Chris Stanford’s 14-minute short film, now making the film-festival rounds, is a love story — about a cowboy who got lost on the dark side of life and how, with the love of his father, he was found.
Film by Chris Stanford
Intro & Interview by Chuck Reece
~ Click the Image Above to Watch the Film ~
Love squandered, love restored. One of Earth’s oldest stories. The substance of our fairy tales.
Regular folks, however, know the tale rarely plays out as easily as a Disney movie. In the squandering, there is danger, for the ones laying waste to love are often laying waste to their lives. And the restoration is so difficult it’s akin to rebuilding after a disaster.
Better Man, the 14-minute documentary we premiere here today, gives us the whole story: the fairy tale plus the danger and work underneath it.
Its director, Chris Stanford, had set out to make a simple film about rodeo, after discovering the annual June rodeo in tiny Shady Dale, Georgia, population 242. His motive was equally straightforward — the need for an adventure, a small diversion from the work that feeds his family, shooting commercials and the like.
Stanford followed that same formula with Dust & Dirt, the five-minute film about a dirt-track auto racer that appeared in The Bitter Southerner a few years ago. On that film, he partnered with Atlanta cinematographer and BS contributor Zach Wolfe, and it truly was a diversion, taking only “seven Saturday nights” to make, Stanford says, as you’ll see in the Q&A below.
But when he met Josh Brooks, the cowboy who agreed to take him inside the world of rodeo, he found the story you’ll see in Better Man.The story of a son who squandered his father’s love — and the rough ride of that love’s restoration. The Bitter Southerner is proud to present this film. As Father’s Day approaches, it’s the best gift we could offer.
Chuck Reece: Tell me how this film came about.
Chris Stanford: Zach (Wolfe, the cinematographer on Better Man) and I have been friends for a long time. I'm a director, and four or five years ago, I had shot a bunch of commercials back to back to back. Which is great, but it will suck your soul. Long story short, I called Zach and said, "Hey, man, interested in doing just a little short film? Like maybe I write something or maybe it's even a documentary? I'd just love to do something." And he was like, "Whatever you want to do, tell me, and I'd like to be a part of it.” So we found this dirt-track race-car driver and made a short film that wound up playing a bunch of festivals. People really liked it. We only worked on it for seven Saturday nights. Real simple.
A year later, I said, "Hey, Zach, you know, I think I'd like to do another film, something similar. And he was he like, "Dude, whatever you find, count me in." Later, traveling to Milledgeville, where my wife is from, we passed this little sign advertising the Shady Dale Rodeo. We had come to the four-way stop in the middle of Shady Dale, and there was this sign. And on the sign, there was this phone number. My family's in the car, I'm hesitating at this four-way stop, and I was like, "Guys, give me my phone. I got to take a picture of that sign."
I thought maybe I could do a little rodeo story. And honestly, it was less about What story am I going to get to tell? than What adventure am I going to get to experience? I was going to get to hang out with a bunch of cowboys. Who doesn't love cowboys?
So I called the number, and this guy Josh Brooks answered. And I said I had made this little film about a dirt track racer, and I kind of want to do something similar with a rodeo guy. I sent him the link to the dirt-track film, and he loved it. He called me back and he said, "Hey man, my dad and I own a little rodeo company. Come down. We'll introduce you to a bunch of cowboys." So Zach and I went to the Shady Dale Rodeo.
CR: This was in June of last year?
CS: No. This was June two years ago. We shot Friday and Saturday night, and at the end of Saturday night, we didn't have a story — just a bunch of beautiful footage of people riding bulls and broncos. And I said to Josh, "I really appreciate it, and maybe we'll come to another. Where's your next one?" He said, "Well, if you want to see something beautiful, you ought to come out and see our ranch. We have a ranch north of Cartersville. We have about 15,000 acres with over 2,000 head of cattle. My Dad and I cowboy that ranch." I was like, “What?” But I thought, okay, there's the story — modern-day ranching.
CR: And, oddly enough, on a 15,000-acre ranch in a county that has become essentially an exurb of the biggest city in the South, Atlanta.
CS: Exactly. So the next week, Zach and I drove up there. Josh put us in a truck and drove us around, showed us the perimeter of the 15,000 acres. It's in the [Appalachian] foothills, and it's beautiful up there. And I said, “Listen, I'd love to come and hang out whenever we have the opportunity — and when y'all aren't too busy — and just do a documentary on ranching. So we started working on that.
But about six months into it, I began to see something about the father and son that seemed unique to me. My story, growing up, was very tumultuous with my father. I have always been drawn to father-son stories because I wish I could've had a picturesque childhood. It was anything but.
But the love between these two men was beautiful. So I told Zach, "This is not a story about ranching. This is a love story about a bond between a father and son.” He loved it.
Of course, I had not told this to the son or the dad. But we started shifting the documentary. One day, I went out there with a camera on my own. I went out with Josh and I said, "Man, what you and your dad have is unbelievable." I told him my own story, and he was like, "Wow, your story sucks." And I said, "But what you have is unbelievable.” And he's like, “Yeah, you know, I almost messed that up one time.”
Then he told me his story, and I was like, “Josh, that's the prodigal son story. That's the documentary I want to do.”
They're both very spiritual men, and Josh had never told this story [publicly]. About a month later, he said, “Chris, I've been praying on this for a while, and I think I'm ready to tell the story. If that's the documentary you want to make, then that's the documentary you ought to make.”
There was one day that was really when saw it was a love story. His dad, Mr. Brooks, and I were in this horse barn. It was hotter than you can imagine, one of those sweltering Georgia days. Josh was working a horse. He was over there trying to work him out, get him straight. And I said something like, "He sure is a horseman. Look at his ability to work that horse."
And out of nowhere, this old cowboy's voice broke a little bit. He said, “I couldn't be prouder of him. I couldn't love another human being as much as I love that boy."
But the way he said it, I thought there was something that had touched this man, something underneath all of this. This man is just too grizzled and tough to get emotional over watching his son try to break a horse. So I told his dad, “Josh told me about his drug use. Josh told me how he endangered your family. Are you okay if I tell that story? Will you tell your version of it?”
He said, “Absolutely.”