Extreme adventure, including extreme sports, makes up about 15% of the films at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival each year. You don’t see too many horses. Even when the challenges take on big distances, you see kayaks, canoes, boats, bikes, hikes, and runs…. Horses, not so much.
In “Unbranded” the distance covers the US border to border from Mexico to Canada. What with mountains, rivers, and other straight line spoilers, it adds up to about 3000 long, rugged, and problematic miles. Giddyup.
See how the horses do. They’re mustangs -- wild horses -- trained for four months toward a chance to showcase their resilience and performance. See how the humans do. The oldest of the young men, he’s the concept guy, the planner, the driver.
As film festival years click by, extreme adventurers and sportsmen more often inject an environmentalist perspective into their outdoorsy compulsions. The issue in “Unbranded” is the wild horse dilemma. What is the fate of this symbol of America’s Wild West and free expanses in a bygone frontier?
Protected, wide-ranging, the thriving wild horse populations overgraze Bureau of Land Management land where ranchers make a living. Getting fifty thousand horses adopted beyond the reach of eradication pressures is, to say the least, challenging and expensive. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t wag its issue finger.
Enjoy an interesting flavor of extreme adventure and beautiful big country. Travel with four guys dealing with weather and terrain and uncertain routing. They deal with long hours in the saddle – for more than five months. They deal with each other, sometimes far less than smoothly, including a curious twist getting it all is said and done.
----- From an exchange between Chuck Jaffee and “Unbranded” director Phillip Baribeau -----
Chuck Jaffee: What got you the most jazzed – and most concerned – about making “Unbranded”?
Phillip Baribeau: The opportunity to ride a horse across the American West. I only had ridden a horse a couple times prior to the trip and always wanted to learn...what better way! My biggest concern was only using one cameraman/director out with the guys. The logistics at first were really intimidating, how to charge batteries, dump cards, load all our camera equipment on horses, wirelessly mic all four guys.
CJ: With such a big and ever changing landscape and such long, complicated logistics, how did you go about setting up scenes and managing spontaneous scenes ... not to mention editing?
PB: 500 hours of footage, crazy for any film. We started by editing main stories to 14 hours. We teamed through it and came up with a 4 hour cut. We really listened to test audiences. Basically we just [whittled] it down to our final 105 minute film.
CJ: How much of the ride did you participate in?
PB: Splitting with our other Director of Photography, Korey Kaczmarek, we’d do 10-14 days each. Gave us time to recoup and sleep.
CJ: How much did you know ahead of filming the adventure how you would dial in the issues around managing wild horses in America? What perspectives changed along the way?
PB: During the ride, we didn't know anything about how we were going to tackle the issue of wild horses on our public lands. First, we followed the adventure and inner dynamics, best we could, of the four main characters and the horses as characters. It was pretty funny getting to know them and all their quirks. We felt showing them going through all of this rugged terrain and how good a job they did would prove [what was so good about the project].
CJ: About wild horses in America, what core agreement do you share with the four riders in the film? Is there any notable disagreement?
PB: Ben Masters did another long journey in 2010. He used some Mustangs. They outperformed his other horses. Then he learned about the horse struggle in the West, including 50,000 in holding facilities. He felt it was important to help promote adoption. This idea quickly intrigued me and I also wanted to prove these animals by showing footage of how incredible they are for a trip like this. The four guys didn't want to use the film to solve the issue, just to bring awareness. It was important to me to represent all sides and give everyone a voice.
CJ: With “Unbranded” you can now call yourself a feature-film director. What do you like most about this plateau?
PB: It’s a very proud achievement for me. I made lifelong friends and had the adventure of a lifetime with the cast and crew. I hope to continue to ride this wave as long as possible and to tell more incredible stories.