Buckin' at the Big House: 'Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo' Goes Behind the Walls
By Miri Hess
Editor's Note: Bradley Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo comes out in DVD October 25 tghrough Carnivalesque Films. This article ran last year in conjunction with the film's airing on HBO.
Bradley Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (Prods.: Amy Dotson, James Payne), which airs September 17 on HBO/Cinemax Reel Life, focuses on female rodeo inmates from the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma. Through their journey to the 2007 Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo in Oklahoma City, they compete in the 2nd annual women's prison rodeo, billed as "the only behind-the-walls rodeo in the world." In the state with the highest female incarceration rate in the United States, prisoners-- both male and female--compete on wild broncos and bucking bulls, risking injury and pride. The story also features Danny Liles, a 14-year rodeo veteran incarcerated for murder. Additional female counterparts include Brandy "Foxie" Witte, Jamie Brooks (also incarcerated for murder), Rhonda Buffalo and Crystal Herrington, the latter three of whom have children.
With an impressive list of films under his belt, including Okie Noodling (2001) and The Fearless Freaks (2005), Bradley Beesley says that childhood memories growing up in Oklahoma inspired his latest tale. Always knowing about the prison rodeo, a tradition since 1940, he had in the back of his mind a story, but not until he read about the rodeo's invitation for women to compete, did he figure out the hook. After working with nearly 150 hours of footage, Beesley reveals a unique take on the documentary prison genre. Documentary talked to Beesley about his focus on Oklahoma stories, the ins and outs of a prison film, and the journey itself.
Documentary: What are the benefits and pitfalls to being coined a "backyard filmmaker"?
Bradley Beesley: Whether it be The Flaming Lips [featured in The Fearless Freaks], who I've known for 20 years, or growing up and always hearing about the prison rodeo, these are just things I know about, so when I start talking about them, people see I'm not coming in from New York or Los Angeles. I think I am able to reach an understanding early on and a lot of trust with the subjects and be consumed with their lifestyle through whatever it is. Since The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma, my being from here allows me to fit in with the subjects; I think that's a huge aspect. If there was any sort of con at all, I think it might be getting sort of typecast as a regional filmmaker.
D: In your pre-production process, were there obstacles to acquiring access to film inside the prison?
BB: Well, at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, because it's a maximum security prison, with Danny, the main character, we weren't allowed to go into his cell, so each time you see him, he's in a holding cell. But it looks cool because it's got the bars and stuff, but that's not actually where he lives.
So that was tough to get access to, but thankfully the director of the department of correction--sort of an artistically-minded guy, a photographer--was really into my film Okie Noodling. So he was behind the project from the get-go, and that was a huge asset, even when the warden of the facility would say, "Oh no, you can't do that." And I would go right to the director of that facility to get all-access. However, at the rodeo itself, we had helicopters, a crew of 55, 20 cameras, and a jib cam mount. We did whatever we wanted to.
D: How did you find and then decide which women to feature in the film?
BB: In March before the rodeo practice started, we did casting calls. The practices started in May. We had about 15 to 20 girls that we knew from scouting, who were sort of the charismatic girls we thought might be good. So we did the initial casting calls and then just picked four or five girls. It evolved over us filming practices from girls we didn't know about, like Crystal and Foxie, who appeared in the film and actually became the main characters.
We didn't know that going into it, but they were such strong personalities at the practices. They were the new girls, so we were basing this on the previous teams. So that was nice to be able to go, which is always the case with documentaries. You think that somebody is really going to pop and they have a vibrant personality, and then all of a sudden you get into the editing room, and realize you have all these great sound bites from characters you didn't realize were going to be your main characters.
D: What is the appeal to average viewers watching Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo when they take into account they are watching murderers and former drug dealers? Are they heroes to other prisoners and non-prisoners alike because they are mending their ways?
BB: Well, I think that's why we spend the first two acts of the film--the first 60 minutes--getting to know these characters. At first you hear, "Oh, Jamie shot some guy in the head." Well, we also provide you with some context as to why she shot this guy in the head: She was molested and abused from the time she was six, and the guy she shot was a trick that her boyfriend--10 years older--was prostituting her out. So hopefully we provide you with enough backstory where you care about these girls, not as inmates, but as people.
D: During the film's premiere run at SXSW, the girls talked about being heroes and how they are motivational speakers for juvenile prisoners. How does this newfound role crossover to the general public?
BB: At least with me, I can certainly see myself having a few drinks and getting a DUI and something or manslaughter or something, and I think a lot of us are closer to going to prison than we'd like to think. So if you think about that, then you can see yourself being in that situation where a good person was in a bad situation and did something wrong.
D: In an interview at SXSW, you asked yourself if these women are deserving of your attention. In bringing these prisoners to light, how did your inner conflicts change from the beginning of production to the end?
BB: We just spent so much time with them, they became like close friends. Initially, we were a little bit intimidated being in prison, and now we go back there. We had a screening there a few months ago. It really feels like you're going in there to see some long-lost friends or family members or something like that. So now there's no question in my mind they deserve my attention.
Whereas, initially I think typically with Jamie and Rhonda, since they had murdered people, that was what I was referring to. Because when there are victims of the two people who Danny murdered and the one person who Jamie murdered, I think about their families and what their families think when they see this film.
These [inmates] are the heroes of our film--not to say they're heroes in the world, but of our little film, they are heroes. How does that make them feel when watching it and seeing this person who is lifted up? So that's been a little bit conflicting. And we did try to reach both of the family members, but were unable to do so. I would love for them to come to one of the screenings, get some feedback and have an open dialogue.
D: From a technical perspective, do you do create a shot list with your documentaries? Your film is so well constructed and has a fair amount of coverage; what type of process do you have in filming what you need?
BB: I had two cameras while we were shooting, so it's usually just one camera getting the coverage, the dialogue coverage, and focusing on our three or four main characters. Then the other camera was getting beauty shots, B-roll, cutaways, that kind of stuff. Early on in the filmmaking process, I want to get as much sound as I can, since I want to get the story early on and I knew that we had this story to tell.
Then we went back in and did pick-ups like you would with a feature narrative. Most of the film takes place at the 2007 rodeo, but there were certain elements, certain shots missing. We didn't know Foxie was going to win the bronco riding, so we didn't cover it as well as we hoped because she was getting on a bronco for the first time. So the next year we went back to the rodeo, and we shot all the inserts of her, which we faked for the 2007 rodeo, but obviously no one knows the difference. We're not actually faking any dialogue, or we're not trying to skew the story or anything like that. We're just using the visual experience to make a more solid film as far as the coverage goes.
D: What is the learning curve from your first film, Hill Stomp Hollar (1998), to Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo?
BB: Oh, it's huge. I think that first film I did in 1998. I was enrolled in graduate school, and I had a choice between finishing graduate school or making a film. I was like, ‘If I'm going to make a film, I just want to go do it, as opposed to learn how to do it.' Essentially, that was my graduate school. I was so insanely naive about the practical elements of what you do with the film once you've made it. I didn't even know you had to get the publishing rights. I was doing a music documentary, and I was filming all these guys. I had their personal releases, which I thought was great. Then when the film was done, we premiered it at SXSW, and the record label didn't like it. They weren't going to give us the publishing rights at the end of the film.
So I think if I had not just jumped into it and said, "I'm going to make this film on credit cards," I wouldn't be confident enough. We shot with the on-board mic; we didn't even have a sound guy for that film.
So you know, with every film I feel you learn more and more about it, working a lot on these reality television shows and getting to work with large crews and learning from them. I still enjoy working on TV shows (Roller Girls; A & E, 2008). I feel like I learn something on every show I've made with my films.
In conjunction with Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Beesley and his team started a scholarship fund for the women in the film, and developed an outreach program dedicated to changing laws in Oklahoma City for female prisoners. For more information, visit the film's website