Cows in a pasture. Blue sky above them, water tower in the distance. We come closer. We hear them more clearly now, feel the breeze, almost see the flies buzzing around. Now, an empty corner of the pasture, brown soil, ominous drumbeat. A lone cow walks into frame, moving left to right. It stops, turns towards us, looks into our eyes. We freeze frame, zoom in, our eyes fill with brightly colored graphic images as Morricone-style spaghetti western music fills our ears.
It's a simple trailer, borne of my desire to incorporate an image of a cow that resides in the center of Meg Hamel's poster design, which in turn was inspired by poster designs for Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, four of which are featured in this 15th annual Wisconsin Film Festival.
First I had to get buy-in from Jim Healy and Mike King, programmers of this year's festival whose jobs most of the year involve going to film festival after film festival, therefore seeing and getting burnt out on a multitude of other festival trailers. That first meeting was a lot about what they didn't want: Nothing too long, don't try to be funny, don't make it too on-the-nose about Wisconsin, film, or anything else in particular.
But we agreed on some key things. The idea of a quiet opening, without music, peaceful and serene, not pushy or in your face. I've always loved movies that start softly and give you a sense of place. I tried to make this trailer feel like the opening of some sort of Film Board of Canada Presents film that I vaguely remembered from my youth. Modestly placed credits that give no real hint about what's about to come next.
So I moved forward with the concept, but it was late November and I realized my opportunities to get shots of cows in a pasture in time to meet our deadline were shrinking rapidly. On perhaps the last nice day of 2012 I got a call from Christina Martin-Wright, managing director of the festival. It was a Sunday morning and she was driving on County Road P, heading to a cottage on Lake Wisconsin and she had struck dairy farm gold.
I threw my camera in the car and headed out of town, finding what seemed to be the ideal group of cows in a pasture. I'd never worked with cows before in any context, and wasn't sure how they'd respond to me, if at all. Turns out they were extremely cooperative, interested in me and willing to follow me wherever I ran. So I would set my camera on a tripod and then run away from it, the cows would follow me, out of frame, and then I would run back to the camera and the cows would follow again, walking back into frame.
I was hoping for a shot of a cow walking into frame and then turning to face the camera so I could match it with the image on the poster, and after a few tries I got a cow to do just that. Easiest shoot I've ever been on.
The overriding concept for the trailer in my head was: Wisconsin meets Film Festival. So now I had the Wisconsin part, and for Film Festival, I turned to my friend Steve Donovan at Tweedee Productions, who is far more skilled with editing and graphics than I could ever hope to be. He created the end titles and got the panels and text to move with style.
For the music, I had been using some actual Ennio Morricone cuts as temporary cues, then at some point Steve substituted in some free stock music that we considered using, but I had this idea that an original, a cappella version of some spaghetti western style music would fit better than the stock stuff we had, and so I asked Andrew Rohn and Cat Capellaro (WALMARTOPIA, VO5) to see what they could come up with. What they came back with, an amazingly short time later, far exceeded my wildest hopes, and their track really is the icing on this trailer cake.
The trailer, as originally submitted, had the end titles in English, with some goofy Hollywood western style adjectives added, like "rootin' tootin' volunteers" and "honky tonkin' audiences" but it just didn't feel quite right, and then, when Christina suggested instead that we write the credits in pigeon Italian with English subtitles, I had to slap myself in the forehead at not thinking of it in the first place.
[Editor's note: In addition to producing the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival trailer, Ben Reiser has produced over 60 videos for Isthmus.]