Unbranded is the story of four young Texans (myself included) who thought it would be a good idea to adopt wild mustangs, train them and ride 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada through the deepest backcountry in the American West. The purpose of the journey was to inspire wild horse adoptions, but we certainly couldn’t discount the allure of great fly-fishing, epic views and the ability to experience the West while it’s still wild.
After 3,000 miles of horse travel, Kickstarter campaigns, 150 nights in tents, tortuous sessions in the edit room, sickness, injury and even death, we finally finished Unbranded and began to submit to film festivals.
Our first acceptance was at Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. It was awesome. The relationships we made, the diversity of people who saw our movie, the outrageous parties. When we received the audience award there, we were crushed with the honor. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke said he wanted our movie at Telluride Mountainfilm for the U.S. premiere. He promised the room would be packed with climbers, adventurers, horsemen, thrill seekers, conservationists, movers and shakers. “Hell, yes!” was our answer! “That’s our people!”
We showed up in Telluride during that kind of funny mountain spring weather that’s a little drizzly but makes the sunshine feel like you just found $100 bucks. The opening-night filmmaker’s dinner was surrounded by views of aspen forests, snow-clad mountains, elk grazing in the meadows and piercing blues and reds during in a sunset that seemed to last hours.
The films and filmmakers who attended brought some of the most outrageous, adventurous, shocking and important stories I’d ever heard. I was star-struck by such famous filmmakers as Jimmy Chin and Louie Psihoyos and pretty shy until the Face Down Browns from the local brewery kicked in.
We didn’t know what kind of crowd would show up for our first screening. We’d never tested Unbranded in a festival that catered to our target demographic, and we were honored to have Mountainfilm give us the 650-person Palm Theatre. When it started snowing before the screening, I figured no one would come. But in a very Field of Dreams moment, hundreds of people began filing into line, standing in the snow to see our movie.
Cowboy poet and character Val Geissler and I walked around the corner to see how far the line stretched, then around another corner and then around another corner. The line made almost a complete circle around the building. Unfortunately, not everyone could fit into the theater, and I feel bad about the hundreds of folks who stood in line and couldn’t get in. (Sorry!)
The projection of our movie was perfect, the sound system brought out every detail and the energy in the room was exhilarating. People laughed, cried, fell in love with Donquita, got pissed, learned about wild horses and erupted out of their seat in ovation during the credit role. Walking onto the stage for the Q&A, director Phill Baribeau gave me a hug and tried to express how he felt, but it was pointless. We just looked at each other, giggled and wore big grins from ear to ear. I still can’t describe the flood of emotion, but I’d liken it to graduating from grad school on Christmas day and finding a winning lotto in your stocking hanging from the new car Santa brought you.
The next day’s screening at the outdoor theater at Telluride Town Park will likely remain the greatest Unbranded screening of them all. A golden sunset cast deep blue contrasts into a wild sky above towering cliffs over the massive outdoor theater. Hundreds of people sat on the grass as they watched the film. The moon rose and stars peeked out between the clouds. The idea of Unbranded playing in a field, where deer and elk can drop in to watch, appeals to me.
I don’t have room here to recount my first Telluride Mountainfilm experience in every detail, so I’ll condense it into a few words and allow your imagination to run: Inspiring. Nature. Aggressive vegetable. Powerful. Snow. Microbrew. Massive. Deep. Internal. Global. Difference. Humbled.
Yes, especially humbled. On the final day, we were honored to receive the Mountainfilm Audience Award. I couldn’t say thank you to the audience appropriately at that point in time because my allergies had control of my eyes and a cat had my tongue. But receiving that award from a group of horsemen, conservationists, outdoorsmen, mustang advocates, ranchers, climbers, thrill seekers and difference makers was incredibly impactful.
Thank you Telluride Mountainfilm, the staff, volunteers and everyone who came to our screening. And thank you to all the Kickstarter donors, investors, film family, real family, friends, fans and supporters who brought Unbranded to life. The film has a life of its own now that’s been created by the goodwill and support of thousands of people.
I’m really freaking excited to see where it will go.