One horseback ride through Palo Duro Canyon with young adventurer-filmmaker Ben Masters during the spring of 2014 was enough to make a fan out of Fort Worth real estate investor and film patron John C. Goff.
Goff immediately bonded with Masters, who had organized the three-day trek that also included then-Gov. Rick Perry, Goff’s friend Doug Bratton of Fort Worth and several other riders.
The Palo Duro trip was an “investment opportunity” to support Masters’ ambitious film project named Unbranded, a full-length documentary shot in 2013 chronicling a five-month, 3,000 mile horseback journey into the most remote and pristine regions of western America.
Once Masters showed Goff some video from that epic pack trip, Goff was sold.
“I watched it and said ‘this is incredible footage. This really needs to be seen,’” he recalled.
The gritty journey included Masters and three Aggie friends as riders, 16 horses and three photographers who alternated their duties. The trip covered several states stretching from the Mexican border to Canada. The film’s larger objective was to document the plight of the wild mustangs of the American West.
Unbranded premieres in selected cities on Sept. 24. It has already been voted the 2015 fan favorite film at both the Telluride Mountainfilm festival and HotDocs in Toronto.
Goff is enthusiastic about the project, the mustangs and the man.
“I saw a lot of myself in Ben,” said Goff, who admired Masters’ vision and single-minded dedication to the project.
“I went in a completely different direction, in the business world,” Goff said, “but I had a goal in mind and got to achieve a lot of my dreams.”
Unbranded is the second film project that has attracted Goff and his wife, Cami. They helped finance a pet project in 2011 for Glenn Close, the film Albert Nobbs. Close, costar Janet McTeer and the film itself were nominated for Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.
“I don’t view it as an investment so much as something enjoyable to do,” Goff said.
The Goffs are working on a third film project in Los Angeles.
Remarkably, the 27-year-old Masters said, he didn’t grow up on horseback but as a “city kid” in Amarillo.
The first time he’d ever been around horses was as a student at Texas A&M University, where he originally intended to get a business degree.
Instead, he graduated with a strong calling in wildlife biology and conservation. “I decided I’d rather play with snakes than calculators, so I switched majors to wildlife management,” he said.
While getting an education, Masters led horseback rides in Yellowstone
National Park and elk hunts in Wyoming and managed a ranch in South Texas. An ardent conservationist, he is experienced as a horse trainer and organizer of wilderness horseback trips.
A pack ride in 2010 through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana served as Masters’ own inspiration for Unbranded.
“We used some mustangs we bought for $125 to fill out our string, and they did an incredible job, better than our quarter horses,” he said. “I thought people would really want to see that.”
The idea was hatched to arrange and film a longer trip, using exclusively mustangs.
Masters’ companions, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer and Jonny Fitzsimons, were equally experienced horsemen and adventurers. Director Phillip Baribeau helped guide the production process for the film.
Challenges, crises and even sorrow accompanied the Unbranded band during filming. A few horses suffered injuries (one fatal) that took them off the trail during the trip. A farrier suffered a nonfatal heart attack while shoeing one of the horses, though that is not included in the film.
“Yeah, there was sickness, injury and death, group dynamics and drama, everything was thrown at us,” Masters recounted. “One day our horses ran away from us and it was a complete disaster. It took us a few days [to get them back] but we were fine. We just kept going.”
The Unbranded trek was a little different than a usual trail ride, with filming going on.
“The cameramen definitely slowed us down sometimes,” Masters said. “But they were as little maintenance as possible. They tried to follow around without having too much influence.”
Masters, an accomplished photographer himself, wore a GoPro video camera on his hat and took still photos and notes throughout the journey for a companion book, which has been published by Texas A&M University Press.
A recent Fort Worth screening of Unbranded was held on the first day of the popular Extreme Mustang Makeover event at the Will Rogers complex, and the likeminded audience of EMM participants loved it.
They wore hats, boots and jeans, and some still displayed their competition numbers on their backs. They sucked in their breaths every time a horse stumbled, and laughed at the riders’ wisecracks and missteps.
The most popular cast members at the outdoors afterparty were two of the horses. Dark, heavy-coated Tuff looked the part of a wild-bred mustang, while the handsome tan-and-white paint Luke collected most of the “oohs” and “aaahs.”
The upfront money for the massive project was hard earned and was almost as much of a quest as the trip itself.
“Well, like most good Texas businesses do, I got my initial funding from the oilfields,” Masters said during a phone interview earlier in September. “I worked on the rigs in Denver City for about five months, which gave me the capital to buy the camera equipment.
“Then we did a five-minute video explaining what we wanted to do. We put that on Kickstarter [crowdfunding site] and raised $170,000 in 45 days from about 1,200 people.
That gave Masters the seed money to get the project going, and then he found interested parties such as Goff.
“We had about 10 investors to finance the full budget,” Masters said.
“Just the option, the filming and the editing, was a little over a million dollars.”
Masters has formed his own company, Fin & Fur Films, and is working on a new project. Unbranded executive producer Cindy Meehl’s Cedar Creek Productions was also involved, following up her award-winning western documentary Buck about legendary horse trainer Buck Brannaman.
“A lot of young people will talk about doing, but Ben just goes out and does it,” Goff said. “He scratched and clawed and figured it out. The trip, 3,000 miles across the U.S., is a huge effort.”
Goff likes the multidimensional story and “just the struggle of the journey of this,” he said. “It’s beautiful footage. You get to see a lot of the U.S. close up. It’s stunning to think you can go through 3,000 miles of wilderness this way.”
Despite it all, Masters said, he would recommend such an extreme undertaking even for an average adventurer.
“Of course they should do it. That’s a given there,” he said, despite the lengthy planning and physical demands of training a wild horse.
“It’s probably been one of the most rewarding things to happen to me, and I think more people should do things like this,” Masters said. “You learn about yourself when you take yourself out of cell phone service, you spend hours and days and weeks with your friends.
“I learned a lot about myself, some good things and some not so good.”
Masters also uses Unbranded as an example to encourage horse and burro adoptions, citing statistics that the Bureau of Land Management spends $50,000 on each horse or burro taken off the range and kept in holding pens and pastures. Some 49,000 animals are kept this way, and the tab is about $80 million a year, he said in an interview before the film’s release. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s total budget for fiscal year 2014 was $77.245 million.
The problem is expected to worsen, he said, with tens of thousands of new horses on the rangelands during the next few years. The horses’ overgrazing brings on starvation not only for them but also for the native species that call the western lands home.
There are caveats.
“Adopting wild horses is like wanting to get a housecat and going to the shelter and coming out with a bobcat,” Masters cautioned. He credits the Mustang Heritage Foundation and its signature events such as Mustang Magic and Extreme Mustang Makeover with helping the cause.
Goff thinks Unbranded will find “a broad audience in Fort Worth that will particularly enjoy the film.”
It’s not just about horses, or even an adventure, Goff said.
“My takeaway is that it’s a very inspirational story about how young people who can put their mind to something can do a lot,” he said. “I hope it’s an inspiration to young people that they can realize their dreams.”
How to see Unbranded:
Sept. 24 to Oct. 3:
One night screenings at select theaters on Sept. 24, and
then limited release.
Sept. 25: Video on Demand (such as iTunes) PreOrder:
Nov. 24: Available on DVD
For more on the Unbranded book:
To purchase tickets to an Unbranded screening in Fort Worth: