Jake Allyn on Getting in the Saddle for “Ride”

Although Jake Allyn hadn’t ever gotten onto a bucking bronco before making “Ride,” either of the bovine variety or a feature film as a director, he always knew that he’d have a handle on things. Having grown up in Texas, this literally wasn’t his first rodeo, but besides having a lay of the land in telling the story of a bull rider whose addiction to drugs derailed a once promising career and put his family’s legacy in the sport in jeopardy, he could lean on what he soaked up from plenty of other sets as an actor and what he learned from the time his brother Conor Allyn directed his script for the 2020 border thriller “No Man’s Land.”

It’s what would make it just a little easier when Allyn and his crew would have no much longer than the few seconds that even the best bull riders can manage to film scenes in between real live events in “Ride,” where the adrenaline rush of the sport is a high that people try desperately to match anywhere else in their lives as it hones in on the Hawkins family, which faces threats that make their bruising athletic pursuit seem easy by comparison. While Peter (Allyn) is slowly coming back from a crippling addiction, attempting to mend fences with his family as he plots a comeback, his parents John (C. Thomas Howell) and Monica (Annabeth Gish) are as concerned if not more with their younger daughter Virginia (Zia Carlock), who has been bedbound as a cancer patient in recent years. The emotional toll would be enough, but the situation is becoming financially untenable when Monica only brings in so much as a sheriff at the local police department and John and his father Al (Forrie J. Smith) have retired from their careers riding, making Peter’s sobriety even more critical.

Allyn excels in both roles he has on “Ride,” carrying the weight of the world on him as Peter and hardly making it any easier on those around him including Monica, who must deal with the legal fallout when he might turn to illegal activity to help out with the medical bills when he’s hardly is shape to get back in the saddle, and looks at ease in the director’s chair where he navigates a complex family drama with real compassion for all involved and the sense of authenticity doesn’t only come from the scenes where he’s filming at an active rodeo. With the film now hitting theaters nationally after the director made a priority of showing it at rodeos around the Lone Star state, Allyn spoke about the film’s recent tour and the long road it took to get it made in the first place, getting both the details right in the script and the right cast onboard for it, as well as the unexpectedly crucial role music eventually played in the production.

I’ve been following your adventures on social media, and I wanted to actually start at the end of all this and ask, “What’s going on now?” Because I understand you’ve been going to rodeos every weekend with this.

When you make a movie about and beside a very specific community, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t want to celebrate it with that community every chance that we get. So we shot most of this movie at a live rodeo, and they really opened us with welcome arms, so I wanted to not only pay that back by coming to their rodeos and playing the trailer and celebrating this movie with them, but it’s also just fun. Quite frankly, I love rodeos. There’s a reason I made the movie in the first place. And I was so proud of “No Man’s Land,” but it came out during COVID, at the beginning of virtual this and that, so to have this movie come out when the world is back, so to speak, I wanted to take advantage of every in-person opportunity that I can. We won Best Movie at the Western Heritage Awards, and got the Audience Award at the Dallas International Film Festival and to be able to do that in person has made it all the more special.

This all started for you eight years ago. Just how immersed have you been in the rodeo world during that time?

I’m certainly more immersed now just because of the relationships I’ve made, but the cowboy has been a part of me and my heart and my soul since I was born. I was named Jake after Kevin Costner’s character in Silverado, so when you’re born with that namesake, it just immediately connected me to that world and that community and stories from that world, “Lonesome Dove,” “Silverado,” “Tombstone,” and now, of course, this wave of modern Westerns that have come from Taylor Sheridan. And I grew up in that world, so I felt like I have a point of view and I can be an honest voice for that community and show all of it in its glory and its troubles.

How did you find a story that could carry all of that?

My way of doing that has always been if you want to tell a macro story, do the opposite. Go micro. I’m just going to tell a story about a couple people dealing with very specific issues in this family, and hopefully that can speak to an entire community, but this film does [involve] rodeo, country music and addiction and one of my proudest moments throughout this in-person tour I’ve been going on was this premiere we had at the Cowtown Coliseum, the most historic rodeo arena in Texas, and this older cowboy came up to me after the film — older guy, cowboy hat, big old belt buckle, starched jeans, the whole nine yards — and said, “Son, that really touched me. I want to talk to you about this movie.” And I assumed he wanted to talk about bull riding or ranching, but he pulled out a two-year sobriety chip, and all he wanted to talk about was his journey to getting clean. And it’s such a large issue in the heartland and really all across America, but if I’m going to tell that story, I’m going to tell it through the micro — one kid dealing with addiction and one family dealing with it.

You give yourself a juicy part, but is that a blessing or a curse when you’ve also got to handle all the responsibilities of being a first-time director?

It’s not how you draw it up, to star in the first film that you’re directing, but the movie started to make itself in the final two years before we shot it because you can start to tell what’s best for a film. Once we got closer to actually making it, I really felt that even though I admittedly did not have a massive technical ability for directing — I don’t know lenses or all these very technical things that a lot of directors know — what I did have was absolute love for the story that we were telling. And I don’t mean my 95-page script, but the world and the community and the way of life that we were representing. The main character in this movie isn’t my character or C. Thomas’ or Annabeth’s character, it’s the heartland. It is small towns across America, it is amateur rodeo. And that was the story I was telling, not some words on a piece of paper.

When both C. Thomas Howell and Forrie J. Smith have connections to this world, did you actually seek them out for the parts or did they gravitate towards you when the script might’ve been making the rounds?

Oh, I harassed them — all three of them, C. Thomas, Forrie and Annabeth. [laughs] They were all people on my radar and at the top of my list for this family because they’re so authentic. C. Thomas and Forrie were both bull riders as kids, born into that way of life. Forrie J. Smith’s mom’s a barrel racer and when you come from a life of that, half the acting work is done for you. Those guys just brought so much life and authenticity to the movie and the script evolved big time once they came aboard because I can only get so far as a screener, but once those actors come on board, they brought real life experience and stories.

The same goes for Annabeth, who was playing a cowboy in her own right as this law woman, and we spent a lot of time talking with police officers, specifically police officers who dealt with addiction and criminality within their own family. I ended up hooking her up with this guy Kevin Simmers, a narcotics officer in Baltimore for over 25 years all the while his daughter was struggling and battling with addiction herself, so he investigated her and arrested her, and sometimes he threw her in jail and sometimes he broke the law to keep her out of jail. It’s a vicious cycle, and giving Annabeth that type of relationship allowed her to embrace that character all the more fully.

Coming from an acting background, were there things that were important to give to your cast that you would’ve wanted yourself from a director?

I tried to give them a balance of a very specific direction while also giving them creative space. I think directors have to really find a balance, because an actor doesn’t want to just be told, “Yeah, you can do whatever you want. I don’t care about these lines. If you want to walk over there, it’s fine.” But they also don’t want to be told, “Here’s your mark. You can’t move an inch to the right or left. Make sure you take half a breath on this comma.” One of the things I’m probably most proud of with them is giving them the physical and emotional space in scenes. There’s nothing worse as an actor than being told, “You have to do everything in this little tiny box,” so I wanted to give them a big, fat sandbox that they could walk around in and feel like they were just existing and do long takes.

There’s a scene when Monica, Annabeth’s character, is walking through this crime scene and she’s putting together the reality of what happened and how her family was involved and it’s all smashing down on her. She walks into four different rooms of this house and then out into the backyard and in so many movies, that would be ten different setups in two days. But it was so important to us that we gave her the space to do that whole moment at once, and as an actor’s director, I was really proud that I was able to provide that.

She nailed it. You see it all on her face, and when you mention contributions from the actors, I noticed that the song that C. Thomas Howell, in character, sings to his daughter in the film is something he wrote himself. How did that come about?

That one is a strange combination of fate and working together [on the scene]. He had already written that song when I sent him the script, and that scene didn’t have any music [in it]. In the script, I think he was doing rope tricks for her [to comfort her]. And then Tommy said, “I love the script, I’d love to be a part of it,” and he started telling me about the music side of his career and how he just wrote a song called “Ride.” “Maybe we should use it.” And I was like, if that’s not the world telling you to work together, I don’t know what is. So I looked through the script and found that moment in the hospital with him and the daughter and myself and we created this family song that ends up getting used in different ways throughout the movie, so it was just finding the right place for what he had already so beautifully created.

Does anything happen that you may not have expected but made it into the film that you now really like about it?

I think it had to be our composer, M.J. Callaghan, who [goes by] Those Who Ride With Giants, and I knew I wanted him to be the composer a couple months before the movie and a lot of movies, you don’t really pick the composer until during the movie or sometimes even afterwards, but we were the opposite. And I had him make a bunch of pieces of music before we even started shooting, just based on the script and conversations that we’d have together, talking about being family members and life in a small town, and all these themes of shame, addiction, pride, legacy, and then he just went off into artistic land and came back with some beautiful pieces. But it ended up reverse engineering some scenes to where we were in the edit a piece of music would help evolve the story.

There’s a point in the movie where my character is in the back of the locker room during the rodeo right before his last ride and if he doesn’t make this ride, you just know that he’s headed back for disaster in his life. He’s all bruised up and we dip into this montage of the rodeo that’s really signifying that the main character [in the film] isn’t any of these people, but this way of life and we show all these different shots from the live rodeo with fathers and sons and the heritage of this sport. And it’s all behind music. Without [M.J.] making that song before we shot, I don’t know that that idea would have come into my head, but it was that song that I said, “Oh, wow, this deserves a whole moment.”

You were heavily involved in “No Man’s Land,” but what was it like being involved in every little detail like this as a director?

It definitely is different. It’s my brainchild. It’s my heartchild. And I obviously was very involved in “No Man’s Land,” since I wrote it, but my brother directed that and I learned so much from him. He gave me such big shoes to fill, but in the best way possible. And I love this movie so much and I love the story that we’re telling. That always got me through, even if I was having to wear five different hats. It just doesn’t matter when you do what you love.

“Ride” opens on June 14th in limited release and available on digital. A full list of theaters and cities is here.

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