Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait was a project created from the truest sense of passion and a need to tell a story we felt had not been told.
My family moved to rural Texas from the Sierra Nevada mountains when I was thirteen years old and bought a small farm where we raised horses and a handful of cattle. Our place was surrounded by ranches, and the agriculture and cowboy lifestyle became my primary love in life throughout those formative years. Everything I lived and breathed became based on the need to be a “cowboy,” and it wasn’t long before I began day working for the neighbors and entering local rodeos. My passion for rodeo grew, and I rode bulls for four years before a catastrophic wreck changed the trajectory of my life. No longer able to compete in the arena, I drifted around from ranch jobs to odd jobs in my early twenties until deciding to go back to school and study journalism at Texas A&M University.
After graduating from university and working a stint for the government in search and rescue, I struck out as a freelance photographer and videographer in 2006, focusing on the western and adventure lifestyle genres while eventually founding a production company called Ultralite Films.
The next decade was spent cutting my teeth in the filmmaking arena, specializing in non-fiction documentaries and commercial brand films around the world. As my experience and education as a filmmaker progressed, a strong desire to direct a feature length film grew for the next few years until I finally made the conscious decision to take the first step. I explained my plans to my wife, who was extremely supportive, and even though I wasn’t sure exactly how it was going to get done at this early stage, I was determined that it would happen.
The next few months were busy contacting potential crew members and large ranches in Texas, developing a sample trailer from old cowboy footage I’d shot, and building a concept website and initial storyboard.
In tandem with my pre-production work, I had recently moved near Austin and met John Langmore, a photographer in the neighboring office who was working on a passion project shooting still photos of working cowboys. He had spent the past four years shooting large ranches outside of Texas and had cowboyed summers in his youth. Because of our connected history, it wasn’t long until I invited him to partner on the film in the hopes he would be able to get us through the gates on some of the ranches he had been shooting out of state. John jumped on board, and we soon self-financed three shoots to produce a six-minute investment teaser. Except for one ranch I tackled alone, our crew was only three people at the max. Usually myself and one of two other cinematographers, Hank Wisrodt or Tito West, would film while John shot still photos for his book, Open Range, with several of his incredible black and white images making the final cut in the film.
After we wrapped production, I spent a wintry three months editing our teaser, which (as a surprise to us) went viral on social media and ended up allowing us to secure our initial funding. The teaser also grabbed the attention of German-born filmmaker Felicitas Funke, who had produced a photography book and another feature documentary on the cowboy called Gathering Remnants. She became our third partner and creative producer at 1922 Films, the film’s dedicated production company, and was instrumental in bringing in more diverse storytelling aspects and characters into our concept.
We also signed on producer Jeffrey Brown to manage the other business and industry-related aspects of the film. Jeffrey has a large list of award-winning films to his name and has been instrumental in organizing our overall film festival tour in addition to navigating the distribution landscape.
With production financing in hand, we spent the next two years traveling to eight states across the American West, shooting ranch work and conducting interviews each season. We operated with a very minimalistic footprint, which is the daily modus operandi of Ultralite Films (hence the name.) We kept everything, including aerial UAVs, constrained to three backpacks, and our days were spent filming while our long nights were spent cleaning gear, charging batteries, and triplicate backing up/organizing footage.
Once production wrapped, John and I huddled together for one long day in downtown Austin and together we developed a two-page story outline that would serve as the overall structural basis of the film from that point forward.
When we began searching for editors, I was very keen from the start on hopefully working with Emmy-award winning editor Lucas Harger. I had seen another film of his days before our first shoot called Make. It was similar in concept in that the story is about a niche culture of people featuring several prominent characters. By a stroke of incredible fortune, Lucas joined our team as did sound engineer Steve Horne, both of Bruton Stroube/Outpost in St. Louis, Missouri.
Lucas took it upon himself to fully immerse into the working cowboy culture and became a relative expert in the story we were trying to convey. Bringing in a seasonal act structure, poetry, and a master’s eye of cutting, Lucas would present John and I with act segments of the film for review. We would provide our feedback virtually and once we had a loosely structured story, John and I flew to St. Louis and spent nearly two weeks working sunup to sundown in Lucas’s suite to finalize the details. There is not a second of the film’s final cut and storyline that we did not all three examine in excruciating detail.
Upon a near picture lock, Lucas and I began working hand-in-hand with Cleod9 Music and Ian McCleod to compose the custom score. Ian and I have a longstanding relationship in the film world, and we spent months working with musicians Suvo Sur, Matt Sedivy, Tobin Redwine, and Daniel Libby to develop an orchestral score that would match the film’s visuals and emotions seamlessly. Bringing in inspirations of classic western composers such as Jerome Meross and Elmer Bernstein, we attempted to craft a score that was slightly reminiscent of classic westerns, but absolutely authentic in its own character.
Once we completed the lion’s share of these initial elements, John and I then polished the film’s visuals with Austin post house TBD to develop a color aesthetic we felt was true to the film’s gritty nature and representative of traditional cinematic westerns.
In October, 2019, Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait premiered at the Austin Film Festival in the legendary Paramount Theater, and we were thrilled the film won the festival’s “Audience Choice Award.” It was an absolute honor to have such a wonderful kickoff to a project that had been four years in the making through all kinds of weather, both literally and figuratively.
Currently, we are in conversations with distributors and hope to have the film released to platforms in the coming months. Since wrapping Cowboys, I have personally maintained a full schedule directing two documentary short films and a number of commercial projects, in addition to currently writing a book about the making of the movie called, Filming Cowboys. The Ultralite team is also in pre-production on a contemporary western narrative feature slated to begin filming in late 2021.
At the end of the day, film projects are based heavily on collaboration, and I feel a project’s success is forged from a well-chosen and passionate team working in lockstep. Each individual brings a strong component of his or her talents, and this film is a result of a group of people passionate about this unique story. It was a beautiful process, and I hold many fond memories of late night conversations with the film’s artists excitedly talking about our next steps in the story’s progression.
I am proud to say that our team maintained enough passion that when we finally completed our job, all of us had worked together to create the exact film we had initially set out to craft. There are very few projects I’ve worked on where there is literally not a single element I would change about the project, and this is one of those special projects.
– Bud Force: co-director/producer and director of cinematography for Cowboys: A Documentary Portrait.