Taking a cue from renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, Salt Lake City filmmaker JC Brady goes in search of another misunderstood and maligned animal: the cow. Brady’s short film, Wild Pasture, played at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a hilarious parody of both nature films and Goodall’s well-documented brand of watchful wildlife stalking, which includes getting to know animals on a “personal” basis. Brady has the style and lingo down.
A 1995 graduate of the University of Utah film department, Brady was the only Utah filmmaker accepted into this year’s Sundance competition. Wild Pasture is a clever, beautifully filmed mockumentary in the same tradition as the best wildlife films. Brady, who has a reputation as a good collaborator, utilizes the talents of KUED’s award-winning cinematographer Bill Brussard and Salt Lake actor Bill Sergeant, whose rich voice provides perfectly modulated narration that rivals Nature’s George Page. Greg Spendlove, a musician who worked with Brady on the assembly line at UPS, wrote the music. Brady himself appears as the film’s researcher, an authority on the magnificent bovine.
The film opens to pastoral images of grazing cattle. “Despite their abundance, few people have had the opportunity to view them up-close,” the narrator says. In his initial encounters, Brady admits he fears the lumbering beasts. Will they accept him, or will they exhibit aggression and charge? “If the study was to be successful, I knew I had to risk getting close,” the intrepid researcher says in a voiceover. There are shots of him watching the herd from his pup tent in the field, photographing the cattle, and taking notes behind trees or perched in the tree’s branches. His dedication finally pays off as he walks the fields among these powerful, largely indifferent creatures. Soon he has become such a part of the herd that he has Margo eating out of his hands. Yes, like Goodall, Brady names his subjects. There’s Curly, Patch, Little Binky, Erik, Margo and Shamu. “While Curly and Shamu seem to be the more outgoing cows, it is Margo who seems to be reaching out to me,” he whispers. “It was her acceptance that let the others know I was OK. I was part of the community.”
The unassuming Brady keeps the humor strictly subtle, right down to his realization that “Cows have reason to live in fear of man. … Sadly, the average cow will not live to see his sixth birthday.”
Brady, who works as a graphic designer and streams video for a local Internet company, made the film in his spare time, editing on evenings and weekends over the course of a year. The film was shot in one day “from sunrise to sunset” in a west Kaysville pasture. “To me, there’s a thin line between non-fiction and comedy,” says the young filmmaker, who grew up watching Wild Kingdom and National Geographic. His collaboration with cinematographer Brussard captures the genre perfectly.
Brady stumbled on the idea for Wild Pasture while taking scenic photographs in the countryside. “I was surrounded by all these cows and it was this foreign experience to me. Cows usually ignore you; they’d rather eat. But this whole herd surrounded me. They were really curious. They were bumping into my camera equipment. Believe it or not, I was actually afraid. I gathered my belongings and began to make my way toward the edge of the pasture. They followed me like a German shepherd. … I made it to safety on the other side of the barbed wire fence, and I realized that I had just been pushed out of a field occupied by cows and that these creatures weren’t at all what I expected!”
Brady worked up a treatment and went to Kent Maxwell at the Utah Film and Video Center looking for someone to shoot the project. Maxwell recommended Brussard. “I met him at the Roasting Company,” Brussard says. “He was reading the script and I thought it was a campy spoof-type of thing. But then he handed me this Jane Goodall tape. Once I saw that, I knew what he wanted.”
Brussard shot Wild Pasture in a 16mm format using the same style as old wildlife documentaries. “We looked at Goodall’s shows,” he says. “They used an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens, so we did, too. We used a zoom technique consisting of what I call hunt and peck, where you don’t know what’s going to happen so you’re shooting with an open mind. It has a certain raw quality to it.”
The parody ends focused on the sensitive researcher extolling the possibilities for humanity to broaden its relationship with cattle, but Brussard developed no fondness for them. “Cows are the most disgusting animals,” he says. “They stink and there are flies and there’s cow shit all over the place. It was literally working in a mine field.”
Brady, who has made one other 16mm film, has made more than 20 short film and video projects, including nine titles on snowboarding for B.C. Films that were distributed internationally. He’s worked on several feature films as a still photographer, production assistant and grip. One of the more well-known films was SLC Punk, which premiered at Sundance in 1999. From the day he conceptualized Wild Pasture his goal was to get the film into Sundance. That accomplished, he hopes someday to make a feature film, though he’s in no rush. For now he plans to make more short films. If it doesn’t work out, well, he’s got his friends in the pasture.
Editor’s note: Mary Dickson is Creative Director at KUED.