Chutin’ The Bull
Jen Scoville interviewed documentary filmmakers Harry Lynch and Jeff Fraley.
“I knew that in order to do this movie right I was going to have to ride a bull myself,” recounts Jeff Fraley, who along with partner Harry Lynch constitutes the two-man team of Trinity Films, an alliance that even in its infancy has proven a passion for seeking out Texas experience. The Austin-based duo’s first effort, Chasing the Dream: a Bull Riding Adventure, documents with humor and reverence the rough ride that has become the fastest growing sport in America. Appropriately enough, this title might also represent an endeavor of fledgling filmmakers to take their subject by the horns and hold on for dear life, artfully capturing the dangerous world of this rodeo event without bucking its yee-haw spirit. As we’re sure Jeff would tell us, at least in the case of a 2000-pound bull, it’s a good thing to chase your dream before it chases you.
Made on a bantam budget of $30,000, Chasing the Dream follows the world’s best bull riders from a small amateur competition in Junction, Texas to the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) championship finals in Las Vegas. Along the way we’re given an intimate look at the quintessential cowboy sport—its formidable personalities, the danger involved, the numerous injuries suffered by the riders, and a sense of the thrill that gets these guys back in the chutes again and again. As Mark Cain so eloquently puts it, “this is not a sissy boy sport.” And although Chasing the Dream introduces us to Mark and other bull riding stars of the day, it also makes us privy to the aspirations of amateur riders—one such cowboy surprised the filmmakers as much as himself by winning the championship event that serves as the film’s climax. The spirit and stick-to-it-iveness exhibited by riders of all levels emerges as a cultural metaphor in line with the taming of the west. For sure bull riding’s wild allure isn’t lost on narrator Fraley who attends bull school and tries his own hand at the rope—a humbling sequence that draws even the most neophyte rodeo audience into the film.
In a medium that most often requires a judgment be made in order to tell a story effectively—and the world of bull riding can’t help but be rich with countrified stereotypes—Lynch and Fraley take care not to alienate their subjects or their audience. The combination of a structured narrative and the illusion of easy access created by Lynch’s close and unselfconscious camera fosters respect for these athletes and their sport. As proof of the achievement of this delicate balance in documentary filmmaking, Chasing the Dream recently won a Best Documentary Short award at the Great Plains Film Festival in Nebraska, and a CINE Eagle award. Even for those who don’t consider themselves rodeo fans, Chasing the Dream is bound to turn ignorance into eye-opening regard for this most Texan of sports.
Harry and Jeff stopped by the WWW Ranch to tell us about their inspiration for the project, how they conquered their lack of movie-making experience, the riders they grew to admire, and bull riding’s role in Texas culture.
Ranch: How did you choose bull riding as your subject matter?
JF: I’d been thinking about the bull riding idea for awhile. Actually, I wanted to come out of college and go on the rodeo circuit and write for the Dallas Morning News or something.
JF: I don’t know… because I really just wanted to ride a bull.
Ranch: You’re from Texas. Did you grow up around the rodeo?
JF: Not really. I’m from Fort Worth where it’s part of the culture, but it’s more like you break out the boots for the two weeks the rodeo’s in town and then you never wear them again. But during those two weeks everyone is really into it. I was fascinated with this old abandoned announcers booth in Will Rogers Coliseum. My friends and I found a little hole in it so we could watch from about five feet behind the chutes. It was really impressive. And the bull riders were totally different from the other rodeo competitors. That’s one reason we chose it. Another is that we wanted a uniquely Texas subject, as far as economic and regional interest goes.
Ranch: When did you realize you wanted to make a documentary, and when did you decide to do it together?
HL: I’d been in advertising and had been trying to get into the film business since 1992. Jeff and I met through friends and started talking about a screenplay I’d been working on, then we came up with the idea to do a documentary.
JF: It was inertia. That next day I was going to get a final offer for a job I really didn’t want to do, and that meeting just helped me make up my mind to put my energy into this project.
Ranch: One of the best things about the film is that it’s not self-conscious. You almost forget that there’s someone behind the camera sliding into the t ight spots, especially the shots of the riders getting into the chutes. How did you gain access into this community?
HL: We almost always shot as a two-man crew and we tried to get really close to the guys. Jeff’s interview style is loose and personal, and if we turne d the tally lights off on the camera sometimes they didn’t even know it was on. As far as getting in there close, some of my photography background helped me compose, but after a while if I wanted the shot I just went in and got it. I remember we were at the PBR finals and all the cowboys were going back behind stage—remember the shot where Tuff walks out and sparks come down on his head? Well, all the cowboys were back there and these other photographers were heading that way so I just thought, shit, I’m going in there too. You stop thinking as a person somebody may not want in the way and you start thinking “I need that shot,” and you just go get it. So, both the unobtrusive nature of our crew and me just starting to think like a camera made it work out for us.
Ranch: Is all of the footage yours?
HL: Almost all of the footage is ours. We shot about 30 hours and purchased about 5 or 6 minutes. A lot of that is stuff that was shot a long time ago, seventies footage and fifties footage. That long hang-up of Tuff’s was in ‘91…
Ranch: How long did it take to shoot?
HL: We had about 24 shooting days.
Ranch: Why do you think Texans will like this film?
HL: Because I think bull riders are an element of the Texas past. The way that they look at life is the way that Texans were looking at life when they were homesteading. They’re folks who aren’t afraid to chase their dreams even though the consequences may be grave. Bull riders are as close to cowboys as you can get—they’re a tie to Texas history.
Ranch: Jeff, what compelled you to get on that bull? What was it like?
JF: First of all, it didn’t give me any credibility with these guys. They could have cared less.
HL: Oh, come on. I think they were glad you got in there and gave it a shot.
JF: Like I said, I’d always wanted to ride a bull but we didn’t really feel that it was necessary. When you make a documentary you enter a world as a complete foreigner and if you come in and show it from your perspective, not theirs, you never really capture it. It always amazes me when a British director will come over here and do something on Elvis or Americana. It just doesn’t work. For us to enter the world of bull riding not as cowboys was really almost as foreign. So we knew we had to get in there for several reasons, to try and experience the sport at a small level, and to create an active participant in the audience. People like to see people doing things, and if they can relate to that person then they’ll be drawn into the film.
Ranch: Was it terrifying?
JF: Oh, you want to know about that… yeah. I didn’t really think about it because it was in the middle of our first two week shoot, and we were so busy—we were working 16, 18 hour days—and it was just penciled in: “Jeff goes to bull school.”
Ranch: How long is bull school?
JF: It’s three days, but really it’s about two hours and then they put you on a bull. I didn’t think about it until I got on, and right then I looked up and saw Harry filming and I wanted to say “forget this.” But I knew I had to do this. What you don’t see in the finished film is that I was on that bull three times. Harry was shooting and we ran out of battery power and then out of film so I was on the bull for like 20 minutes…
HL: No, not that long.
JF: I was on that bull for like an hour and a half…
Ranch: But it must have helped you relate to the riders themselves. The beginning sequence is really amusing—these guys who get thrown off bulls every day tripping over their words when you ask them what they’re in it for. They just can’t seem to articulate why they do what they do.
JF: There’s no experience that I’ve had that compares to riding a bull. We talked about this afterwards. That wasn’t a big bull, but it’s nothing like riding a horse. I mean, you put your feet on it. Imagine sitting on top of a gas freighter or something. And then it’s just instant power. Their first move out of the gate is so much mass, and it’s so quick. It’s weird, and it’s scary… because you know you can die.
Ranch: Though this film seems to be aimed at both rodeo fans and the general public, the latter is sure to have some preconceived notions about the kind of folks who participate in bull riding. It’s hard not to think in stereotypes—hick cowboys, thick accents, and there’s that one rider who uses a word incorrectly—and this requires you to deftly handle the urge to poke fun at the sport and the athletes. But the way you’ve told the story, you end up admiring these guys.
JF: We knew that 99% of Americans think they’re idiots, but spending time with these guys blew our stereotypes out of the water. When we were done filming we had real respect for them. Still, we knew we couldn’t make a film where the audience was going to see it our way right from the beginning. We knew we had to let people think for themselves: We knew they were going to come in with their own preconceptions and that’s why it starts out the way it does. The moments where you’re laughing at them are right at the beginning, and your respect for these guys grows as ours does. It allows the audience to come around. First you think these guys are stupid, and then you sort of think they’re not, and by the end they’re teaching you something. That was intentional.
HL: In that montage of interviews in the beginning people are looking for something to laugh at. We’ve noticed that’s the way it always starts out. They think these guys are a bunch of red neck idiots, but they’re also listening. When Troy Dunn is having a hard time articulating why it is he rides, some people might take it as him being stupid. The film allows you to start off laughing and then your respect continues to build. The minute that Joe Wim berly looks at the camera and winks and starts telling that story about being in the hospital with his ear half torn off, he knows he’s being clever. The doctor tells him he’s lucky and when he says, “I’ve been lucky before and it felt lots better than this,” you start to realize that these guys really do know what’s going on.
Ranch: Have the riders seen the film? Have they given you any feedback?
HL: Some of them have seen it. They’re kind of stoic guys. Tuff Hedeman saw it. He’s in a third of the footage and he knows every story in it and he knows every person in it.
JF: And he does it every day.
HL: He didn’t learn anything from it either, so he thought it was pretty true to life. I mean, he wasn’t bored with it, he didn’t get up and get a beer or anything during it. He seemed interested.
JF: The stars are into it, yeah, but we’ve also had a nice response from the average rodeo fan. They were driving in from 75-100 miles around to come to the Dobie Theater [in Austin]. It was like, real cowboys do the Dobie. They really appreciate it. We’ve had guys thank us—heck we’ve had guys tear up on us—for capturing this in a positive light, for dispelling the stereotypes that modern cowboys are just dumb.
Ranch: One of the facts putting that myth to rest is that the riders set up their own professional organization, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR). And they still own it themselves, right?
HL: Yeah, the whole thing was spearheaded by Tuff. He was the motivating factor behind that.
Ranch: Do you think all that glitz and glam that the PBR brings to bull riding takes away from it’s true spirit?
HL: I think they’re trying to market it to the mainstream. That’s why it has laser shows and fireworks and all that stuff. I don’t know if you noticed, but a few of those clips that you hear when t he bulls come out of the chutes, there’s all this heavy metal music playing—AC DC—I mean, Bruce Springsteen is about as tame as it gets. It’s not country, and it’s not like at the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) where they have a brass band. It’s like a rock concert.
JF: More like boxing, or NASCAR or something.
HL: But there were people at the Las Vegas finals—everybody from real cowboys to non-cowboys—that came from New Jersey and Maine and Oregon and Alaska. People from all over the world and all age groups are starting to follow the sport. It’s not just a cowboy thing anymore. At least that’s the way they’re trying to market it and I think they’re doing a good job of it.
Ranch: Are all the events in the documentary PBR events?
JF: Some were PRCA which has been around since the twenties. And one, in the beginning of the film, was a non-sanctioned event in Junction, Texas; an amateur event.
HL: The film is structured from small to big—we start out at the amateur level and end with the big professional event in Las Vegas. If you noticed in that opening section, every single one of the riders falls off except Ronnie Kitchens. So if you look at it again—he’s got a mustache at the time—it’s Ronnie that stays on in the beginning and wins it all in the end.
JF: That freaked us out at the time when we went back to look at the footage.
Ranch: Tell me a little bit about the unknown guy, Ronnie Kitchens, who in the film wins the big money at the finals. You didn’t expect that, did you? I could tell because you guys didn’t follow him like you did the other riders, there were no setup interviews with him.
JF: We regret that. We literally did meet him in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, and I said to Harry: “Look, there’s a kid going out to watch the bull riders.” And then we’re in Las Vegas and with Troy Dunn who says “come on mates, come with us,” cause we had all this gear and they were getting free rides to the MGM Grand, and he points to this kid and says “and you too,” and we ask him “who are you?” and he says “I’m Ronnie Kitchens.” He made it by injury, which means riders were hurt so he got in.
HL: They take 45 riders, but 4 were injured, so they pull guys up from the lower ranks and he was one of the relief guys.
JF: He said to us, “Do you know they’re paying me $5,000 just to be here? And they’re paying for my room…and we get to ride in a limo.”
Ranch: How old is he?
JF: He was 19 or 20 then. We ruined his limo experience because we had so much equipment they had to get a van. We regret not interviewing him then, we were going to get the rookie point of view. He came right out of nowhere.
Ranch: The finals are a pretty fast sequence in the film. You really only show everyone getting there, Tuff Hedeman’s defeat, and a couple of other incidents. What is the momentum like at the event? How long does it last?
HL: There are 4 performances in 3 days. All 45 riders ride in each performance. The first three have just one round each. In the last round everyone rides and then the top ten guys go on to ride again.
JF: Ronnie’s advance wasn’t spectacular. Basically to be in the money you have to ride all 5 bulls—just like they recruited the top 45 athletes, they recruited the top bulls all year. It came down to he and Adriano Moraes, who had one of the most amazing rides I’ve ever seen. Adriano, hands down, is the best bull rider living. He’s amazing. But Ronnie just stayed around. He kept making the rides.
HL: All the rides are scored, and he became like a consistent batter in baseball. He’s not always going to get home runs but he’s always going to get hits. Ronnie was scoring 79, 82, 83, and we were always watching him cause we liked him. But generally he wasn’t scoring high enough to go anywhere unless he rode all five bulls. So he was kind of in the middle of the pack, but as he continued to ride, other people were falling by the wayside. As soon as you don’t ride one bull you know you’re pretty much out of it. It became more and more likely that he was going to be the guy to ride all five.
JF: It was unbelievable. I mean, we were so personally excited. You can actually see—it’s in a TNN shot—Harry and I in the back saying, yeah. He was such a likable kid, and we watched him round by round emerge as a star there. And by the end you could tell that this guy had practiced his victory speech in his living room or in his back yard hundreds of times.
HL: You had said it was kind of a surprise, but actually we had a lot more footage of him that we didn’t include. In the edit we tried to carefully balance the amount that you could see him, and remember that he’s there, and see his number, but we wouldn’t give it away. Because if we showed too much the audience would think “there’s that kid again, he’s gotta win.” We wanted him in there just enough so his win would seem like poetic justice.
JF: Do you know the other Ronnie story?
JF: The kid was born to ride. His mother won the State Bull Riding Championship competing against boys when she was 16 years old. And she was 3 months pregnant with Ronnie. Ronnie was in the womb winning buckles.
Ranch: I guess women riders would constitute a whole different documentary?
HL: We interviewed a woman and tried to fit it in. It made it in an earlier edit, but it happened at bull school and it interrupted the momentum we were trying to get with Jeff riding and we had to drop it out. There’s a women’s professional rodeo circuit, but they ride with both hands, and this woman didn’t ride with that professional circuit. She rode with one hand—she was tough.
JF: And she was good looking. All the guys just loved her.
“Bodacious is going to be on country music radio and on rock’n’roll television. You won’t be able to be online without seeing him.” —Bob Tallman, Bodacious’ marketing manager
Ranch: I had no idea the bulls are so revered.
HL: Like Jeff was saying, they watch these bulls all year around. The PBR has 18 events all year before the finals. So they tally all the scores of all the bulls as they go through the events. The bull is scored as well as the rider. And every time a rider rides he’s going to be ranked between 1-100, and the bull gets half of that rating. After tallying the numbers they can figure out which bulls are hardest to ride and those are the ones they bring to the finals.
Ranch: Where do they come from?
HL: Most are not purebreds, most purebreds are used for food. These great bucking animals are crossbred, which seems to make them particularly athletic. Bodacious is half charolais, a type of huge blonde French beef cattle, one-quarter Brahma, and one-quarter Hereford.
Ranch: Did either of you have any prior filmmaking experience?
JF: Harry produced TV commercials and I had a theater background. How that translates I really don’t know. We had to learn a lot.
HL: I’d handled a camera before, as sort of a hobbyist. So learning about the camera—composing shots, focusing fast, holding the camera steady—that stuff was almost second nature when we started. But all the other stuff as far as production, pre-production and post-production goes, we read up on it. We probably checked out 10 books from the library and went from there.
JF: The one week film school…
HL: And we called people around Austin who were really great: George Ratliff, Layton Blaylock, Vance Homes, Fred Miller, all people who are accomplished filmmakers. We invited them out to lunch so they would tell us what they knew. I remember we went to lunch with George [Ratliff] pretty early on and after awhile he just said, “You guys don’t know anything do you?”
JF: Half of it was not pretending that we knew what we were doing.
Ranch: What kind of obstacles were you up against as first-time filmmakers and how did you compensate for your lack of experience?
JF: We tried to safeguard by over-preparing in a lot of ways. We had hours and hours of strategic meetings all the way through the editing process. We overthought everything but that was probably what has made it a success.You can’t afford not to plan things out, particularly if you’re a first-time filmmaker.
HL: We really wanted to make sure we went out smart. We didn’t have enough time, we didn’t have enough experience, we didn’t have enough money to go and shoot tons of stuff and just hope it came together. So we set out with a plan where we knew we had to touch on certain issues of bull riding—the risks, the dangers, the bulls, the techniques—and we knew we had to capture shots to support those things.
Ranch: Was it difficult to work in a partnership?
JF: Before we met each other I think we were both the type of people who thought we could do a project like this better than anyone else, and getting together didn’t change that a bit. I feel completely confident in Harry; there are some things he should do because he’s better at it than I am. And I can see that, and vice versa. It’s nice to know your faults and your weaknesses, and also to have complete trust that your creative partner can compensate for them.
Ranch: The editing is important in any film, but it can make or break a documentary. How did that process work for you guys?
HL: The way that we did the editing was kind of unusual. We shot a little over 30 hours and then we got Don Howard involved, who is a very accomplished editor. But the only way he really had time to work on it was for us to do a pre-edit. So we wrote an outline that fit all the footage into it, culled it down to about 8 hours, and then took that to Don.
JF: That was one of great things about Don, he taught us that you make a film what it is, no less and no more.
Our outline was actually interesting because we tried to create it from an audience standpoint. It was centered around what we called “conversation points,” like if you left this movie, what would you go talk about over coffee somewhere? And we thought, well, you’re going to talk about Bodacious, you’re going to talk about Kay Thurman (the woman whose son was killed). So we had all this material—it was very daunting—and we were scared to death to do the outline because in a documentary that’s where it’s made, I mean that’s your film. So we tried to predict what the audience would find interesting. When you shoot that much footage you get attached to it, but it’s fun to think in those terms and I think we’ll continue to use that editing process.
Ranch: What advice do you have for novice documentarists?
HL: Most of all: Start with a very concrete idea, and know what you want from every interview subject and where they will fit in your script or outline. Pay close attention to plot. I think there’s a misconception that you just turn on a camera and go out and film stuff, bring it into the editing room, and then try to make something out of it. Next time we’ll probably have even more of a script than we did for Chasing. You have to think it through almost as if you were writing a screenplay. Also, filmmaking is a lot more of a business then we ever thought it was. The actual production part is creative, but organization and fundraising and having to deal with rights issues (music, footage) is a lot of red tape and accounting which shouldn’t be discouraging—I just wish we had known just how much it would take to support the film.
Ranch: As filmmakers you obviously have a lot of respect for bull riding as a sport, but what role do you think it plays in Texas culture?
HL: Like we said before, we wanted to do a Texas subject, and there are few that are more Texan than bull riding, really. These guys are like the frontiersmen. They’re constantly traveling; they are hard, tough, tough people—physically tough, mentally tough. In order to ride 100 rodeos a year, travel 300 days a year, always ride injured, you have to have incredible self discipline, and these guys have it. They’re like the people who won the west, they really are.
And most of them live a quintessential Texas lifestyle. Most of them live on ranches, most of them ranch cows, and they plan to continue to ranch when they retire from riding. Most of them drive pick-up trucks, most of them wear hats, wear boots. I mean, most of these guys are old Texas, they’ve been schooled in the old Texas way of being courteous and mannerly— “yes sir, no sir”—type stuff. They have a lot of integrity; they’re good for their word. We admired these men and their personal culture—the way they choose to live their lives—as much as we admired this Texan sport.
JF: And it’s something that needs to be preserved. To me, bull riders embody a Texas spirit. They do what they say they’re going to do and if you get in their way they’ll knock you down. There’s something very admirable about the “faith, family and friends” maxim that seems to guide their lives. It’s a Texan thing.
Ranch: I noticed there was some golf bashing going on. Donny Gay kept bringing it up and he came off as kind of bitter that bull riding doesn’t get the recognition or money that a mild-mannered sport like golf does. Is that a predominant sentiment?
HL: He’s a little bit bitter, yeah. He’s the eight-time world champion, the most winning bull rider there is. Yet he walks down the street and nobody knows who he is and he never made very much money in his career.
JF: Yeah he thinks golfers get a million bucks just to walk on grass. They just don’t see the justification, and that’s partly why they started the PBR. They feel like they do one of the most dangerous sports in the world and they want to be paid accordingly. But yeah, all those golf jabs, we kept coming across them in the editing.
Ranch: The soundtrack to the film is full of Texas music—Don Walser, Tony Villanueva of the Derailers, Chris Wall—some of the songs even have bull riding lyrics. I see you both co-produced the music. How did you get that to happen?
HL: We knew we wanted to have good music; good music is important to good movies. And we wanted to use local musicians without major label contracts. Jack Ingram, who is an Austin musician hooked us up with his tour manager John Riedie, who was interested in the idea and had a bunch of connections. And he had ideas about what bands to use. We put together a list and he approached them. Then we put together sheets of bull riding terms, things that might be appropriate in the lyrics. The musicians wrote their songs and we approved them or in one case helped do a rewrite. All the music was recorded at Omni studio here in town. We plan to release a soundtrack CD around the time that this thing is broadcast.
Ranch: What’s the next project for you guys?
HL: Another Texas documentary. We’ve learned so much from doing this one, but the next one is going to be better, more cohesive.
JF: There’s a lot here.
HL: There is a lot here. Texas has it’s own kind of culture but it also has some real anomalies that make for good subject matter. There’s some real strange stuff that goes on in this state.
Ranch: What’s ahead for the film? Are you going to take Chasing the Dream on the festival circuit?
HL: Right now we have plans for the New Orleans festival, and the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival. It ran at the Dobie for a week already; we’re going to continue to get theatrical runs in hopes of continuing the buzz and making it a viable purchase for a domestic cable movie channel, which we think would be the best domestic avenue for it. We’re also going to try to sell it to international television. We’re going to be represented at MIP COM which is the big international TV market, on September 24 in Cannes.