Getting Back in the Saddle

Local filmmakers’ movie ‘Useless’ explores family and women in rodeo, set for release in summer 2018

By Emily Hoeven
From left: Producer Charity Ambrose, Associate Producer Travis Bruyer, lead actress Brooke Wilson, and Director Josiah Burdick, pictured on June 29, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The group sitting in a circle at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell is an eclectic one. It consists of brother and sister Josiah Burdick and Charity Ambrose, filmmakers originally from upstate New York; Travis Bruyer, a member of the local law enforcement who’s lived in Kalispell his whole life; and Brooke Wilson, a Bigfork native who just capped off her junior year of high school as the 2017 Montana High School Rodeo Association Champion Barrel Racer.

But there are a few elements that bring this group together. First, they all consider the Flathead home. Second, they’re all dreamers. Third, they’re making a movie together.

The movie is called “Useless.” It’s the first feature film released by Fearless Films, the production company that Burdick founded in 2012. Burdick is the director, Ambrose is the producer, Bruyer is an associate producer, and Wilson is the lead actress. Filming is underway, with an expected release date of next summer.

The film centers on a teenage girl named Jessie who goes to live with her Aunt Laurel and Uncle Mick after her mother passes away. To help Jessie overcome her grief, Mick scrapes together enough money to buy her a cutting horse reject named Lucky. He teaches Jessie and Lucky how to barrel race and trains them to complete the cloverleaf-shaped course as quickly as possible. But when Mick suddenly suffers a stroke and the family is buried in debt, Jessie takes it upon herself to barrel race competitively in rodeos and earn enough money to get their finances in order.

Although one of the movie’s main concerns is family, it’s equally about the relationships between man and animal — or, rather, between woman and animal.

“After a couple of non-successful movie attempts,” Burdick says, “I was really frustrated, and I sat down with a movie distributor and asked her what sells. Her response? ‘Movies about girls and horses.’”

At first, this may seem counterintuitive. After all, mainstream rodeo — guys riding bulls, roping broncos — is male-dominated. It’s natural to assume that a movie about horses and rodeos would primarily feature men.

But, as Bruyer points out, “You can’t make a movie about a male bull rider and a bull. There’s no relationship there. The man gets on the bull and tries to stay on for eight seconds. That’s it.”

Barrel racing, a rodeo sport almost entirely dominated by young women, is different.

“It’s completely grounded in the relationship between the rider and the horse,” Wilson says, who has been barrel racing since the age of 4. She adds, “They have to work together, listen to each other and, most importantly, trust each other.”

Barrel racing owes its professional status to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, which was formed in 1948 to address the massive gender gap in rodeo. Although women had long competed with men in rodeo sports, by this time they were only allowed to participate in rodeo beauty pageants. And while men could win prize money at rodeo competitions, women were prohibited from doing so, often receiving cigarette cases instead.

In an effort to get women back in the arena, the WPRA established barrel racing as a professional rodeo sport. Over time, it became the female alternative to bull and bronco riding. However, Wilson says, inequalities stubbornly remain and women still face limited options for professional rodeo careers.

“The opportunities aren’t there yet,” she says. “But they will be.”

In the same way that some might assume rodeo is a male-only sport, people might also think that the only worthwhile place to make movies is Hollywood.

“We give up a lot to live here,” Bruyer says. “This place can be poverty with a view. Charity and Josiah are so talented, they could be working in Hollywood and be making a lot more money.”

But they aren’t. And neither of them could imagine it any other way.

Although the brother and sister have only lived in the Flathead for five years, it is indisputably their home.

“I chose this place because I felt like it was pulling me here,” Ambrose says. “I knew this was home and I wanted to pour myself into it.”

“This is a local movie,” Burdick adds. “It celebrates Montana. It celebrates our way of life.”

“Useless” is being filmed on a $25,000 budget with a five-person crew, not counting the cast. Many of the actors and actresses are working for little to no money.

“No one makes a movie for $25,000,” Burdick says. “No one. It’s unthinkable.”

Yet it’s moved from thoughts and dreams to reality, due in large part to Montana itself.

“Montana is a character in this movie,” Burdick says. He’s partly referring to the scenery— the gorgeous, jaw-dropping mountains and lakes and valleys against which the entire movie will be shot. But he’s also referring to the people: the local rodeo producers who have agreed to let their rodeos be filmed; the businesses that have donated money and support; the supporters who write encouraging messages on the movie’s Facebook page and share it with friends and family.

“The response we’ve received from the community is absolutely incredible,” Ambrose says.

Ultimately, this is what’s most important for a film director like Burdick. He doesn’t want the Flathead to become the next Hollywood. Instead, he wants to help establish a stable, flourishing film culture in the Flathead, a culture all its own.

“We hope that “Useless” will leave a legacy,” Bruyer says. “We hope it will be part of a larger movement.”

“Just because there’s not a big film community here yet doesn’t mean there won’t ever be,” Burdick says.

And in this way, a film called “Useless” reveals itself to be quite the opposite. It is advancing women in rodeo while simultaneously building a foundation for future films in the valley.

“We all feel useless sometimes,” Burdick says. “And people are always going to tell you that you can’t ride horses, or can’t make movies. But you can’t wait for them to change their minds. You just have to get up and do it.”

Stay updated on the movie’s progress at www.facebook.com/MovieUseless. Opportunities to be an extra in the film will also be posted. Contact Josiah Burdock at (219) 246-7070 or at [email protected].

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