Here’s the real true grit, via the Oscar winning film directed by Kieth Merrill that examines the lives of men of the rodeo. Exclusive interviews with the filmmaker and two of the titular cowboys, by our man in the stall. [Pictured above, L-R: Preston Fox, Alan Cassidy, Wilbur Plaugher, Wick Peth, Kieth Merrill, Reed Smoot]
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Kieth Merrill’s Oscar winning documentary, The Great American Cowboy, which came out in 1973, is a living snapshot of the original American sport of rodeo. Here the true grit of these men and the noble nature of the animals they ride is spread out before the audience with a painterly grace. The film captures the explosive energy that’s released when a bronco or bull comes shooting out from the gate. Director Merrill explains, “Every rodeo movie that I had seen, and I watched everyone that I could find, the action was shot at a safe distance using telephoto lenses so my concept was let’s go with very wide lenses and go very close.” This method, coupled with high speed cameras and liberal use of slow motion, allowed Merrill to capture scenes that could easily have served as the source imagery for a Remington bronze. The heroic nature of the sport coupled with the seismic release of testosterone fueled energy makes for a riveting experience all the way through to the cliffhanger ending.
Following the competition between Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne for World Champion, narrator Joel McRae is heard saying that rodeo “came out of a maverick tradition of stout bread and strong winded horses—a tradition of men determined to tame them, not out of sport. but out of necessity.”
Then-101-year-old Jack Hart (aka “the oldest living cowboy”), who humorously keeps on trying to light his cigarette in the film, refers to the cowboys in the rodeo back when he was in it as “pretty scarce” but also as “good hands.” Rodeo, for Hart, evolved into what it was in the 1970s and then eventually into what it is today. Director Merrill says, “The rodeo that we filmed in 1972-73 was a totally different sport than what they’re calling rodeo today. Today they’re athletes, they’re boys that aren’t cowboys, some of them grew up on farms or ranches and some of them have never been on a horse, but they wear protective armor on their chests and they wear helmets. They wear protective gear like football players as opposed to cowboys.” “The rodeo cowboys in GAC are the real deal and the rodeo cowboys of today are athletes I take nothing away from them or their athleticism but they are not the courageous, balls out go for broke cowboys that we filmed.”
The film then covers the wild horse race, which pits a group of local cowboys against a horse as they attempt to tame the animal. As Hart says, “It was the best man wins—you or the horse.”
There’s something revealing in those words, as to how cowboys view their opponent. The connection between cowboy and animal was important to shaping the west. Cooperation was key to survival, and the assumption by many outside this life was simply getting the animal to capitulate and then be dominated. Hart’s words zero in on the esteem these men have for their opponent and respect cowboys have for the animal. Here, when these men lose, they lose hard. Merrill’s lens captures many a cowboy left defeated by broncos, with injured arms and brutal kicks to the face.
Every generation has its definition of what it means to be tough. It’s a fascinating window into this world, particularly once Merrill turns his lens on some of the kids who are learning to be rodeo cowboys. One boy, no older than 10 years old, and with a massive black eye, talks about how he took a blow to his orbit and had to have 14 stitches, as if it was nothing. These kids are the definition of toughness, and show how hardened they become at an early age. For them, injury and setbacks go hand in hand and prepare them for life on the circuit. Later on in the film, a cowboy says, “I’ve had my head caved in twice, had both my knees popped out, both my legs broke. In Kansas in ‘69 a bull stepped [on] my back, broke my ribs, stuck my lungs. Luckily a doctor was there. He stuck a needle in back of my back and drained out all the blood or I’d a died right there. I’ve had my face crushed completely, a bull stepped on it, my nose broke twice, but you know, it’s there. You gotta do it.”
Merrill states, “I think that their ability to take punishment, their ability to be injured and get up and keep going… It’s simply about the bravado and the macho, you know, get the crap just completely kicked out of you, be stomped on by a 1200-pound bull, or get up and get back on a horse—that’s the cowboy way.”
The film, with its orchestral score, shocks and jars the audience in unexpected ways, much like a bronco trying to throw a rider off. The percussive elements help punch the force of each ride, lending them an aural sense of urgency. The horns recall Aaron Copeland’s ballet Rodeo and underscore the heroism that is very much a part of cowboy life.
The steer wrestling section of the film is striking in how it captures plenty of failed attempts for every successful ride. In fact, Merrill’s film unapologetically shows how many cowboys toil on life’s fringes. The men are okay with this because, more than anything else, rodeo is about proving something to yourself—about using skill and a dose of luck to conquer a force equal or greater than oneself. That’s the overriding goal for these men.
Of course, winning from time to time also helps keep their dreams alive.
The film’s main storyline tracks a pair of rodeo legends. One is Larry Mahan from Oregon, the reigning champion, who when not riding in events spends his time bringing up the next generation of cowboys. Mahan became such a legend that he even had his own boot brand (cue up that clip from No Country for Old Men where Llewelyn Moss asks to buy a pair). He trains them not only in arena rodeo skills, but how to survive and make it from event to event spending little or no money and living off a hamburger a day. This is a key moment in the film because it shows how rough and tumble their lives truly are. Dust and hunger are a constant companion for these men, scraping by and hoping for one more shot.
The other is Phil Lyne, who is the cowboy’s cowboy. He can rope, ride a bucking bull, and comes from a ranch in west Texas. In the film, Phil challenges Larry for the throne. I won’t spoil it for you, but the competition between the two is fierce and is amped up by director Merrill’s spirited editing. Given the brutal nature of the competition and the copious amounts of testosterone on display, the two seem to have a true admiration for one another; as I found out later in my interview with both men, they have formed a real friendship that has lasted the years since the film hit theatres.
Forty-three years on, The Great American Cowboy still electrifies and excites. It’s an important film that deserves to be dusted off and shown not just to rodeo buffs, but to fans of a type of visceral filmmaking that. much like the cowboy life depicted in the film, has seemingly disappeared into the ether. The documentary offers one hell of a gut-busting ride that’ll leave you with more than a few saddle sores by the end of it. Good news then for film buffs: In the near future we should be seeing a restored version of the film be released on DVD. Amen for that.
What follow are my interviews conducted in the fall of 2015 with Kieth Merrill, director of the Great American Cowboy, and cowboys Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne.
INTERVIEW WITH KIETH MERRILL DIRECTOR, THE GREAT AMERICAN COWBOY
BLURT: Kieth, first I’d like to ask you the obvious question, what made you want to film a documentary about cowboys and the rodeo?
KIETH MERRILL: I went to a film called Any Sunday created by a filmmaker by the name of Bruce Brown. Bruce Brown was the filmmaker who created a sensation with a movie called Endless Summer it was a 16mm documentary film, which played in theatres, it was kind of a new wave of theatrical documentaries and when I went with my wife in Sunnyvale California to see the movie On Any Sunday which was about motorcycle racing in the desert featuring Steve McQueen who was a friend of the filmmaker. I was overwhelmed [and] there was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets, the theatre was completely packed and everybody cheered, and loved the movie. I had at that point been making documentary films for corporations and other kinds of 16mm films. I owned my own equipment. I was very early in my career, I turned to my wife and I said I can do that. I didn’t see anything in that film that I didn’t know how to do and so I went home and began to scratch my head and in a very analytical way went through a long list of subjects and genres that would lend itself to the kind of movie that I had seen Bruce Brown had done one on surfing, Bruce did one on motorcycles, obviously they were action sports. So I saw the film by Bruce Brown, I recognized that the surfing film and the motorcycle film were both high impact action films full of fun full of humor and so I began to evaluate the various subjects that could be exploited that hadn’t really been exploited if that’s the right word as feature length documentary films. I decided that Rodeo had extraordinary amount of action it was very Americana having grown up in rural Utah on a dairy farm and sort of growing up on horses, I had a sense of the western culture though I was not a rodeo participant by any means and that’s where the idea came from. So the next day I called the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Denver Colorado and started a conversation and it took me basically 3 months to persuade them to give me the exclusive rights to professional rodeo, rodeo sanctioned by the PRCA, which is the association that ranked cowboys, that had reasonable purses for the winners etc. That was where it all began and it began with a very serious calculation to create a motion picture that would play on the big screen that could tap into the experiences that I had, the talent that I had, the equipment that I had in the realms of documentaries.
The first thing that grabs the viewer is how the tension is heightened with a freeze frame of a bucking bronco and then a split screen with Larry Mahan, did you always have this split screen affect in mind when shooting the film, or did this come to you when you were editing?
It was kind of a combination of both split screen, freeze frame, and those techniques were not nearly as common in 1973, when we made the film as they are today. So to some extent I anticipated that we might use split screen knowing we would have a lot of material that wouldn’t necessarily fit into a linear story but would help capture the flavor. So we gave some anticipation to that idea but it was really in the editing that I began to compile that idea, and notes aside there may be a question later but I edited the film myself I bought a K-E-M table which was a European designed flatbed editing system which was spectacular for its day. I owned one of the first machines brought into the United States, and I sat in my garage and edited the film for 8 months ignoring the fact that my bills were piling up the phone was ringing off the hook but I just stayed focused and edited the film.
How much did this film cost to make?
The total cost of the film of the film was $300,000. [Below: the director at work on the set]
Did you have to pass an “initiation” of sorts to prove that you were tough enough to hang out with these men?
No not really I grew up in the west I could ride horses without giving it much thought and so I was not at all unfamiliar with the world of livestock or horses or cows for that matter, though I confess I didn’t have much experience with brahma bulls, and bucking stock so no there was no initiation. The credibility I suppose of the couple of films I had made seemed to be sufficient.
How did you approach meeting Larry and Phil and were either of them reticent about talking about this subject?
I met them because I jumped into the world of professional rodeo. Larry Mahan was the six time all around world champion, Phil Lyne was the up and comer from George West Texas that was dazzling everybody with his ability to participate in bronc riding and bull riding and calf roping. The all-around cowboy is an all-around because he participates in at least three events and so it was an extremely fortuitous year to make this film because you had a classic story wherein the young kid from the ranch in George West Texas was challenging the 6th all time all around world champion Larry Mahan and so it was like a perfect storm as it were, they were not at all reticent, they were excited to be featured in the film. They were both extremely helpful from the first day we met them until the film was completely finished.
Preston Fox is credited with the in arena action camera, had you worked with him before and given that rodeos are impossible to script how did you all manage not to interfere with the competition or take one to the cranium as it was taking place?
I’d never met Preston Fox before the film began. I inherited Preston as a result of our executive producer who was a friend of his father or grandfather or whatever and part of the deal them putting up the money was that I would hire Preston Fox but as it turned out the good news was Preston was a very dedicated and talented filmmaker, cameraman and very courageous and he did get into the arena with the small handheld action camera most often the arriflex S and sometimes the gun camera, though he also operated the other cameras. He was not always in the arena, various rodeos had different rules and regulations about what we were allowed to do, but in truth we were given extraordinary access and the thing that distinguishes GREAT AMERICAN COWBOY from almost every other rodeo movie is that my concept going in was to totally shift the paradigm. Every rodeo movie that I had seen and I watched everyone that I could find the action was shot at a safe distance using telephoto lenses so my concept was let go with very wide lenses and go very close, so close to the action with very wide lenses to really capture the complete essence because the long lens tends to distance the audience because it has a small depth of field the background is out of focus so one of the things that gives GAC an incredible sense of presence and an incredible sense of reality is the fact that the cameras were very close to the action with very wide lenses. We were shooting 5.9 and 10mm lenses 18mm lenses those are extremely wide lenses and that’s the reason that we were getting such extraordinary footage and Preston without question [is] credited with much of that. I likewise shot with wide lenses and spent a lot of time in the chutes sitting next to the cowboys as they mounted up.
Were any of the cameramen (including yourself) hurt or did any come close to being hurt in the process of filming this documentary? Any stories you’d like to tell us?
Remarkably there were very few accidents, there were a lot of close calls, but there were an enormous number of cowboys that were injured not because of the film or anything that was going on but the injuries that are captured on film are simply a part of rodeo, which has all changed, which is an important part of any article. The rodeo that we filmed in 1972-73 was a totally different sport than what they’re calling rodeo today. Today they’re athletes they’re boys that aren’t cowboys, some of them grew up on farms or ranches and some of them have never been on a horse, but they wear protective armor on their chests and they wear helmets. They wear protective gear like football players as opposed to cowboys. The cowboys we filmed were real cowboys almost all of them really came from farms and from rodeos and from small spreads throughout the west and the Midwest including the central states. They were tough guys. They were very very tough; they wore no protective gear at all. They followed the rules of the PRCA in that they wore, they had to wear a long sleeve shirt and they had to start with a hat. I say start with a hat because the ropers always knocked the hat off in the first two minutes, in the first two seconds, because they don’t wanna have it interfere with their rope. The rodeo cowboys in GAC are the real deal and the rodeo cowboys of today are athletes I take nothing away from them or their athleticism but they are not the courageous, balls out go for broke cowboys that we filmed.
We were always at the edge of death in truth because we had that curious sense of security that a filmmaker has that if you’re making a movie somehow you are invulnerable to danger. As a result, we put ourselves in harm’s way. Remarkably none of us were hurt seriously or permanently. Probably the biggest [thing] happened with Preston Fox. We were at a particular rodeo and one of the ways that we disguised the camera in the arena was to dress Preston Fox up as a rodeo clown. If you’re familiar with rodeo you know that during the bull riding they have clowns which are actually bullfighters very talented, very athletic men whose job it is to turn the bull back and enhance the ride. If a bull doesn’t turn, it’s very hard for the cowboy to score points. The purpose of the clown is twofold one is to turn the bull to give the cowboy the maximum point opportunity the best ride possible. The second thing of course is to help him if he gets into trouble to release the bucking strap, to distract the bull once he’s off to keep him from getting gored. So it made sense for us to simply dress Preston up as a rodeo clown put him in the arenas so that when he was seen by the other cameras as they swept by the action and nobody would notice that he was a cameraman. Well on one occasion the rodeo clowns who for all their athleticism and bullfighting talents were also clowns in their own way told Preston that there was a particular bull that was extremely predictable and that he, the bull came always straight out of the gate and then just spun right in front of the gate and he said it would be an extraordinary shot and they showed him right where to stand and he had the arriflex with the wide lens and he said if you stand right here the bull will come out and will just spin right here. You’ll get an unbelievable shot. So trusting as he was and as we were, Preston got right in front of the chute and stood right where the clown told him to stand and the gate opened and the bull did exactly what the clowns knew that bull always did, which was run straight out of the gate and right over the top of the cameraman. So I don’t even think he got the camera on before he was completely flattened by a 1200 brahma bull. That was one of the highlights.
In terms of the voiceovers and narration, where were the voiceovers done?
They were recorded in Los Angeles I don’t exactly remember where. I think Glen Glenn sound was where we did the final mix so it’s very likely that’s where we did the recording. But that was all done of course after the fact. So other than the voiceovers that are shot on location, and in most cases part of an on camera interview the only narrative voice was really Joel McRae which was recorded in LA.
The script and narration that Joel McCrea voices was written by Douglas Kent Hall author of “Let Her Buck”, so what are we referring to when we say the script here?
Let me tell you an anecdote about Douglas Kent Hall whom I believe has passed away. I think a few years back I got a note from his wife or girlfriend that he’d passed on, but such as it is this movie was made a long time ago. Here’s the story, after we’d won the Academy Award for GAC we were approached by a foundation that was focused on native Americans and a fellow by the name of Will Rose asked me to come in and having made the film GAC he wanted me to make a movie called the Great American Indian, which we subsequently did. It never got the attention of course that the GAC did and effectively has kind of disappeared we’ve lost track of the masters etc. In any event that’s not the point. While I was out filming the film which was ultimately called “Indian” I got a call from Doug Hall I remember I was standing at a payphone somewhere in New Mexico at the side of the road and I called my office to check in [with] the the gal who ran things while I was away. She told me that I’d gotten a call from Douglas Kent Hall and I though great I’ll call Doug back so I did. Doug said that he wanted to set up a call with a guy who wanted to have a movie made and so anyway a few minutes later I’m on the phone and he said there’s a guy here who loved your movie GAC and he’d really like to talk to you about making a movie that he’s interested in, it’s a film about bodybuilding and here let me put him on the phone and moments later I get a voice on the phone with a very thick accent that says , “Hallo Kieth my name is Arnold Schwarzenegger and I have an idea for a movie called Pumping Iron about body building” and I said jeez you know I’m not very interested in bodybuilding I don’t know much about that so thanks but no thanks nice of you to think of me so I have the dubious distinction of having turned down the opportunity to launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career!
The question about Douglas Kent Hall author of Let her Buck, I met Doug Hall in the middle of filming the movie so the idea that there was a script is certainly not consistent with what one usually thinks of when you think of a script. There was no script going in. The only script was the one in my head, which was that I wanted to tell a great story with great characters and fortunately I found in Larry Mahan and Phil Lyne a wonderful story and a wonderful competition and a wonderful conflict that I think distinguished the film in its day. It effectively plays almost like a dramatic narrative as opposed to a feature documentary though it embraces the documentary elements of the world of rodeo. Doug Kent Hall was a good friend. I met him as I said when he was at one of the rodeos shooting perhaps it was photographs for Let Her Buck, I don’t know the publication date, whether he was working on that book or whether he was working on his second book I don’t really know. It was most likely his second book. As we became acquainted he kinda worked with us and I engaged him to help me with the narration, which is what he wrote. We gave Doug Hall credit on the screen as the writer but in reality the writing was happening in the camera [as] I was shooting. That was the “script” and I was creating the story day to day and then after the fact when we started pulling the editing together we had Doug Kent Hall write the narrative, which many parts I rewrote. I take nothing away from Doug, he was a very talented guy and made a great contribution but certainly it wasn’t a script in the normal sense of the word.
Was Joel McCrea the only one you thought of to voice this or were there other voices you were also considering?
Joel McRae was not the only one by any means that we thought about. Actually I tried to get Robert Redford to narrate the film. I had met Redford can’t remember for sure how or why but I sort of knew him at that time and he was filming The Great Gatsby back east somewhere and I was on my way to London to have the musical score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra so I stopped on the location of The Great Gatsby and spent an evening with Redford and showed him a clip of the film asked him if he’s consider narrating the film and so on. He said he’d give it some thought but at the end of the day in a meeting at my house in Los Altos Hills he declined and so it was following that we then went to Joel McRae. He had just done Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think the one he did before The Sting and then of course the Sting was nominated the same year that GAC was so we swapped correspondence and so on. Joel McRae was recommended by a young friend of mine Lloyd Tagert and I’m not sure how he knew Joel or tracked him down but Joel McRae was of course a classical old Hollywood cowboy and a wonderful wonderful man, we became great friends with Joel and Francis. Subsequently his son Peter worked for me for many years.
“Rodeo was the Man” in the narration the film talks about this being a sport that was forged from a man who had a wild horse needing to be broken and a man who said he could ride it, in your travels to all of these rodeo towns were Larry and Phil treated like rock stars?
“Rodeo Was the Man” this is the kind of narration that Doug Kent Hall helped us with. This was narration that came more or less after the fact to sort of pull the pieces together, pull the segments together as I had edited and created them in the camera. I made a comment about the difference between Rodeo then and now and to some extent this also addresses your next question, but the second part of this question was were Larry and Phil treated like Rock Stars? Not really, not rock stars if you mean that the way it’s taken, no. There were certainly groupies, girls that liked to track the award winning cowboys. Larry Mahan if there was a rock star of rodeo it was certainly Larry Mahan. Phil was just a country boy and kind of a shy bashful kid. Larry on the other hand had girlfriends here and there and parenthetically let me make a point, which you may or may not ask about later. There’s a dark side to rodeo of course these are a lot of young men full of testosterone and bravado and reliving the wild west as it were. They’re not rock stars by any means but they’re certainly a gaggle of girls that follow them around which of course means that as they travel about the country they’re never without companionship if they want it and of course there’s bar fights and other kinds of things that go on. When the film came out in one of the interviews I had, someone said well you didn’t show the dark side of rodeo, you make it very heroic, you make these guys look like great guys and nothing about sleeping with girls and getting drunk and all that kind of stuff, and I simply said look if you’ve got 90 minutes to talk about the men and the sport you have to choose and I simply choose to show the positive. I simply choose to show the heroic, I simply choose to show the patriotism, the goodness because it serves no good purpose to delve into that which is common to all people and perhaps all sports and so that’s why you don’t see any of that. There is a certain element of Rock Star(ism) to rodeo guys but certainly at a much lesser level.
Jack Hart talks about how the rodeo has changed, and I’m sure he’d find it unrecognizable today with the pads, helmets, and sponsorships? Did you have a sense at the time that you were capturing a portrait of a part of the west that was in transition or dying out?
Old Jack Hart my favorite shot in the whole movie trying to light up his cigarette. I think I’ve already answered that earlier when I talked about the significant difference between cowboys who wore regulation long sleeve shirt and a hat and boots versus the guys with the pads helmets and sponsorships and so on so I won’t comment further other than the last part of your question as to whether the film captures a portrait of a part of the west that was in transition or dying out and I haven’t thought of that but I think that it’s absolutely true which is why there might be a real reason to resurrect the film and create a classic version of it, because it really did, it was kind of the end of an era to some extent it was maybe a decade before it turned into a big time professional sport where it was more about pads and helmets and sponsorships then it was about bravado.
The wild horse race where real local ranch cowboys have to tame a bronco, this looks to have been incredibly difficult to film, and you must’ve seen your fair share of bloodied men, how hard was it to film this section?
The wild horse race real ranch cowboys you know it in the shadow of what we just talked about portrait of part of the west that’s in transition or dying out. There are still places in the west where you have these incredible guys. The wild horse race is still alive and well in some of the rodeos. Those guys maybe cling to the more traditional parts of rodeo. It was very difficult to film at one level but as I explained the whole concept was close proximity and wide angle lenses and most of the wild horse race that’s in the film I was the cameraman. So back to the idea of script and storytelling you know the instantaneous intuition as to where to point the camera in the midst of all that to capture not only the action but some sense of story, some sense of beginning middle and end, which you kind of have in that little short segment, that was kind of how the film was made. We did definitely see our share of bloodied men and a few of them are in the film and that was maybe as close to death as I came in the movie, well other than I did climb on a bull but that was actually later.
The music is incredibly expressive using percussive elements as well as orchestral sections, who was the composer and what were your thoughts on the music at the time and how do you feel about the music today? Did the composer work off of a final cut of the film or did you break it into sections and convey the ideas and length of each section so he could compose the music?
The music was written and composed by Harold Farberman. Here again I have to confess, I probably would not have, well not probably I would not have chosen Harold Farberman because I’d never heard of him and I didn’t know who he was. Our executive producer Albert P Heiner who was the VP of Kaiser Steel for whom I had done a very successful award winning film a few years earlier was the one who called me up one day and said so what are you doing these days? I pitched him on GAC and Al rounded up a half a dozen of his buddies and they’re the ones who put up the money. It was Al Heiner who introduced me to Preston Fox. It was Al Heiner who introduced me to Harold Farberman that’s the way the world works. He was the executive producer, he was critical to raising the money, so when he said that he’d like to have Harold Farberman do the music of course I said fine. Harold Farberman at the time was the composer, the creative director of the Oakland Symphony. Albert P. Heiner as a VP of Kaiser Steel corporation was a huge player in Oakland overall, and on the board of the Oakland Symphony etc. So that’s how we came to have Harold Farberman. I actually love the music even today its startling to me how well it holds up. The only part of the music that I think is sadly dated and doesn’t work is the ballad he wrote “Going Down the Road” because it, while it certainly conveys the tedium of days spent on the road I think it lacks the flavor of country. The flavor of rodeo. The concept of music I will basically take the credit because I’d told Al Heiner that my concept of music was to create a ballet from the violent action of these animals, exhausting themselves to dismount their riders etc. and shoot a lot of slow motion and create a sense of ballet, which is why I always had the idea of using classical sort of classical score as opposed to the more obvious choice which would be sort of what would’ve been called Country and Western [back then]. The composer did work off of the final cut of the film and so it was as music always is done. It’s always scored to the cut film.
How did you settle on Oscar amongst the other notorious animals on the circuit? Did these animals travel or were they mainstay attractions at set venues?
Well here again this kind of a film was written day to day as we moved through the rodeo circuit. We generally followed the rodeos that Phil Lyne and Larry Mahan were planning to compete in so that gave us a very general itinerary. We filmed rodeos where they were not of course in some cases because of special events like the Omak suicide race, which was not really a rodeo per se but the chuck wagon races at Calgary and so on. The whole thing with Oscar we were working very closely with Jack Roddy of the I’m trying to remember the name of their rodeo company, I can’t remember now , but the animals are provided by stock companies that actually raise and train not train but groom animals for the purpose of rodeo. Jack Roddy was a good friend of ours and one of the top stock contractors and he and his guys were the ones who owned Oscar. So we knew about Oscar and we just happened to be at a rodeo where I heard about this bet that was not set up for the movie [but] was a real deal and so we just simply jumped in and captured the moments . So again we were extremely luck with those kinds of things but you can tell by the way that it was filmed that it was real because we grabbed whatever we could as the events were actually taking place.
The bull riding sequences have a musicality the way they were cut, and then slowed down. What guided you here, was it the motion of the animal, the rider? Did you cut with music in mind?
I mentioned the whole concept was to create a sense of ballet. So to slow this incredible violent action down using high speed cameras and then putting it to classical music was always a concept that I had in mind. The editing of the film was based almost exclusively on the visual power of the elements and then the music was added later.
Your opening quote from Sophocles “Many a man hath seen himself in dreams” is then echoed in the narration which says, “a boy first sees himself in a dream, he wants to be a cowboy” The kids you met like the boy that was kicked in the eye seem to talk about their physical disfigurement as if it’s a badge of honor or a right-of-passage. Was this attitude pervasive throughout these rural communities that you travelled to?
The quote by Sophocles and the echo of Sophocles later in the film was kind of a one two punch between Douglas Kent Hall and myself. That again is something that we developed in the narration when the film was basically being edited, but the question you’re asking is whether physical disfigurement is a badge of honor, I don’t think that physical disfigurement is anyway a badge of honor or a rite of passage but I think that their ability to take punishment, their ability to be injured and get up and keep going and they do talk with pride about their broken ribs and their broken bones and we captured a bit of that. I would say that at that time, that it kind of was a badge of honor not that the disfigurement or the injuries, but the survival. The fact that they were tough enough and so I think that’s what they were doing. They were touting their toughness and their courage, which is the way they looked at it. I don’t know maybe I’m saying the same thing but disfigurement no I don’t think, that’s the word you use, I don’t think it’s about that at all. I think it’s simply about the bravado and the macho you know get the crap just completely kicked out of you, be stomped on by a 1200-pound bull or get up and get back on a horse that’s the cowboy way!
In the steer wrestling section you have a moment where you freeze frame on a cowboy that really drives the point home that no one is really in control here, the tables have turned the vulnerability in this sport is exposed, plus it almost seems that the cowboy is cracking a smile. When you reviewed your footage did you hunt for moments like these that you could use to add subtext to the sequence?
You ask about the steer wrestling section and where I froze the frame from time to time. I didn’t necessarily look for those moments in other words I didn’t have a concept of freeze framing until I actually looked at the footage and realized there were those moments that lasted for only a few frames that would be totally missed were the one you use as your example where the guy is now being pushed by the steer. They’re looking, his eyes are strained to the rear, the steer’s eyes are strained to the front they’re looking at each other in a classic confrontation. I mean it’s just too visual and too strong not to have grabbed it and frozen it for the audience. So I decided on a kind of a mantra. My mantra was that content was more important than format. By that I mean, we shot in 4:3 which is the standard 16mm format, but we released it in 1:85 but many times in the film it will cut, it’ll cut the edges off and give the full frame in the middle because the action I felt shouldn’t be sacrificed by trimming, by diminishing the resolution or by trimming the top and the bottom in order to give it a 1:85 ratio which is the way you create a 1:85 from a 4:3 [aspect] ratio. So here again and this is a perfect example if you’ll notice the frame you froze, you’ve got black on the right and on the left. Well the total frame is a 1:85 but you see black stripes on each side, which means you’re seeing exactly 100% of the 16mm frame. A lot of people said oh you can’t do that, you gotta keep consistent and I said no its about content, not about format. I violated a lot of rules of format but preserved the content.
The narrator says after Phil Lyne retires that for many cowboys this is all they know and there is no choice but to keep going, they don’t in essence have the luxury of retiring. Did people feel critical of Phil for leaving instead of being forced out of the sport by injury like a “real cowboy”?
No one was critical of Phil Lyne. If anything they were envious, Phil was a real cowboy with a family ranch in George West TX. [He had a place to go back to. Rodeo was not his life. His was the perfect storm. He came from a ranch, won the best all-around world champion cowboy, went back to the ranch, got married raised kids and had a real life.]
I did not follow Phil’s career after the movie. I think it would be fascinating to track him down and put that year of his life in the perspective of the whole. Same with Larry who did not grow up on a ranch and made Rodeo his life and his celebrity into a successful career.
Did any of the animals have to be put down at the rodeos you attended if they were excessively violent?
I never saw an animal seriously hurt, injured and certainly never put down. I’m not sure stock contractors would ever characterize and animal as ‘excessively violent’. Bucking horses and bulls are selected for the attributes that make them great on the rodeo circuit… to my knowledge, they do not get meaner or more violent for some reason. There has been a lot of criticism from animal rights activists over the years about the treatment of animals in Rodeo, but they are some of the best cared for animals on the planet. There were horses that we could tell just loved to buck. Afterward[s] they were [as] gentle as kittens.
Below: Merrill’s Oscar for his film. PART TWO of the story, and interviews with cowboys Mahan and Lyne, is HERE.