Phillip Baribeau is making his directorial debut this week with new film Unbranded, a documentary that follows sixteen mustangs and four men as they ride boarder to boarder from Mexico to Canada.
Baribeau chats about his latest film project, the dangers that they faced along the way, and the challenges of working in independent film.
- How did you get involved in Unbranded?
Ben Masters called me out of the blue with this crazy idea to adopt, train and ride wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada. He was in search for outdoor filmmakers and I told him that I have experience in the back country but didn't know how to ride a horse. He assured me that wouldn't be a problem and that he would teach me.
- Were you a horse rider before making the film?
I had only gone on a few dude rides before this trip along with the our other Director of Cinematography Korey Kaczmarek. Ben and the boys gave me a couple hour lesson which helped a bit, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
We basically had to throw ourselves into the ride and we had to learn quickly or it wouldn't work out. Unfortunately, I was kicked by one of the horsed in the thigh 5 days into the trip and had to take two weeks off. This taught me a valuable lesson and I was super alert around the horses from there.
- Were you inspired by any other animal/road trip films which influenced the way you decided to direct?
My background is in ski films and anything outdoor adventure related. Some films that I used as inspiration was 180 degrees South, The Endless Summer and Lonesome Dove.
- Tell us a bit about the riders.
All four guys just graduated from Texas A&M prior to the trip and were looking for a crazy adventure before they started diving into their real lives, careers, house, family, kids.... Like the mustangs, they were all super wild which was an interesting similarity. I knew going into the trip it was going to be a coming of age story and it really was.
They make multiple mistakes along the way, but were humble enough to admit when they were wrong and would learn from it moving forward. For me, I needed to earn their trust and to become one of their friends and a contributing part of the crew to make the trip. It didn't take long for them to be themselves and to get super comfortable in front of the cameras.
They did have many times they were sick of having a camera in their face, getting wireless mic's put on them every morning, stopping so we could get shots...but overall they were great to work with and will be lifelong friends.
- Tell us about the horses - they each have unique characters.
For sure they did. Not being a horse person, they all seemed the same to me. It didn't take long to see which ones really started standing out as characters for various quirky things, and we started following that to make them characters in the film?
The biggest character to me of the trip was Donquita. When she mothered up to the horses and us it changed the whole dynamic. She was like the trip dog and really kept the horses in line.
- There's a saying in the film business that you should never work with animals or children. Was it difficult working with wild mustangs - most filmmakers work with trained animals and they find that challenging at the best of times!
Yes, this was by far the most difficult job/shoot I have ever had and one of the biggest reasons was the horses. I'm used to being independent, having my camera and tripod on me so I can do what I want when your running and gunning. Now I have a horse that I am responsible for and doesn't always do what I want him to do.
Riding ahead to get shots didn't work because they were all really heard bound and wouldn't want to leave the pack. You would have other times something would happen on the trail and the quickest way to start filming would be to grab out B camera from a pack that was hung on the saddle horn. You could pull it out and instantly start rolling.
The problem was overtime you would do that my horse would want to wander off and eat some grass away from what I was trying to shoot. Really frustrating! We also had to brush and saddle our horses which takes time in the morning and night.
- At times, the 3000-mile journey across the American West looks dangerous. What were the scariest moments for both riders and horses?
The Grand Canyon was up there. There wasn't any room for error and if one horse freaked in the line we could all fall to our deaths. One other event that didn't make the film that was my scariest moment was when we had to ride against traffic on the interstate. We came across a blind corner and had multiple semi-trucks come within feet of us at 60-70 mph.
There also wasn't any room on the shoulder so we were right on the inside of the line. We were all really impressed at how calm the horses were in these situations. Funny thing is they usually freaked out when you would least expect it, like when a plastic bag would blow in front of them could be some of the most dangerous parts of the trip on a horse... haha
- Independent films are hard to fund. Tell us how you raised the money to make the film
Ben and I had the idea to get the project off the ground be creating a Kickstarter. I had no idea how big of an issue wild mustangs were and how passionate people are and we over-succeeded our goal. We ended up raising $171K when our goal was $150.
From there, Cindy Meehl, director of BUCK, saw the trailer and wanted to join the project. She came on as our Executive Producer, invested into it herself and also brought in some of her investors from BUCK. She saw the bigger potential in the film and story, and really pushed in into the full potential of this film.
- Was there anything unique about the Kickstarter campaign perks?
I thought one of the best ones was a week ride with the boys. We had two backers that did this for $10K and had a blast. One of the guys even became one of our investors after the trip.
- What advice do you have for other independent filmmakers?
A few things I would say if recognize when an amazing story is thrown across your lap, and when it does take every advantage to make it happen! Also, make sure to let the story happen organically and steer away from staging anything.
I have shot on reality TV shows, and it was important to me that everything was 100% real and authentic. Take chances if you really believe in a project or story even if it means almost going broke at times!
Unbranded is in cinemas and on demand now.