Wild Horses Remix – When a Photographer’s Life and Hollywood Intertwine

The black stallion reared up to face the helicopter. Dust and brush pelted me as I braced, pointing my camera upward as it hovered, bearing down on me. Sun streaked into my lens. It looked near perfect…

Of course it looked near perfect.  It was a MOVIE—not an authentic life encounter with real wild horses and helicopters like I experienced when I was working on a story for National Geographic magazine on mustangs.

(And… no, that’s not me. She’s an actress (Mireille Enos) who plays Brad Pitt’s wife in an upcoming zombie movie, and she is the heroine in this film.)

Although there were long hours waiting to shoot pictures, there wasn’t the uncertainty I feel in real life wondering “if” it will happen but in this case “when” it would happen. There were a few parallels to my life, but I still am a bit mystified how I ended up on a Hollywood movie set. The manufactured scenes looked as realistic as the real-life Western roundups I witnessed with horses, helicopters and wranglers.

I can always tell it is the end of a semester when students are on deadline and write me with a list of questions for a class paper. They want to know where is the most exciting place I’ve ever been, what is my favorite picture and how they can become a “National Geographic photographer.” The Internet makes me accessible. Randy and I also get numerous requests to donate photographs to fundraise for worthy causes. Some get answered. Others don’t. When I am on the road for weeks at a time, emails like this can get lost in the shuffle.

I kept one such email request in the IN box, however, and read it months later. A woman making a film wanted to use some of my photographs—her subject was near and dear to my heart—wild horses.

We corresponded and spoke on the phone.  I heard her passion and engaged. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself on a plane to LA to photograph on a movie set with some of the most impressive, talented people in Hollywood film.  I have to admit that part of what captured my attention is that Stephanie Martin co-wrote a script with her Wellesley classmate Jessica Walsh to point out the issues surrounding mustangs in the American West. She happened onto my web site and found some inspiration and formed a story where a magazine photographer has an encounter with a mustang named Phantom and ends up photographing a BLM round up of wild horses. No, it isn’t about me specifically–I wasn’t arrested (that would be EARLIER in my career) and I didn’t grow up in Nevada (Indiana), but I was intrigued that my life and my photographs of wild horses triggered a reaction from her, and something told me this would be an interesting experience.

Stephanie (on far left in above photo, next to me) who has made a career as a Cinematographer in features, shorts, documentaries and commercials, was accepted into an American Film Institute directing workshop for women. She is a sincere, strong-willed, persuasive and focused woman who was following her dream to direct—but little did I know that she is also married to one of THE MOST talented and admired cinematographers in the world (Robert Richardson—google him) who won Academy Awards for Hugo (last year), also for The Aviator and for JFK.  He’s worked with directors Martin Scorsese, John Sayles, Rob Reiner, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Robert De Niro, Errol Morris, Robert Redford, and Quintin Tarantino and has an amazing eye for drama and light. Bob was going to shoot Stephie’s film.

So this short 12-15 minute film with a budget raised partly on Kickstarter was in reality a pretty big production of some of the most gifted assistant directors, editors, camera operators, producers, actors that anyone could assemble. They were all DONATING their time and talents to make a great little movie that might turn into a big-time full-length feature film. At any one time there were dozens of people on the set—but there were so many friends and co-workers behind the scenes—I am guessing there were 60-70 people involved in the one-week shoot.

My role was to photograph images that the heroine photographer shoots in the film (Mireille Enos, TV show “The Killing” who also stars with Brad Pitt in “World War Z” is shown above)…to coach her to be a believable photographer (she was a natural)…and to photograph behind the scenes (much fun but a delicate dance). Bob let me set up a camera anywhere around him—under him—over his shoulder, beside him—of course just not in front of him. He was aware of everything going on around him all the time. Not a particularly willing subject, he tolerated me making photographs of him. I think he understood this was Stephanie’s moment and he wanted it to work.

Stephanie trusted that Bob and the second cameraman Baz Iodine and their friend Erich Joiner from Tool were going to make fabulous imagery. So she conferred with them before scenes were set up, but then she turned her attention to acting and the dialogue and other important decisions. She sat in front of a monitor located near the cameras viewing every angle in real time.

Stephanie with script below and Bob on the crane above waiting for good light and a sweeping overall scene.

Erich Joiner (of Tool is center in above photo) worked Camera B and supported his friends on this endeavor. Always nearby was the First Assistant Director Bettina Godi, (Assistant director on The Italian Job, shown on the right), a tiny woman who was larger than life and she directed her orders like a drill sergeant. I have so much admiration for that woman. First Assistant Director is not a job for everyone. When it was time to work, her small stature became larger than life, and her kind face turned serious and orders in her thick Italian accent got everyone’s attention. She had a direct manner that commanded respect. Her goal was to stay on schedule. Which was NOT easy. She kept track of trailers full of horses and the cowboys that rode them; a horse trainer and a black beauty stallion that came with a double; wardrobe, hair and make up people who not only worked on the actors but applied mud and blood on the horses; a helicopter pilot; camera and sound operators and their support; actors and actresses;producers (amazing behind the scenes problem solvers Tara Tucker and Jessica Walsh and I can’t forget Justin Dalzell);  script readers; and a host of volunteer personal assistants that were for the most part untrained. There were comedic scenes when you felt like you were all going to war–everyone had a mission but sometimes when communication lapsed we were running around in circles. Mass confusion. But suddenly, because everyone was working together, it all made sense.

Bob was very focused. If you wore a headset, you heard soft-spoken banter interjecting light humor during long waits for good light. Such talented people are understandably perfectionists. Bob loves backlight. The worst moment came one morning when there was beautiful light. We were waiting in the meadow for the horses. Because of a mix up, they did not arrive.  The light quickly became harsh. I won’t go into the details–all I will say is this NEVER happened again. The next morning everyone was there an hour or more BEFORE the sun was up.

The whole experience was oddly surreal because although it was all so familiar (the subject of horses, photography and the patience it takes to wait for good imagery) and yet so foreign (Hollywood movie making and things like a trained, lay-down, horse that plays dead).

I never admit to actually having fun when I am working, but this was a blast. Just watching a visionary like Bob Richardson plan his shots—seeing his crew (fresh off of filming Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained) set up cameras, dollies—watching the ballet of different people with specific missions working together—putting up a jute fence, erecting a corral, rehearsing horses running and helicopters chasing them—quiet dialogue filmed inside a truck with the nuance of emotion on the actors face (Barbara Tarbuck who played Becks could look into the sky and bring tears to her eyes on command). There was so much to take in that it was overwhelming. Yes, there were hours and hours of tedium, standing around in hot sun waiting for an army of people to assemble and reassemble around a specific scene—but then the magic began and in a few takes was done.

A spirited, charming, wisp of a woman was subtle and believable as Mills.

Richardson, Iodine and Joiner with cameras and crew waiting for Phantom and the helicopter.

Big Sky Ranch (setting for Little House on the Prairie) provided vistas and valleys for filming Wild Horses. Located in Simi Valley, it was an hour’s drive from LA where I stayed with a wonderful woman and her husband (Sara Nichols and Frank Arentowicz). They opened their doors and the hearts to me for a week as I tiptoed out in the early morning darkness and returned in the evening (also dark) a dusty, wind-blown, exhausted mess. One night I walked into a neighborhood dinner party they hosted with Norman Lloyd, a 98-year old actor, producer, director who knew and worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin. Another night Muyambi, was there for Bicycles Against Poverty preparing to bike across the country for children  in Uganda. Maria Cozzi, a screenwriter and executive producer brought me home after treating me to her favorite little restaurants in the neighborhood. A few hours of sleep later (very few), it began again. A driver, Philip Martin, picked me up and on our way to the location we talked about many things including his role in assisting me. (The only direct order I gave is to NOT let me get out of the car and leave anything.) It’s always like a marriage with an assistant—in a good situation, you communicate without words. Assistants are supposed to anticipate your every need. After taking me to location in his Mother’s car sometimes an hour before sunrise, Philip had to stand around all day in the hot sun and watch me try to make pictures. Sounds glamorous, eh?

Mills, the magazine photographer heroine, (Mireille Enos) in the meadow in early morning in her Ralph Lauren leather jacket.

These are some of the images I made for the movie that are supposed to be her photographs.

It was a light-hearted atmosphere on the set at times with Bob and Stephanie.

Stephanie is an experienced rider. Here she climbs aboard Tuff who is”Phantom” in the movie. They are under the watchful eye of Rex Peterson who trained horses for Black Beauty, The Horse Whisperer, Hidalgo, the Black Stallion and many others. (Phantom was supposed to be white-like the real Phantom I photographed that lives at Wild Horse Sanctuary-but all the white horses were already on a set for The Lone Ranger.)

OK—the bad parts?  Two young people who were part of the production crew flipped over in a jeep and when you see the vehicle, you can’t believe they didn’t die.  They both hardly had a scratch—well it was a bit more serious, but honestly…

Oh, and a horse died.

JUST KIDDING!

It’s a prop borrowed from Django Unchained (the Tarantino movie Richardson and his crew completed filming a few days before this shoot).

Comments

  1. melissa – enjoyed reading your words – you captured the experience with precision and poetry – i so love your images – there is a kindness in those that hold the crew in focus – for me they
    appear fresh – i so look forward to seeing more – with love – bob

  2. Melissa,
    Thank you. I will hold this piece dear and close to my heart. Your words truly captured the spirit of our film and of those individuals behind the camera (and in front-thank you Mireille, Barbara, Tuff, our horses and all our wonderful wranglers) responsible for creating the loving atmosphere which enveloped us every day. And to top it, your images…they are breathtakingly beautiful. Having never documented the making of a film, you brought a fresh eye and appreciation of the process and the people behind it and I thank you for it. I so look forward to all the pictures to follow.
    I thank you again.
    Love,
    Stephie

  3. Maria Cozzi says:

    Thanks for being one of the people that helped make the magic happen. Can’t wait to see the photos. We all worked to make it happen and seeing the the best people make it all happen was part the reward. Maria

  4. Melissa! Wonderful read and wonderful pics and wonderful everything. So cool. And such talented people from another part of our visual world…but we are all purists at heart because real stories is what we tell! Big hug. PS. we met in Somos Foto in DR with Lelen, just in case!

  5. Jane Hamill says:

    What a wonderful experience. Can’t wait till you get home so I can see all the photos and hear all the stories

  6. christy kennedy says:

    Thank you Melissa, for taking us along for a glimpse of this wonderful experience with such compelling images and narrative.

  7. Katharine King says:

    Wow! I was only on set for one day but Melissa’s photographs and storytelling bring it all back like it was yesterday. It was an incredibly special experience that I will treasure. Seeing all the pros at work and giving of their time and energy was a joy. I’m hoping for much success for Stephanie and her film.

  8. Jock Goodman says:

    Great Documentary of behind the scenes. Being mostly a rodeo and English jumping photographer, I love the equine world. In between the NHSFR and Cheyenne Frontier Days we hunted for mustang herds in southern Wyoming, but all we saw were mustang terds. Had only day and half, but scored a great rainbow and sunrise at Flaming Gorge Rec area, Firehole campground.
    I live on Hawaii island and calculated that I shoot easily 41 days of rodeo, cutting-reining, and team roping a year.
    Oh, I found this page watching the GRID on kelbytv.com today jg

  9. Bettina Godi says:

    Dear Melissa,
    Thank you for this page, great great pictures and I really enjoyed reading your story…. except……”THE THICK ITALIAN ACCENT PART” …..ahhh….LOL
    I have been missing everybody so much and
    I really really enjoyed every moment of our adventure, surrounded by so so much talent.
    It was such an HONOR to help Stephanie ” la Grande” to make this incredible project.
    I miss everybody very very much.
    I hope to see you soon Melissa.

  10. Melissa,
    What a great read and a great story and beautiful pics! What an experience that must have been.
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Sharon Tucker says:

    Thank you so much for allowing us to catch a glimmer of this great collaboration. As Tara Tucker’s aunt and a horse lover I thank you.

  12. Spent some time with these gals at Jackson Mountain. Looks like a “familiar” scene… Hope it reaches hearts.

  13. Tara Tucker says:

    Melissa,

    It was an absolute honor to work with you. The passion that you have for your work is truly an inspiration. Your images along with your poetic words are breathtaking! We cannot thank you enough for coming on board our film and becoming a true asset.

    With much much love.

    Tara

  14. Janet Schultz says:

    Oh it will be so good to see this film without the usual dub over of monotone, depressed narration that we do often from some of the advocates. I love the black stallion, he reminds me of my wild horse

  15. Anna Kullgren says:

    Hi Melissa! What great fun to see the photos behind the story! It looked just like the wonderful, inspiring project you described, and I can totally imagine the “ballet” you mentioned, with all parts working together as one. What an experience – I’m so excited for you to have been part of something like this! ….But, seriously, next time I want to hear about how you got arrested! I bet that makes for a great story too! ; )

  16. You’re absolutely brilliant. I saw your work before the shoot, and I’ll gladly be following your work from here on. I can’t wait to see your fictional version onscreen, and hopefully Bob’s images will do yours justice…..wink, wink. Oh, and I’m bookmarking this page, so that I can relive those memories over and over again.

  17. Sara Nichols says:

    OK…it took me longer than it should have to get to these breathtaking photos but I relished every photo and every word, happily reliving what a wonderful experience I had on the set as well as getting to know you, Melissa. What a delight it was having the privilege of your company! Your words reveal what a gentle, insightful spirit you have. And now, I really get why my photos never get any farther than an album tucked away in a bookcase and yours end up in NatGeo! You are so gifted! As an “executive producer”–still not sure what that means!–I am so grateful that you decided to go with your gut and do this project. While the whole team was gobsmackingly good, Steph, Bob, Bettina and you were its lynchpins. With gratitude and admiration–Sara

  18. Lynn Barker says:

    Such great photos on set and off. I care deeply for wild horses and hate these roundups and their too often final destination ….slaughterhouses. I was happy to contribute the small amount I could toward the making of this film and wish Stephanie and the entire crew the very best of luck moving on to the longer version in the future. All the best…Lynn Barker entertainment journalist and WGA member

  19. Danae Jones says:

    Your pictures are breathtaking!! Truly some of the best on-set photography I have ever seen. Thank you!

  20. Laura Ellen says:

    Beautiful photos. Can’t wait to see what promises to be a beautiful film.