The broadcast premiere of Sweethearts was stupendous! Thank you everyone who tuned in and left wonderful comments about the film. Here are some photos from the special night in New York with Jamie Brooks in attendance for the Q&A, along with director and crew.
SXSW, March 2009 - Paramount Theater in Austin, TX
Time matters in prison. A lot. Inmates stack time by the week, the month, the year. The hour, the minute, the second? They don’t ﬁgure in so much. Yet once a year at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, eight seconds becomes the most important time in the world as teams from 12 facilities come together to compete in the Oklahoma Prison Rodeo, billed as the world’s only “behind the walls” rodeo. Eight seconds is the qualifying time for a score in bull riding, the most popular competition among the rough-stock events. For the contestants, the bragging rights that come with winning are as much a prize as the money. Director Bradley Beesley takes us inside the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, a minimum-security institution for women, as inmates compete and train for slots on the 2007 rodeo teams. Rough-stock rodeo is brutal and dangerous, and serious injuries are common. Women have been allowed to compete only since 2006, and the male inmates often seem surprised to discover that the women are equal competitors. But the challenges of preparing for the rodeo are presented in contrast to the other, more serious trials of prison life. The boredom of unchanging days, the tension of parole hearings and the longing for family all receive as much attention as the rodeo in Beesley’s engaging and highly empathetic portrayal of his subjects.
SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO is another chapter in Bradley Beesley’s cinematic career documenting oddball Americana, strange sub-cultures, and homegrown rock stars. Post art school and somewhat damaged, he began drinking moonshine and filming with legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside to make his first movie HILL STOMP HOLLAR (SXSW) in 1999. He has since directed 8 feature-length films, including 6 documentaries, a concert film and a sci-fi narrative. Bradley is the producer and director of the backwoods cult classic OKIE NOODLING (PBS). The film chronicles the lost art of bare-handed catfishing in his home state of Oklahoma and continues to have encore broadcasts nationwide. After collecting over 400 hours of footage, in 2005, Shout! Factory released THE FEARLESS FREAKS, a documentary chronicling and starring The Flaming Lips. He has collaborated on over 15 music videos with the Grammy award winning Lips in as many years, and directed their first ever live DVD, UFOS AT THE ZOO (Warner Bros.) Last year saw the release of the science fiction picture CHRISTMAS ON MARS (Warner Bros.), co-directed with Lips founder and front man, Wayne Coyne. Other feature documentaries include THE CREEK RUNS RED (Independent Lens), SUMMERCAMP! (Sundance Channel) and UFOS AT THE ZOO (Warner Bros.) His TV credits include “Roller Girls” (A&E), “Paranormal State” (A&E) and most recently “Storm Chasers”. (Discovery) When Bradley is not making films he can be found wading chest-deep through murky Oklahoma rivers or passing out wedgies to his endless mob of nieces and nephews.
What inspired this film? How did you find your subjects?
As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, I had heard about and read about the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo but never attended the event in person. I was a suburban kid that didn’t grow up going to rodeos and I had never met anyone who had been to prison so to me this rodeo with convicts seemed like a mythical and freakish event, albeit in my home state. Cut to 2006 and I was living in San Francisco and I read an article in the Washington Post, which announced that for the first time in Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo history female inmates would be competing against the male inmates. Because I had already thought this would make a good short film and now that females were added, I was compelled. I called my buddy in Oklahoma, James (our producer) and I booked a ticket that night and arrived at the rodeo the next day with a camera in-hand. James and I shot 7-8 interviews with inmates before the rodeo began and I remember being very intimidated by the surroundings and people. It was all the things you think a prison will be -cold, clinical and strange but also that first day of filming in the prison had an otherworldy/David Lynch tone to it. After the interviews I was second-guessing this project. Did we want to spend years filming in a prison, did these men and women, some of whom are in for murder, deserve our attention? Do these people really need a voice? Not to mention the fact that most prison and rodeo documentaries are boring. These thoughts stewed with James and I as we filmed the actual rodeo event that night. This all changed when one of our interviewees mounted a bull. Although we had only spent a few minutes speaking with this man in for murder and learning his back story, I was now somehow invested in his well-being and really wanted to see him ride this bucking beast. He only rode the animal for a few seconds but when he came back he was grinning ear-to-ear, the fans were going nuts and I gave him a high-five. He looked very proud and I felt proud to know him and it was then that I felt like this could be a real film.
What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?
The biggest challenge was trying to keep our cinematographer well fed. Because he’s a giant he needs to eat every 2-hours but the prison food was so bad he refused it. So we would sneak contraband (snacks for giants) into the prison.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Les Blank, Terry Zwigoff, Sam Green, Tom DiCillo, David Gordon Green, John Cassavetes and Steve Buscemi.
What is your all time favorite documentary?
What other projects are in the pipeline?
Hopefully lots of outreach, international screenings and promoting SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
Because I am not very employable and I love getting to reinvent my life with each new film -much like a pirate. I love production. Going out on location and collecting spontaneous film footage is the best. And, being able to surround yourself with talented, like-minded friends is really a bonus.
What are some of your creative influences?
Winding rivers, dead bluesmen and Wayne Coyne.
Did you go to film school?
I went to art school and took film classes at The University of Oklahoma School of Fine Arts.
What do you shoot on?
DV, HD, 16mm
What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?
That we sold our film to HBO.
Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?
Because it’s considered one of the best Documentary film festivals in North America and mostly because SILVERDOCS employs loads of really neato people.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo director Bradley Beesley
By JOE LEYDON
SXSW Film Festival
Director Bradley Beesley
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve gotten a lot of exposure for Okie Noodling, your documentary about fishermen who use their bare hands to catch catfish in your native state of Oklahoma. Now you’re making the film festival circuit with Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a movie about female convicts who compete in a statewide competition for Oklahoma prisoners.
Bradley Beesley: That’s right. It’s a prison rodeo that’s been around since the 1940s. They call it “the only behind-the-walls rodeo in the world.”
C&I: Do you think of yourself as a kind of anthropologist, studying oddities in Oklahoma?
Bradley: [Laughs.] My uncle says I’m the anti-Will Rogers of Oklahoma. But I just think it’s a case of me examining all these topics I’ve grown up with. They’ve just stewed with me for years.
C&I: What got you interested in making Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo?
Bradley: To be honest, I never dreamed I would ever make a prison film or a rodeo film. Most prison documentaries bore me to tears. And rodeo documentaries have already been done, you know? But once my producer James Payne and I realized that women would be included in the mix — we figured that would be novel enough for us to show up with our cameras. Which we did — unannounced, basically. That was back in 2006, when they first announced that women were going to participate in this event.
C&I: So you just showed up at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma, and expected them to let you in?
Bradley: Well, we did call the day before we arrived. But we didn’t know who we were going to meet, or whether they were going to let us film. But they let us shoot, and we produced a short — which we premiered here [at Austin's SXSW Film Festival] in 2007. And we got some really positive feedback based on the short, which we used to attract funding for a feature-length documentary.
C&I: Of course, when you’re working on this sort of project, so much is a matter of chance. Because you never know what’s going to happen to the subjects you “cast” for your documentary.
Bradley: True enough. You’ve got to get lucky. But what we did was, we picked girls who were hopefully going to get out of prison within a year, or two years, because we wanted their stories to have some kind of resolution. And we also picked girls who, for lack of a better term, had drama in their back stories. But even then you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Like, we didn’t know one of them would get kicked off the rodeo team for receiving contraband. And at first, we were devastated. Here’s one of our main “characters” — Jamie Brooks, who did very well the first year women could compete — and she gets kicked off the team, and we’re freaking out.
But after a couple of days, we realize that, for better or worse, it’s sort of the best thing that could have happened — for us — because it gave us a bigger arc for her character. For a while it looked like that was going to mess up her parole, after 13 years in prison. But Jamie made parole — and even appeared here in Austin for the premiere screening.
Joe Leydon talks to Beesley and Sweethearts producer James Payne
C&I: The actual rodeo competition footage in the movie is very impressive. Was it difficult to film?
Bradley: Look, I’ll admit: Whenever I was down there in a chute with one of these women on a bull, I was shaking. I mean, I wasn’t doing a very good job shooting at all. In fact, I’d forget I was shooting because I’d get so wrapped up in watching these ladies that we’d come to care about mounting a bull. It was really hard to film.
C&I: By the end of Okie Noodling, you were fishing barehanded yourself. While you were making this movie, were you inspired to try riding bulls?
Bradley: Well, we got so close to these women on the rodeo team while we were making this movie, and the administrators at the prison facility were so comfortable with us being there, that they would let us mount this barrel they had up on ropes for the women to practice on. And then the women would shake us on the barrel. And that was kinda fun. But given the injuries we’ve seen occur at the rodeo — I don’t think that’s something I want to do as someone who hasn’t really trained.
• RIDE ‘EM, COWGIRL: Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has hosted a prison rodeo for inmates from correctional facilities throughout the state. But it was not until 2006 that female inmates were allowed to participate in the event.
• BACK IN THE SADDLE: Many of the female prisoners who appear as competitors in Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo manufacture saddles in a “saddle shop” at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft, Oklahoma.
Issue: July 2009
Check out Cowboys & Indians Magazine online: http://www.cowboysindians.com/art-entertainment/tv-film/2009-07/live-from.jsp
NEW YORK, May 28,2009 — HBO Documentary Films has acquired the documentary “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.” Directed by Bradley Beesley (“Okie Noodling”, “The Fearless Freaks”, “SummerCamp!”), the film goes behind prison walls to follow convict cowgirls on their journey to the 2007 Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo, a purely American event that’s part Wild West show and part Coliseum-esque spectacle where convicts compete against one another for a small amount of cash and a little bit of pride. The feature-length documentary was acquired following its celebrated SXSW World Premiere in March 2009 and will have its broadcast premiere on HBO’s CINEMAX in September. Julie Goldman of Cactus Three negotiated the acquisition.
Director Bradley Beesley said, “I’m truly thrilled for the women featured in the film—their remarkable stories made this possible. There’s no better place than HBO to share our documentary –it’s a perfect home.”
The film will also be screened inside the prison system as part of a large-scale outreach campaign and forum exploring rehabilitative and educational programs, starting with the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma on June 9th before all 700 inmates. ”Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo” is produced by James Payne and Amy Dotson and is executive produced by Julie Goldman, Krysanne Katsoolis and Caroline Stevens.
“It’s as pure a piece of movie-making that you will see in nonfiction in 2009, commercial as hell, and certainly one of the best films of the year.” AJ Schnack
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