Producer's Statement: How it Started or The Last Sheep Drive
"I am the last guy to do this and someone ought to make a film about it." So spoke old-time rancher Lawrence Allestad in 2001, about the fact that he was the last person to drive his sheep up into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range on a grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian-American family for generations. Filmmakers and anthropologists living at the time in Boulder, Colorado, we had wanted to make a film about the American West, and were instantly intrigued by the topic.
We drove up to Big Timber that summer ready to make a film called "The Last Sheep Drive." Our cars were loaded to the brim with three camera rigs, a bunch of radio microphones, our two kids, a dog and a babysitter. For the first few weeks we'd wake up at 4 AM to help drive the sheep through town and then up the roads towards the hills. It was a family adventure for us, and a family enterprise for the ranchers — with kids, grandparents, neighbors and passers-by all helping.
It soon became clear, however, that because of the growing grizzly bear and grey wolf population, taking the kids up into the mountains would be impossible. So Lucien went up without us, hiking and riding, while I filmed other events in town — rodeos, dog trials, shooting contests, haying, the Sweetgrass County Fair.
When Lucien got down from the mountains that fall, he was unrecognizable — bearded beyond belief, 20 pounds lighter, carrying a ton of footage and limping. He would later be diagnosed with trauma-induced advanced degenerative arthritis, caused by carrying the equipment day and night, and need double foot surgery.
When we started to watch the footage, we realized that we had two, or more, different films. (And so many different points of view that I thought about calling the film "A Piece of the Big Sky.") We decided the most compelling story for a feature film was the original one we'd been interested in: the sheep drive itself — as ritual, as history, as challenge. Even then, we had a good 200 hours of footage to wade through. Little did we know that this would take us about eight years.
In the meantime, we went back up to film lambing, shearing, the following year's sheep drive and the one after that; we also moved to the East Coast. (We started joking that we'd call the film "The Penultimate Sheep Drive.") Most of the footage, however, is from that first summer. (In 2006, the ranch was sold, along with most of the sheep.) We finally settled on Sweetgrass.
While the journey is tremendously hard, it is undertaken not just for the literal goal of reaching (sweet) grass, but also to carry on tradition against all sorts of odds. There is a silent 1925 documentary, called Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925) by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison, about an heroic seasonal trek (transhumance) of herds and Bakhtiari herdsmen in Persia. Sweetgrass tips its hat to that film, and is a tribute to past and contemporary people who still manage to eke out a bittersweet living on the land.
— Ilisa Barbash, Producer
We began work on this film in the spring of 2001. Living at the time in Colorado, we heard about a family of Norwegian-American sheepherders in Montana, who were among the last to trail their band of sheep long distances — about 150 miles each year, all of it on hoof — up to the mountains for summer pasture. I visited them that April during lambing, and was so taken with the magnitude of their life — at once its allure and its arduousness — that we ended up working with them, their friends and their Irish-American hired hands intensively over the coming years.
Sweetgrass is one of nine films to have emerged from the footage we have shot over the last decade, the only one intended principally for theatrical exhibition. As they have been shaped through editing, the films seem to have become as much about the sheep as about their herders. The humans and animals that populate them commingle and crisscross in ways that have taken us by surprise. Sweetgrass depicts the twilight of a defining chapter in the history of the American West, the dying world of Western herders — descendants of Scandinavian and northern European homesteaders — as they struggle to make a living in an era increasingly inimical to their interests. Set in Big Sky country, in a landscape of remarkable scale and beauty, the film portrays a life-world colored by an intense propinquity between nature and culture — one that has been integral to the fabric of human existence throughout history, but which is almost unimaginable for the urban masses of today.
Spending the summers high in the Rocky mountains, among the herders, the sheep and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days.
— Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Cinematographer