After reading an article about "animal therapy" taking place in various
prisons around the world, I discovered the purpose of this so-called alternative
rehabilitation therapy. The animal's unconditional love and obvious lack of
judgment can reassure and slowly help a prisoner to learn how to become
Prisoners so infrequently experience tender physical contact that the
intimacy and warmth of an animal acts as a soothing balm to the spirit, curing
or softening anxieties. Additionally, the very notion of being trusted to take
care of an animal encourages the inmate's sense of responsibility and purpose.
After spending time with several therapists and trainers in such facilities,
I noticed with amazement that inmates participating in the program seemed much
more at ease with their animal counterparts than the counselors running the
program. I also came to appreciate the beneficial impact of these rather odd and
unexpected pairings-frequently brutish men with their sometimes extremely
My prior short-form work also dealt with lonely characters living on the
fringe of society, all suffering from their circumstantial lacks of freedom. The
subject itself has the potential for a great documentary; however, the poetic
license that a fictional narrative provides seems that it can cut even deeper to
the core of my character and main theme. These recently captured wild mustangs
blatantly mirror the prisoner's internalized violence and yearning for freedom.
Therefore, I could best describe the film as a poetic social drama incorporating
some western elements.
I want to explore several ideas with the film: Is it the justice system's
responsibility to ensure that a criminal will eventually be reintroduced safely
into society, or simply to
see their deserved punishment carried out during an inmate's long stay? Do
people, even after committing severe crimes, deserve a second chance? Can we on
the outside ultimately forgive extreme acts of brutality based on the degree of
violence and/or the specific details surrounding the individual's circumstances?
Perhaps more importantly, can the individuals in question ever forgive
themselves? What is our innate human potential for redemption?
These questions are the driving force of the film's narrative style and
structure. Nothing here is intended to be didactic or approached in an
academically explicit manner. With the help of a fluid and agile camera, the
audience is meant to fully immerse in the experience of the program as our
protagonist experiences it. This is why so much screen time is devoted to the
procedural nature of the inmate's daily routine with their horses. I aimed to
balance an observational "docudrama" approach with stylistically heightened
sequences in hopes to achieve a most delicate symmetry. Certain classical
"prison" and "western" genre elements were introduced to initially grab the
viewers' attention, but as the film progresses, its focus shifts less towards
twists and turns and more in the direction of something truer, simpler, and
ultimately, more character-driven.
At the film's conclusion, you are left with a character who, although he
remains deeply flawed, has earned his "potential for redemption" more than any
protagonist ever has...
A POWERFUL, POIGNANT SAGA OF REHABILITATION AND REDEMPTION
Wild horses have roamed the landscape of the American west for more than 300
years, descendants of animals imported from Europe by the first travelers to
visit the Americas. Hunted for the slaughterhouse and near extinction in the
last century, the remaining mustang herds have been protected by law since 1971.
The Bureau of Land Management has determined that public rangelands in 10
western states can support 27,500 mustangs, but estimates place their numbers
closer to 100,000.
To keep the population stable and prevent habitat destruction, thousands of
horses are rounded up each year. Most spend the rest of their lives in long-term
holding facilities. Some are euthanized and some are adopted. Since 1990, a few
hundred are sent every year to the Wild Horse Inmate Program, where they are
trained by inmates for sale at public auction.
French filmmaker and actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre learned of the Wild
Horse Inmate Program nearly five years ago after reading about the initiative,
and she was immediately intrigued. De Clermont-Tonnerre had explored the
redemptive power of animals in her short film Rabbit, about a therapist who
entrusts a small white rabbit to a female prisoner through the Pet Partnership
Program at an American correctional facility. The work being done with wild
mustangs seemed to offer important benefits for both the animals and the
inmates, and she was eager to know more.
Undertaking a research trip, she flew from her home base of Paris to Nevada
to learn first-hand about the Wild Horse Inmate Program, and what she discovered
moved her. "The goal is to reconnect, is to learn patience, to tame your own
violence and anger," de Clermont-Tonnerre says. "It's very therapeutic for those
men to realize who they are.
The horse trainer of this program will tell you, the horse teaches the man to
know who he really is."
"I needed to find this way to tell the story," she continues. "I could have
done a documentary, but I felt I needed a certain amount of poetic license to
tell the story. It's a very cinematic story, very powerful. The poetry of the
images, the silence, this invisible dialogue between man and animal needed to be
on a big screen."
Crucial to the story's development was the support of the Sundance Institute.
De Clermont-Tonnerre refined her script while attending the Director and
Screenwriter Labs, a residential program held annually at the Sundance Mountain
Resort in Utah designed to help discover and foster new talent. The first draft
of THE MUSTANG earned her the 2015 Sundance Institute/NHK Award, which was
created to contribute to the world's visual culture and to promote cultural
exchanges through finding and supporting emerging filmmakers. The project's
development was also supported by the San Francisco Film Society Grant, whose
past winners include Destin Cretton's Short Term 12, Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale
Station and Benh Zeitlin's Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild.
As de Clermont-Tonnerre continued to refine various drafts of the screenplay,
she was guided by a desire to authentically capture every aspect of the program.
Dr. Kathleen O'Meara, a psychologist with the California Department of
Corrections & Rehabilitation, served as prison consultant on the film, and she
took the writer-director to visit facilities including San Quentin State Prison,
Folsom State Prison and High Desert State Prison. Together, the women also spent
significant time with anger management therapy groups, restorative justice
groups, and mustang rehabilitation programs at Northern Nevada Correctional
Center and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.
"I brought her into penal institutions where she met inmates and heard their
stories," says O'Meara. "Most of them were stories of redemption, their life
history, then their recovery process. One of the lines we heard a lot was hurt
people hurt people. People who have been injured by other people tend to take it
out on other people."
During those visits, the positive impacts of working with horses became
readily apparent. "Some of the guys have maybe not been high achievers in any
kind of way-they've underfunctioned given their intellectual capacity, they
haven't accomplished very much," O'Meara says. "So, now, when they start working
with horses, every day manifests in some form of accomplishment, whether it's
getting the horse to pick up its feet or to take a handful of hey from the hand.
That starts to reframe how that person starts to view themselves. They start to
develop a sense of identity. 'I am a person who can accomplish something. In
fact, I'm becoming a horse trainer.' For somebody who's maybe never had that
kind of identity or self-reflection, it's very powerful."
De Clermont-Tonnerre channeled her impressions from those experiences
directly onto the page, ultimately shaping a spare but powerful drama. THE
MUSTANG homed in on the emotional journey of inmate Roman Coleman, a somber man
with a violent, explosive temper that has cost him nearly everything. Halfway
through serving an 11-year sentence for domestic violence, Roman's life is
forever changed when he finds his way to the Wild Horse Inmate Program and is
tasked with working with his fellow inmates to train recently captured wild
De Clermont-Tonnerre's script captivated venerable French producer Alain
Goldman, whose credits include the Oscar-winning Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en
Rose and whose company, Legende, was founded in 1992 to produce Ridley Scott's
ambitious 1492: Conquest of Paradise. "Our French development executive had been
following Laure's short film career and brought us the project," Goldman says.
"What touched us all at
Legende was the subject of redemption and how animals can help us find our own
Goldman adds: "From the beginning, Laure had clear conviction of what she
wanted to accomplish and how she would accomplish it, which is always reassuring
to a producer. The years of research she poured into the script and vision was
clear not only on the page, but also in the way she pitched the idea."
Finding the right actor to play Roman was paramount. The character begins the
film as a sullen, sad, brutally angry man who has spent time in solitary
confinement locked away from the general prison population. As he tentatively
builds connections through the program, Roman's old wounds and new feelings
begin to surface-the guilt and pain he carries with him, the gratitude he feels
for a lifeline to the outside world, the hope he begins to experience for a
Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts had been building a reputation as a gifted
actor long before his breathtaking turn in the Oscar-nominated 2011 Belgian
drama Bullhead. But his work in that film, in which he starred as a cattle
farmer who becomes hooked on steroids after suffering an unspeakable childhood
trauma, cemented his status as an unparalleled talent. Since then, he's
continued to deliver indelible performances in such films as Rust and Bone, The
Drop, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Danish Girl and A Bigger Splash, among
others. Schoenaerts had the right kind of intensity and gravitas to portray
Roman as he evolves over the course of the film-he also has a flawless American
"We needed an actor who could portray both the ruggedness and sensitivity of
the character," explains Goldman. "Matthias is physically imposing-one could
believe he is incarcerated in a Nevada prison-but he is also extremely
approachable in his
performance. In Europe, he is already known for playing these types of roles, as
he did in Rust and Bone and Bullhead."
For his part, Schoenaerts says he was drawn to the story's real-world
relevance and its philosophical underpinnings. "There's this weird ambivalence
between the horrors of prison life and the poetic nature of what goes on in that
program, which is man reconnecting with himself through nature. Roman is a
person who comes back to life. The horse brings him back to life, back to
When the program's chief trainer Myles notices that Roman is able to approach
a particularly aggressive mustang, the grizzled veteran is struck by the instant
connection between man and animal. In this key supporting role is none other
than Hollywood legend Bruce Dern. The two-time Academy Award-nominee says he
was "knocked out" by de Clermont-Tonnerre's script.
"Basically, what the movie is is two adversaries," Dern says. "Is the man
going to train the horse and break him, or is the horse going to break the man?
If he breaks the horse, he has to have the horse end up really liking him or
loving him. He's got to learn respect for the horse, wild animal or not. In that
way, it's kind of a love story. That's what I love about it."
Dern adds: "I became an actor because I was interested in what makes us do
what we do and behave like we do, particularly in times of stress, and that's
what this is. It can't be more stressful for the inmate-he's got to go back to
the prison population and live-yet in a few months or years, he'll be out and
have to readapt."
De Clermont-Tonnerre says Dern was the ideal choice to play Myles in the
film. "He has this humanity and kindness and fragility," she says. "He also has
this very stubborn and tough way about him, this natural authority that actually
defines Myles as this
father figure. He adds so much. He had this lightness and this humor that the
Roman begins working with the buckskin, but just like his would-be trainer,
the mustang is a wild creature, aggressive and hostile, fearful and anxious,
mistrustful of almost everyone. Fortunately for Roman, gregarious and
experienced inmate trainer Henry, played by actor Jason Mitchell, decides to
offer his assistance.
"Henry Davis is a hell of a horse trainer and not such a violent guy,"
Mitchell says. "He's more of a vibrant guy. The relationship with Roman, it
starts off a little strange because Roman is a standoffish guy, and Henry has
such an explosive energy. He's sort of found happiness already because he's
dealing with this horse trainer work, and Roman is just a very awkward person. I
might tease him a little bit. I might give him sort of a hard time, but I want
him to succeed, and he's actually trying, which is something that I respect."
To play the role, Mitchell, who portrayed late rapper Eazy-E in the
Oscar-nominated 2015 music biopic Straight Outta Compton, did have to overcome
a certain amount of trepidation. "I was terrified of horses," the actor says.
"My whole life, I've been completely terrified of horses. I won't even walk on
the same side of the street as a horse. I totally respect it and think it's a
beautiful animal, but the fear was real, even as a grown man. I figured out
Henry's basically the best trainer, and I'm like, this could be a time as a man
I could conquer a fear."
Mitchell says he was also excited by the opportunity to work with Schoenaerts.
"When I met him, he was explosive like I'm explosive," Mitchell says. "He loves
to laugh like I love to laugh, and he likes to hug like I like to hug. He's just
that guy. He matches my energy. He's like this white Belgian version of me. So,
I was like, This guy is cool. He also is a veteran in the game. He is somebody I
can not only watch and really learn from
but also not have the fear to approach him and ask him these different
questions. That's the great thing about working with him and Laure. They both
have this very open mind to what could be. "
After the initial false start, Roman develops a bond with the buckskin, whom
he names Marquis. The deep connection he forges with the animal, coupled with
his anger management classes and his ongoing work with a prison psychologist,
played by Friday Night Lights' actress Connie Britton, helps him slowly quell
his inner demons. But away from the farm, Roman faces different trials. He
strives to reconnect with his estranged 16-year-old daughter, Martha. Visibly
pregnant, she pays Roman an unexpected visit to ask him to sign emancipation
papers so she may legally sell her grandmother's house.
For Martha actress Gideon Adlon-who enjoyed a breakout performance in last
year's raunchy teen comedy Blockers-THE MUSTANG offered the opportunity to
tackle a weighty and meaningful dramatic role. "Martha is a very common case, a
teenage girl forced to deal with adult situations and become an adult before her
time to do so due to certain circumstances that have plagued her young life,"
Adlon says. "Martha knows what she wants. She is strong-willed and independent.
She still loves her father deep down. At the end of the day, he's the only
family she has left."
Roman senses that Martha is headed down the wrong path, but given what has
transpired between them, he simply doesn't know the best way to try to connect
with her from behind bars. "Their relationship is infected with guilt,"
Schoenaerts says. "It has been completely destroyed by guilt and violence and
emotional imbalance and pain. Suddenly, there's a new contact that is being
re-established, but at the same time, it brings up the past and what happened in
the past is pretty hard to overcome. It makes it almost impossible to rebalance
that relationship between these two people."
Roman is also pressured by his cellmate to steal the horse tranquilizer
ketamine from the farm-which Henry does to mollify one of the prison's gangs. In
terms of depicting the uglier realities of incarcerated life alongside the joys
and benefits of the Wild Horse Inmate Program, de Clermont-Tonnerre turned to
some of the actors she cast in smaller supporting roles who were themselves
graduates of the program. Thomas Smittle, William Adams and Michael Cameron
Smith play men working alongside Roman under the supervision of Myles. The
insights they provided, she says, were invaluable in giving THE MUSTANG
additional dimension and grounding the story in truth.
"Those former inmates helped me so much to deepen the story and the
characters," de Clermont-Tonnerre says. "They were inspiring. They went through
this journey, they found themselves at peace, and today are completely redeemed.
It added so many layers to the story to work with these people and to have their
Smittle is now a professional horse trainer living in South Dakota who does
seasonal work at Return to Freedom, the California sanctuary founded by THE
MUSTANG executive producer Robert Redford that gives safe haven to wild horses
and burros. Smittle began consulting with de Clermont-Tonnerre early in the
screenwriting process, and when it came time to shoot the movie, he was hired on
as a horse wrangler behind-the-scenes, in addition to playing a fictionalized
version of himself.
"I wasn't sure about it because the only films I'd worked in previous to that
were documentaries," says Smittle. "I hadn't done any acting, but Laure said, 'I
wrote the part for you. I just wrote you into the script, so you just basically
have to be yourself.'"
Despite his initial misgivings, he was impressed by de Clermont-Tonnerre's
commitment to telling this important story and agreed to appear on screen. "It
was encouraging that they were serious about recreating something that seemed
realistic from our point of view," he says.
Adams began serving time when he was just 24 and was the leader of a prison
gang before becoming involved with the program. Now, he lives with his wife and
daughter in Nevada, working as a horse trainer and co-owner of a pizza
restaurant. "It helped me work on my anger so much, actually being able to break
myself down in that pen and be humble in front of this horse. You're aggressive
in prison. You're the tough guy. In that ring with that horse, you can't be the
tough guy. If you're the tough guy, he's not gonna be your friend. Now, I have
something I can do in life instead of just being a criminal. This movie, it's
got a real good outlook on life and real true stories in it."
Smith, who is now a firefighter, echoes many of those sentiments. "The Horse
Program changed my life completely," he says. "It's making you so you're not so
paranoid about people and things around you because you're dealing with a
1,200-pound animal. If you can deal with that, you can deal with people all day
long, you know? I wanted to better my life and make my family proud instead of
being a black sheep."
"It's very touching to have these ex-inmates who were part of the program
with us," Schoenaerts adds. "It grounds the project that we're trying to make,
and it helps us to believe in what we're doing as well so that it's not all
make-believe. It's not just a group of artists trying to make something they
think is relevant. We're actually having real people with us that went through
it, and they exude that. They're very generous and gentle, but in everything
they do, in everything they say, they exude that past, and that helps us as
actors to really stay grounded and very connected to the material."
To round out the cast with real-life experts of color, de Clermont-Tonnerre
cast two "Compton Cowboys," Kenneth Atkins and Keith Johnson, equestrians from
south-central Los Angeles who advocate horsemanship as a positive influence to
keep at-risk youth off the streets.
Atkins began riding as a child with his father at the Equestrian Center in
Burbank, eventually joining The Compton Jr. Posse an organization founded by
Mayisha Akbar dedicated to keeping kids "on horses and off the streets." His
experience teaching novices to ride served him well on THE MUSTANG. Remaining
calm is the first rule of spending time around the animals. "As soon as you get
all antsy and tense, they'll feel the same way," Atkins says of the horses. "As
long as you're chill, the horse is going to be chill."
Johnson plays Elijah, a shy inmate who is incarcerated for attempted murder.
"He's not really good with people, but he's amazing with horses," says Johnson,
whose relationship with the Wild Horse Inmate Program dates to when Johnson was
a child in California and his grandfather adopted two horses from the program.
Still, he says his experience on set enriched his understanding of the power of
the initiative. "I learned a lot from some of the ex-inmates in the movie about
the program, how it's affected them and made them better people in life," he
At its heart, THE MUSTANG offers a humane message about hope, about second
chances, about human transformation. Roman Coleman's story might be fictional,
but the experiences depicted on screen are rooted in truth. The film serves as
an inspiring testament to the power of rehabilitation to offer real redemption.
"This film is about sincerity, and pureness, and care, and respect, and
therefore, love, because they're all manifestations of love to some extent,"
Schoenaerts says. "Those elements are the only things that really matter in
life. That's what that horse ends up teaching each one of these inmates, which
helps them move on in life, and move on with themselves, and move on with their
families. After you've been in this horrific place where distrust is standard,
where disloyalty is omnipresent, to overcome that and to rebuild yourself, you
need a profound experience of love."
Concludes de Clermont-Tonnerre: "It's about how natural and simple a
connection can be, how an animal can repair the soul of a broken man. It's a
love story between a violent offender and a wild horse. It's how the impact of
an animal can teach this inmate to be a man and a father. It's about connection
and love and empathy. It's about learning, patience, respect and trust."
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