‘Fishtail’ film captures ranch life during calving season


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Fishtail Basin Ranch is the setting for a documentary, “Fishtail,” that was filmed during four days of calving season in 2013.

Two childhood friends have made a movie that quietly, beautifully captures the rhythms of life on a Montana cattle ranch.

Andrew Renzi and Tylee Abbott, who were reared in Pennsylvania and now live in New York, will bring clips of their documentary, “Fishtail,” to the annual summer fundraiser for the Stillwater Protective Association this weekend.

The movie was shot over four days in April 2013 and follows Abbott, whose parents own the Fishtail Basin Ranch, and ranch manager Brian Young as they go about their timeless tasks. There is no narration as such, just a bit of music and some prose and poetry recited by the actor Harry Dean Stanton.

Sunday fundraiser also has raffle, auctions

The annual summer event of the Stillwater Protective Association will be this Sunday at the Anipro Event Center five miles south of Absarokee. Doors open at 4 p.m. and the program will start at 4:30.

In addition to the screening of clips from the “Fishtail” documentary, followed by discussion and questions, the event will include the Cork-A-Doodle-Doo wine raffle (with a basket of bottles valued at $600 to $650), locally sourced heavy hors d’oeuvres from Wildflower Kitchen and a silent auction of more than 30 items.

Among them are days of fly fishing on private stretches of Fishtail Creek and the West Rosebud and rafting on the Stillwater River. Handcrafted items will also be auctioned off, including a boot jack, a horsehair lanyard, birdhouses, a desk set and a cedar planter.

The live auction will feature works by local artists Tom Wolfe and Edward Barta, as well as unique experiences, including a tour of a historic buffalo jump, a tour of the Mouat Mine site and a picnic ride on a restored Yellowstone National Park bus.

Tickets are $35, free to children under 12. For reservations, call 248-1154 or send an email to stillwaterpa@gmail.com

The hour-long film, which is available on Netflix, is divided into chapters that tell its simple story: “Feeding,” “Tagging and Banding,” “Sunset Feed,” “Night Check” and “Calving.” (You can watch a trailer here.)

Abbott, who specializes in western American art for Christie’s, the New York Auction house, said their hope was to make a movie that was a modern equivalent of the grand 19th-century paintings of the West, a movie that would capture “this amazing way of life … and a way of life that is passing.”

The film is a good match for the Stillwater Protective Association, which was founded in 1975 to preserve the rural and agricultural way of life along the Beartooth Front and to encourage responsible growth.

At the fundraiser this Sunday (see accompanying story for more details), Renzi and Abbott will show clips specially chosen for the event, talk about how the movie was made and answer questions from the audience.

Abbott’s parents, both named Franny Abbott—and known to friends as “Franny (he)” and “Franny (she)”—used to bring their children out to a dude ranch in Wyoming’s Sunlight Basin every year before deciding to buy their own place. Twenty years ago, they settled on the Fishtail Basin Ranch, which sits in the shadow of the distinctive Fishtail Butte.

“We still believe it’s one of the most beautiful places in the West,” Franny (she) said.

All four of the Abbotts’ boys worked on the ranch in the summers and during school holidays, but Tylee especially took to it, his mother said.

“We really did grow up out there, working every single day,” Tylee said. They learned from the previous ranch manager and then from Young, a lifelong resident of the Fishtail area who has been on the ranch for 10 years.

“As much as we could kind of soak up and learn from those guys, we did,” Tylee said.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Fishtail Basin Ranch manager Brian Young talks with two of his boys, Colton, left, and Logan. The boys and their brother Dylan all make appearances in “Fishtail.”

Tylee was named for his great-grandfather, William Tylee Ranney, a 19th-century painter famous for his depictions of the West. Those trips to Sunlight Basin almost always included a visit to the Whitney Museum of American Art at the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody, which has several of Ranney’s paintings.

It wasn’t specifically the influence of his great-grandfather that inspired his venture into the art world, Tylee said, but that time spent in the Whitney certainly did.

Renzi, who said he has been “friends forever” with Tylee, had been out to the ranch several times himself, and for a few weeks during one summer of high school he worked on the ranch. He said they started talking about the movie in the winter before filming began.

At first, Renzi envisioned making a short film that could be used for advertising by a sponsor like Levi’s. But they decided to do it on their own and do it on the cheap.

“I just kind of dug into the guerrilla filmmaker mode,” Renzi said. “One of the things I’m most proud of about that movie is that it cost us just a fraction of what you’d normally spend on a film.”

To capture the grandeur of the landscape, he decided to shoot with real film, 16mm. Kodak agreed to donate enough film for the movie—just enough—and that turned out to be another reason the movie has a gritty air of authenticity.

Rather than shooting limitless clips of electronic video, Renzi said, they knew they had to be very careful and conserve what film they had. That’s why the film crew spent a couple of days just following Young, Abbott and Young’s three sons around, to understand the rhythms of their work and to set up each scene accordingly.

The people in the movie were not directed in any way, Renzi said; the film was simply structured to capture what they did in as little time as possible. There are moments of artless camaraderie, others of low-key splendor—and one wild scene in which a cow gives birth by struggling to her feet and whirling in circles in order to completely expel her calf.

“To see something start to finish like that is pretty remarkable,” Tylee said.

Renzi said the film crew did not want to disturb the cow in any way, so they set up on top of two hay bales just outside the open doors of the calving shed. They were so far away they had to use the biggest lens they had … and then wait the four and a half hours the birth ultimately took.

“Fishtail” debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it received a nomination in the Best Documentary category.


Joe Anderson

A still from the “Fishtail” documentary.

Previous summer events of the Stillwater Protective Association have featured cowboy poets, live music and experts talking about subjects like geology and pictographs. Lana Sangmeister, who is organizing the event, said this will be their first film showing.

Lana’s husband, Charles, is the current president of the association. The group’s most notable achievement was its “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the Stillwater Mine, which Charles said remains the only legally binding agreement of its kind between a mining company and citizens groups. The agreement is 15 years old this year.

The association is also working to create a citizen-initiated zoning district along the Beartooth Front in Stillwater County, to make sure any oil and gas development is done in a responsible manner. The group is also working on issues having to do with coal and oil shipments by train and an overabundance of elk in the area.

But the summer event is not about issues and activism.

“It’s just a good time for people to get together,” Lana Sangmeister said.


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