several black and white border collies, ambled across the sunwashed meadow bounded by towering evergreen clad mountains accented with splashes of golden quaking aspen. Standing atop a platform built on a one-ton truck, cameraman Vincent Fooij of Belgium and soundman Alex Barbier-Bouvet of France captured the idyllic scene.

The first day of filming on the Stucky ranch north of Avon, Mont., was a golden October day and director Rebecca Boulanger of Paris and her crew sought to capture the essence of a working Montana ranch for an episode of “The Mythical Horseman of the World.”

“The Mythical Horseman of the World” is a series of documentaries being produced by Ampersand for French PBS television featuring horsemen in 24 countries. The series will reveal how the relationship between horse and man is different around the world, yet has a common bond. Filming was conducted in 12 countries ” Mongolia, France, Spain, Hungary, Morocco, Khirzhizi, Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Cameroon and two segments in the United States (the Nez Perce of Idaho and cowboys of Montana). In each country the film crew lives with and follows one family for 10-15 days, filming their family life and how they work and relate to their horses.

The series began airing in France in September 2001, and is expected to be shown on the Discovery and/or National Geographic channels in America at a later date. Each documentary will be edited to 26 minutes ” no small feat since Vincent shot 24 40-minute films during their stay.

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Rebecca acknowledged that it takes a lot of hard work, and about three months to edit the material and add original music and commentary. “So many of the pictures are excellent it is very difficult,” she said.

Completing the team was Tibo Ohermy, a professional photographer from France who uses medium format and 35mm cameras to shoot approximately 1,500 color and black and white photographs at each location. A selection of these will be compiled into a book that will tell the story that is being told on the documentaries.

The legend and the mystique of the Montana cowboy lives on in the popular imagination; often based on movies with such stars as John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. Lots of people wear cowboy hats and boots, but Rebecca and the film crew sought to document the work and activities that shape a Montana cowboy’s outlook and sense of self-reliance.

Branding and roundup are the two events that perhaps best symbolize the cowboy way of life. October is the time for gathering cattle and other fall work, so the goal was to film everyday life on a Montana ranch ” a cattle drive, roping, sorting cattle, shoeing horses, breaking horses, etc. To find the ideal location, Rebecca sought advice from the Travel Montana Film Office.

The Department of Commerce Travel Montana Film Office has been in existence since 1974 and has an extensive file with information and 100,000 images of locations ” including working ranches “throughout the state that are submitted by people who have a potential filming location, or gathered through the office’s location scouting trips. According to Travel Montana Film Office Director Lonie Stimac, nearly 100 feature films, television films, commercials, documentaries, and music videos are filmed in Montana, generating an average of $10 million annually.

In July 2001, Rebecca came to Montana for a week on a scouting trip and met with 10 ranch families referred by the Montana Film Office.

Rebecca chose the Stucky family because, “They are very authentic people and I had a good feeling about them. They seemed very interested in the project. The Stuckys are a multigenerational family, and in the documentary, we are trying to say this is how tradition is passed from generation to generation. We really like the scenery in this area too. For example, in our country people know about California, but Montana has a mystique and is so beautiful!”

Earl and Glenna have been ranching together in southwestern Montana for 46 years. Both grew up on farms in the Gallatin Valley and the family moved to Avon in 1976 where they raise commercial Angus cattle, horses, hay and border collie stock dogs. Working side-by-side with them are their daughter and son-in-law, Earline and Mick Goettle and their son, Travis, as well as son and daughter-in-law, Cal and Renee Stucky.

When she visited in July, Rebecca gave the Stuckys a thumbnail sketch of the project. “We didn’t know exactly what to expect, and there were some unknowns as to how we would manage the filming and still get the work done that needed to be done,” Glenna said. “But it was better than we thought it would be.”

The film crew needed a way to get to all of the sites, so Earl and Mick built a framework and a place for equipment on the back of a truck. It worked out very well, and Victor was able to get the angles he needed of working cattle in the corrals or in the field.

The cattle entered the corral and milled around as the calves were sorted and moved through a chute where they received preconditioning vaccinations prior to shipment to feedlots in the Midwest. The cows then were put through the chute for their vaccinations and a delousing treatment. Every aspect of the process was filmed by the crew ” sorting, roping, preparing vaccines, and chute work. In addition to filming in the field, the crew filmed the family doing daily chores ” milking the cow, feeding chickens, feeding stock.

Family is the one aspect of ranching that makes it all work. The theme of the documentary is how traditions and knowledge are passed from one generation to the next. Although Earl and Glenna have several grandsons and granddaughters, Travis, the 19-year-old son of Mick and Earline, was selected because he lives at the main ranch and works with the family operation. Other grandsons, Roy and Clayton Edsall and Kyle McLaughlin were on hand to help with the fall work, while Lou and Gib McIntosh were busy working with their parents, Bill and Jill, on their own ranch near Avon. The lives and work ethic of each of the young people demonstrate how a grandfather has an affect on all of his grandchildren, even if he isn’t with them every day.

With a grin, Travis said, “During filming Grandpa was in a better mood because most of the time he was miked (wore a microphone) and he couldn’t yell at us.”

The film crew stayed in the ranch bunkhouse, and enjoyed the homecooked, ranch-style meals Glenna prepared. At first they wanted only cereal for breakfast, but since the Stuckys start the day with a hearty breakfast, the visitors soon were eating crisp bacon, eggs, and toast with their cereal. They especially liked the fluffy pancakes topped with homemade butter and maple syrup. “They were easy to please,” Glenna said. The crew members were very considerate and fun to be around, and Vincent told Glenna one day, “You treat us just like a mom!”

At breakfast one gray, rainy morning, the crew was feeling the stress of having a limited amount of time to complete filming and on this day the lighting was flat and not good for shooting. They were relieved when it was suggested they spend the day with the Stucky’s daughter and son-in-law, Sharon and Merle Edsall who live on a ranch a mile down the lane. Sharon is a stock dog trainer who conducts clinics throughout the northwest; so she conducted a training session for filming. Border collie stock dogs are an important extension of the Stucky family who value their ability to work with the cattle, thus saving horses and riders a lot of extra work. The dogs are well-behaved, staying behind the horses, where they belong, as they ride along, but during sorting they hold the herd, and if one animal breaks out they bring it back. The family has dogs at all stages of life ” retired, working, and just getting started. Each has his/her own dogs that are bonded to and work exclusively for their master; and there is never a time a rider goes out without at least one dog with them. After filming of the dogs, Merle demonstrated his gentle method of breaking a horse and Rebecca said, “I was surprised it was not more violent, but Merle uses the ‘Horse Whisperer’ touch.” Merle uses training techniques developed by Bill Dorrance of California, co-author of “True Horseman Through Feel.”

Merle and Travis had qualified for the Northern Range Ranch Roping Finals held during the NILE, so after loading their horses into the trailer, they and the film crew traveled to Billings for the weekend. Of all the specialized skills a cowboy must perfect, none is more important to him than roping ability; it is the ultimate in coordination between man and horse. Ranch roping competition that demonstrates roping ability and features fancier techniques like hip shots and hoolihans is a relatively new sport in Montana.

Ranch life includes time for hobbies, family celebrations, and relaxation. During his spare time, Tibo, an experienced rider, rode with Cal, seeing and photographing other aspects of the ranch. When the guests learned that Travis likes to do leatherworking, he was asked to do some for the camera, so he made a pair of spur straps. He and Earl had to play-act a bit to follow the story line, but he really wanted his dad, Mick, to get the credit because it was he who had taught him how to do leatherwork. On Clayton’s birthday, everyone went to the Copper Queen Bar in Helmville for dinner, an evening of shooting pool and playing around. Naturally, the camera crew took their equipment along.

The next day the temperature was mild and big, wet snowflakes fell on bright yellow slickers and brown oilskin dusters as riders gathered the cattle and then sorted steer calves and heifer calves (with their mothers) into two groups while holding the herd along the fenceline. The crew was ecstatic ” it was a perfect day for filming!

The 10 days of filming went by quickly. As Earl and Travis rode their horses through Nevada Creek on their way home on the final day, the sun was setting behind the mountains, and the camera was rolling, capturing the final mystical moments of these two Montana cowboys.

As the sun slid beneath the horizon, family and friends gathered in the warm glow of a campfire and lanterns near a log cabin to share food and fellowship in a farewell to their new friends. Watching the flickering red-orange flames reflecting on the friendly faces surrounding the fire, Rebecca said, “We have had a wonderful time. I knew the United States was very civilized and technology is advanced, but I’m surprised that days on a ranch are so long, and the work is so hard.”

“We had to do a few things differently,” Travis admitted, “but it’s been fun having them around. It was a different feeling because this is what we do every day, but as we were being filmed we wanted it to look good, and we began taking more pride in what we do. It changed my point of view, reminding me that everyday work for me is someone else’s dream. It is something many people would like to do even for one day. We take for granted what we do ” riding, moving cows, roping. The filming of ‘The Mythical Montana Cowboy’ reminded me of what we have and who we are.”

“It’s been an interesting experience for all of us,” the family agreed. “They are delightful people and easy to get along with, and it was far easier than we anticipated. We’d probably do it again.”