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Wild West Cowboy

 

Brian Dew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cactus
Independent filmmaker Bryan Dew finally had enough money for the last three months' editing. He was making a documentary on saddle-maker Monroe Veach and the myth of the West. It had taken him several years to get to this point. The film had consumed his life. Any spare cash he got was poured down the throat of this - thing - that was always crying to be fed.
 
Dew arranged to take several weeks off to finish the editing. He went into the editing room to start work. That's when the film editor told him the bad news.
 
"Look," she said, "we've gotta discuss these soundtracks. They're absoutely worn out. We're going to have to re-transfer every track."
 
When Dew transferred the original sound from the master 1/4-inch tapes onto magnetic film, he used low-cost stock. It had been edited off and on over several years. It went spongy. The drawn-out process of editing nearly destroyed it.
 
The editor held a piece of sound tape up to the light. "You can see right through it," she said.
 
Dew had to hire a sound editor who took a month to go through the transcripts and the original tracks and find every fragment. It was re-recorded onto fresh mag stock and matched fragment for fragment from the worn-out track to the new ones. That cost about $10,000. Not to mention the months that passed before he could afford to try the next step again.
 
That was only one of the many obstacles that Dew had to doggedly overcome while bringing his unique vision to life on the screen. As an independent he had to learn the hard way how to make a film, by making all the mistakes. He had to learn where and how to apply for grants. He had to discover where all the resources were that he could draw on for help. And he had to dig out all the scraps of archival film that would put the final gloss on his documentary.

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Dew was born in New Zealand in 1940 and was raised in a small country town. He first came across independent film making when he went to England in 1963. He was hooked by a marathon screening of American avant garde films by people like Bruce Connor, Ron Rice, the Kuchar brothers, and Kenneth Anger - remember Scorpio Rising? The marathon lasted about 12 hours. Dew sat through them all.
 
When he came to the United States in 1966 he decided to make his own films. He wrote a couple of short scripts and shot them himself.
 
He started collecting country and western music, then heard about grant-funded films. So he went to Oklahoma in 1976 to track down a pedal steel guitar player called Speedy West who'd worked on the West Coast and made a number of records for Columbia. Dew thought he'd make a film about country and western music and base it on Speedy West. Dew got an interview down, wrote a grant proposal for the National Endowment for the Arts - and got turned down.
 
But while he was there he saw all the other aspects of Western culture. He went down into Texas looking for old bands playing in roadhouses. They were bands who had made their names in the 1940s and 1950s.
 
Dew eventually turned up at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He saw the fiddle players from Oklahoma, the polka bands from Minnesota, native American dancers and craftsmen.
 
And there was this old guy about 80 years of age making a saddle in a barn. His name was Monroe Veach. Dew got to hear his story.

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Veach had been one of the top Western saddle makers in the country for most of his life, making big rodeo trophy saddles, trick saddles, working saddles for ranch hands, roping saddles, and bull-riding rigs. He had every item to do with horses, from pleasure riding to professional rodeo riding.
 
As Veach talked about his life, every aspect of the West came up.
 
Veach was a farm boy in the tiny town of Trenton, Missouri, in August 1908 when Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show came to town. It was one of the biggest shows of the time. Veach was eight years old. It was summertime. It was like a B-Western, live, taking over the whole town.
 
Veach sees the big hats, high-heeled cowboy boots and those woollen chaps. The glamor, the style, the excitement, completely take him in. He wants to be part of it, badly. What does he do? He does what any kid does. He goes right home to the barn and finds a piece of hayrope and tries to do the tricks that he's seen the Mexicans and cowboys doing.
 
The difference is that Veach sticks to it. By the time he's a teenager he's taught himself how to do rope tricks. He's trained his horse. He dresses in Western gear. He reads all he can about the romantic West in dime novels. Remember, this is a farm community in Missouri. The frontier had passed through Missouri a hundred years before.
 
Veach finally runs away from home one night and gets a job as a working cowboy in Colorado. He's one of the last of the old-time cowboys. He takes part in the last of the big cattle drives. He's followed the myth of the cowboy into the reality of being one.
 
Then he was drafted into World War I. By the time he returned the myth of the cowboy was flourishing.
 
Veach developed a dual career in Western showbiz and making saddles. He had worked out how to make a saddle as a teenager by looking at a Sears Roebuck catalogue. It had a steel-engraved drawing with all the parts of the saddle clearly defined. Underneath it there was a list of all the measurements - how deep the skirt was, how high the swell was on the seat of the saddle, and how long the stirrups were. So he made one.
 
Veach worked as a trick roper and rider and had his own family Wild West Show. He transferred his act to the rodeos that took over when the Wild West Shows declined. Veach became part of the development of the Western legend from one medium into another.
 
Veach was soon making saddles for the movie star cowboys of the 1920s and 1930s, for Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele. He never went to California. His reputation as one of the country's best saddle makers got there without him.
 
Dew was fascinated. Veach was a man whose life was motivated by a childhood imprint. He grew up on a farm in a remote agricultural town. And Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show came to town. It must have been a colossal event.
 
What fascinated Dew most of all was that Veach made that moment of his childhood give meaning to the rest of his life.
 
Dew decided to make a film that was both a portrait of Veach and an essay on the West. The story of Veach's life would illustrate how the legend of the West developed. Dew picked out the perfect title for his documentary from one of the country and western songs he loved: A $10 Horse and a $40 Saddle.
 
This time the National Endowment for the Arts was convinced. It gave Dew a $13,000 grant. That was enough to go on location for about 10 days with a film crew. It was only a fraction of what the film needed to get it finished.

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There are some interesting parallels in the lives of Bryan Dew and Monroe Veach. Dew was born and raised in a small country town too, in Hastings, New Zealand. Like Veach who taught himself to throw rope and carve a saddle, Dew taught himself the many skills needed to make a film.
 
And Dew was touched by the Western myth as a child. He spent his Saturday afternoons going to B-Westerns in one of the small town's three movie houses. He'd spend 90 minutes looking at the Hollywood hills done up as a movie ranch, watching leathery-faced anglo-saxon types with beady little eyes, turkey-gobbler necks and jug-handled ears work out their destiny. Good versus evil in black and white.
 
One afternoon Dew stepped out of the movies into bright sunlight. He squinted across the verandah-fronted street of Hastings to the wrinkled hills beyond. The setting and somehow the people were no different from the film he'd just seen. That was when he realized - at the age of 16 - the great frontier is not just the American West. It's Canada, Australia and New Zealand too. The pattern of settlement is the same. In New Zealand it was mostly English-speaking people with English origins taking over a new country. That great epic of migration and settlement is a common historical event of the time.
 
That intuitive grasp for common elements helped him later on in making his documentary on the growth of the legend of the American West.
 
The man he chose to narrate the film understands that too. Levon Helm acted the part of the father in The Coalminer's Daughter. The poor working guy with his kids and his job in the mines. Helm also played drums for The Band. He comes from Arkansas. A witty, smart, interesting, informed guy. His library is full of books on the West. He collects saddles. He's a fast-draw expert. (Not quite fast enough actually. Helm accidentally shot himself in the leg with a .22 pistol just after the documentary was finished.)
 
Levon Helm lives in Woodstock, New York, about two-and-a-half hours' drive from Manhattan. He built himself a wooden barnlike house with the aid of local carpenters. All the beams in the ceiling have wooden joins, no nails.
 
Dew walked into this huge house and said, "My god, it's just wonderful to get into a wooden house again." Dew has lived in New York's stone, brick and skyscraper glass for 20 years. He added, "I guess it reminds me of my childhood and growing up in a wooden house."
 
Helm leapt out of his chair, came across and grabbed Dew by the arm. He said, "It's ancestry, Bryan, it's all ancestry."

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All that ancestry meant the documentary needed a lot of research to flesh it out. Dew had to find archival film footage of Wild West shows. Veach had talked of studying Will Rogers in silent movies in the early 1920s and teaching himself the same rope tricks. Will Rogers was an early vaudeville star and trick roper before he became a political satirist with a syndicated column. Rogers developed his patter while the rope twisted and whirred around him. Dew dug out a Will Rogers' film made in 1921 called The Roping Fool. Clips of that found their way into Dew's documentary, together with archival footage of Wild West Shows, and parts of early Western movies.
 
It was an enormous research project. Much more money was needed. So Dew had to research possible funding sources as well. The most obvious ones you can count on the fingers of one hand - the federal endowments and the state endowments for the humanities and the arts. There is also private and corporate funding. In the first year Dew got a grant from an insurance company in Missouri, the Crosby Kemper Foundation. It sent him $1,000. That made $14,000.
 
Dew wrote more grant proposals. He edited the film he had shot on location. He compiled historical documents. He sent a tape of his roughcut out with the next grant proposal.
 
In every state where you apply for a grant you have to find a nonprofit group to put the proposal in on your behalf. They do the paperwork. They put their name at the top. And they take their cut when the grant money comes.
 
Then Dew discovered it would help if he got the support of academics, such as history specialists in the universities, and attach them to the project as consultants. He read The Cowboy Hero: His Image in American History and Culture by Professor William Savage of the University of Oklahoma. He wrote to Professor Savage, explained his project and won his help. Dew asked questions that would help to form the written narration that was being prepared for the film. He asked where to get research material, what other books to read, what other scholars he should approach.
 
Dew hired a writer and passed the literature generated from the scholars onto him. When he could afford it, they met in the editing room. They looked at the latest film clips and talked about the story. This process of working on the film when money was available was the way it went for a number of years.
 
In the meantime, in between editing sessions, he would look for certain Wild West Show footage, another still, or some background information. In a way, the lack of funds helped the film because it gave time for so much research. He could never have found all the archival material that informs the film if he'd had a deadline.
 
Lots of the rare and interesting footage is in the hands of private individuals. The Movie Moles, Dew calls them. The guys that have little cine clubs with a projector in their living room. A lot of them are middle-aged or elderly people who have built up a private collection of all kinds of stuff.
 
Dew placed ads in Film Collectors' World and other publications. Their personal columns reveal the private fantasies of film collectors. The ads said, "Anybody got high-quality 16mm prints on early ranching, or travelogues on the western states, or Wild West Shows, or early rodeo, or [desperately] anything?"
 
A month or two would drift by. Then a letter would arrive saying, I've got such and such, and give a brief description. Dew would buy it sight unseen. It was only a hundred bucks for a good-quality optical-track western feature. It would cost about $350 now. He bought travelogues. He bought film with no titles and unidentified actors. He bought all kinds of film. Anything. He'd buy it if he had the money.
 
He even went as far as Portland, Oregon, to find rare footage on early rodeo, the Pembleton Roundup. That was one of the first big professional rodeos in the United States. They had some early Western features there too.
 
There were technical problems in using archival film. The black-and-white stock came from all kinds of sources. It had different winds, and masters in positive and negative. Some of it was hand-tinted stock. Most labs won't take the time and trouble to drain the color out of black-and-white when it is put on color stock. But Dew used the John E. Allen Laboratory in New Jersey which is also an archival library. He found they could get it right.
 
The film really worked when Dew found footage showing what Veach was talking about. When Veach was eight and saw Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, he remembered the military acts that the latter-day Wild West show was beginning to use. As well as cowboys and indians and trick roping and riding, there'd be precision drill teams or a re-creation of Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War.
 
Veach said one act had a wall about 14 feet high. Soldiers with rifles rushed the wall. They'd make a human pyramid and climb up. The last one up the wall would hold the barrel of his rifle down and the guy at the bottom would climb the wall holding the barrel of the rifle. Dew was impressed. He thought, "Wow, I wonder what sort of an act that was."
 
Well, he found a piece of film footage of that very act. They were Devlin Zooarbs in Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, filmed about 1910. So it was most probably the same act that Veach saw in 1908.

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Eventually Dew raised about $80,000 from different grants over eight years. It actually cost him about $170,000 to make. The rest he paid himself.
 
Dew says, "I never knew it was going to be this tough. I started out with all the ignorance of optimism. The reality hit me when I was about two years into it. I'd written four or five major grant proposals and they were all turned down."
 
One proposal came back with some particularly scathing comments. The rejection just made Dew stubborn. "I thought, screw you guys telling me this is no good and I can't do it."
 
That was part of it. The other part was, he wanted to make films. "Here's one I started," he says. "What am I going to do, drop it and start another one? I just hated the idea of giving up after so much money had been spent, lots of work, struggle, and trying to learn how to make a film of this nature. I couldn't drop it. I'd gone beyond the halfway mark. It was just as much trouble to go forward as to start again. I couldn't do it."
 
He had eight hours of footage. He had Monroe on film. He had done a lot of research. He had paid the writer for sample narrations. He had a roughcut that was looking good. He was almost there in terms of the raw material needed to finish it. He thought, "OK Bryan, if you want to finish this darn thing, then you'll probably have to pay for it yourself."
 
And he told himself, "OK, that's what I'll do."
 
He kept on thinking he had a grant proposal out there that might work, and he was approaching another foundation in six months' time. "You live on hope, right?" Dew says drily.

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When Dew arrived in New York he worked at CBS as a graphic designer. For the last 10 or 12 years he has run his own design business. He designs corporations' annual reports, sales promotion material, direct mail material, sometimes a television ad. The profits of that business helped to finish the documentary.
 
Most of his grant money came from a private foundation in New York called the Donald C. McGraw Foundation. It is not listed anywhere. He found them through pure luck because one of the members of the McGraw family was a design client. One day he told her about his film project.
 
After about a year of working with her, she said, "Oh, Bryan, I've just been made a member of the board of my family foundation. We support the arts, why don't you put in a proposal on your film project? Would you be interested?"
 
You bet! They gave him $60,000 over a period of three or four years.
 
Even though he has finished the film, the work is not done. He now has to sell it. Dew soon found the outlets are few and over supplied. "Public television knows that in any given year across the U.S. there may be 100 professionally-made fully-grant-funded documentary films like this," Dew says. "Or even larger projects than mine are available and crying out to find a national broadcast on public television. So they can get them for nothing. I mean, they can get them and ask you to pay for the film-to-tape transfer. They can ask you to go and find a $50,000 grant so you can buy the airtime for it. Oh no, it's a buyer's market."
 
Dew has had the film accepted by the New Zealand Film Festival circuit. Although it is a film on American Western culture made by a New Zealander who has lived overseas for 24 years, it still has, somehow, a discernible New Zealand flavor. It is probably the common elements showing through again.

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After all this, Dew still thinks it was worth it.
 
"I don't think it's been a waste of time," he says. "I had a subject that deeply interested me. I learnt how to produce a movie. I guess I learnt that the satisfaction is that, despite the uncertainty of it all, I managed to put together the film that I had imagined in the very beginning."
 
What amazed him most was the lack of interest of Americans in researching their own roots. At the Library of Congress he was looking for film footage on the West on the card file and the girl at the desk would say, "Oh the West seems to be very popular. The BBC was here doing some research just two months ago."
 
He went to the National Film Archives and the librarian would say, "German television was here three weeks ago."
 
When he was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, filming a Western band playing at a rodeo dance while Monroe and his family were there, the dance hall operator, Sherril Cummings, said, "Say Bryan, Swedish television was here last week and shot the band, and Finnish television is coming in August."
 
Even at the Oregon Historical Society the librarian told him, "The BBC is coming here shortly. They're making a documentary on English settlement in the State of Oregon."
 
Everywhere he went a European film unit from a television system with air fares, a crew, film stock, hotel accommodation and rental cars was either there ahead of him or flying in the next week to document American history and regional lives.
 
He found it was the same with country and western recordings. All those wonderful artists from the past from different places, the guys who ran radio in Tulsa in the 1940s, who played in Texas or Louisiana dance halls, those who were good enough to have made records. Who is issuing their records now? The Dutch are, the Germans, the English, the Swedes, the French, the Japanese. OK, the Smithsonian and the Country Music Foundation are doing something. But Dew's conclusion is that Americans don't care much.

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Monroe Veach died on Christmas Day, 1986. But not before he saw the film. Oh yeah. Dew made sure of that.
 
Dew got a release print in May 1986. The first thing he did was to take it to Trenton, Missouri, to show it to Monroe Veach and his family. He screened it in the local junior college and gave an open invitation to the community to come along and see it. About 600 people turned up.
 
"They were the most wonderful audience," Dew says. "Of course old Monroe was a celebrity in this little town. Everybody knew who he was. That audience did not take their eyes off that screen. They laughed at all the little jokes I'd tried to put into it. In the line of narration that says: 'Monroe Veach was born in Missouri, the state where Jesse James died, the state that Huckleberry Finn ran away from,' they all roared with laughter. Like, 'Yeah, Missouri's a state you would run away from.'"
 
Monroe loved it. And the film crew loved working with him. "When the crew and myself would take a break, the crew never went back to the motel or a bar," Dew says. "They stayed right in the saddle shop listening to Monroe telling stories."
 
Monroe Veach will be remembered a long time in Trenton. Dew says, "He was doing those rope tricks for the kids in the neighborhood even when he had Parkinson's Disease."
 
OnLine Magazine, New Zealand, 1987