SHERIDAN — WYO Film Festival coordinator Justin Stroup said the annual film festival is a way to bring new ideas and interesting stories to Sheridan. It’s also a way to “show off” Sheridan to filmmakers who may have never experienced this part of the country.
Stroup watched more than 1,000 movies this year and selected about a dozen films and shorts for the festival.
Independent films are all about the story, he said. Some films in the festival have multimillion dollar budgets and full crews while others were made by a group of friends with a camera.
A good story with compelling characters prevails in films that are technically rough around the edges, he said.
In this year’s festival, one filmmaker shows how authenticity is a critical part of Sheridan’s character and an actor shows how stories can continue to develop over decades.
Filmmaker Salvatore Brown seeks to capture authenticity
As a child, Salvatore “Max” Brown remembers being awed by tough, independent ranch women who would come into his father’s office. He has wanted to create a film documenting the spirit of hardworking, Wyoming ranch women for some time.
This year, Brown submitted a short film that attempts to authentically capture the characteristics of Sheridan through the story of Jesse Smith’s fashion business and local ranch women — elegant and sophisticated while also rooted and grounded in physicality and nature, Brown said.
The short film came together this year through the Wyoming Office of Tourism in honor of the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
Brown and his collaborators found Smith while searching for women to feature in the area. Smith subsequently found a group of ranch women who were featured in the film project.
The women were reticent to be on camera at first but as Brown and Smith spent time with them fixing fence and driving cattle, they revealed their true personalities, Brown said.
“That’s one thing I love about film too is that people want to tell their stories,” Brown said. “It can be weird and embarrassing and uncomfortable but if you engender this kind of nice, family atmosphere and you get — and there’s positivity there, and they feel like you genuinely want to tell the story in a way that honors them and is not exploitative or putting too much of yourself in it, then it can really be a beautiful thing.”
While he grew up in Wyoming, Brown wasn’t a “ranch kid.” It’s important to be conscious of approaching a story as an outsider, without allowing that awareness to prevent the story from being told at all, he said.
Because it is a project in coordination with the tourism office, one goal with the short film is to advertise Sheridan. Brown said he hopes the film captures Sheridan authentically and artfully; allowing viewers to experience the visceral sensations of the region.
Brown said he has learned through filmmaking that while Wyoming is generally conservative, the frontier culture offers people a way to carve out their own place and break out of conventional social structures.
After leaving Wyoming in the middle of high school, spending some time in New York City and abroad, he returned to Sheridan about three years ago. Through simple activities he remembers doing as a child — like smelling the wind and watching sunsets — he reconnected with what he loved about the area.
Cities provide their own kind of inspiration and energy through the chaos of constant activity but that environment can lead to feeling constrained and lonely, Brown said.
Returning to Wyoming allowed Brown to disconnect from the chaos and develop his ideas in a serene space. Being alone in the mountains left him feeling more full than in the midst of a bustling New York City.
“I think Wyoming is really good for that,” Brown said. “You can really feel — there’s no barrier between you and just, sublime.”
Brown’s other short film in the festival is about Jerry Gatlin, who went from bronc rider and cowboy to one of the most prominent Western film stuntmen and stunt coordinators in Hollywood because of his hard-working attitude, Brown said.
Brown said his goal is to be invisible while telling other’s stories. Worrying about what others think about his work has been a barrier that he’s starting to overcome.
Actor Ned Van Zandt reconnects with family through story
Ned Van Zandt said as an adolescent, he and his father didn’t get along. At the time, he thought his father was highly conservative, tough, racist, homophobic and recalled only one time he told his son he loved him.
That perception changed when he finally read his father’s book. His father died in 1972, but Van Zandt didn’t thoroughly read his book until he was asked to record the audio version in 2018.
He discovered a softer, more thoughtful and open-minded side of his father he hadn’t seen before.
“My dad was amazing,” he said. “There was things about [the book] I never saw of my father. Full circle, I’ve gotten to know my father through this process.”
The Iron Orchard, which played at the WYO Film Festival Oct. 4, is based on a novel published in 1966, written by Edmund Van Zandt. The novel and film tell the story of the oil business in west Texas.
Edmund Van Zandt wrote under a pseudonym at the time because he didn’t want to garner negative attention from prominent people he worked with in Fort Worth, Texas.
The novel has been picked up by filmmakers and movie stars several times before — about every 10 years since the novel was published, Ned Van Zandt said.
“When the book came out, every studio in Hollywood optioned it,” he said.
When he was in his 20s, Van Zandt wanted to play the role of Dent, the main character’s best friend. Now in his 60s, Van Zandt plays the leading woman’s father.
Van Zandt realized recently his father wrote the woman’s character modeled after Van Zandt’s mother. The actress who plays her embodies his mother and even looks like she did when she was young, he said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, stars like Robert Redford, Paul Newman and James Garner wanted to work on the movie but each screenplay was never quite right.
Van Zandt and his siblings would give approval for a filmmaker to work on the movie but for one reason or another, it never came together until five years ago when Ty Roberts picked it up, he said.
Roberts and the actors chosen for the roles finally captured the story of ambition, adversity, greed, love and redemption that his father illustrated in his novel, Van Zandt said.
Previous attempts focused solely on the romance and failed to capture the historical context behind oil discovery in Texas. The Iron Orchard captures a slice of real America from the late 1930s, he said.
Films and festival activities continue through the weekend at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center, SAGE Community Arts Gallery and Smith Alley Brewing Company. A full schedule of feature and short films is available at sheridanwyofilmfest.org.