As a documentary filmmaker and native South Dakotan, Justin Koehler says his home state has plenty of stories that need to be told.
The director and producer of “The Buffalo King” decided that the next tale to be introduced to the world is “Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs” about the legendary Fort Pierre bronc rider who took rodeo from a regional sport to a worldwide spectacle. Koehler aims to have the film released in the winter of 2015.
“Casey was always at the top of my list,” Koehler said. “I knew about him, kind of the Cliff’s Notes version, nothing too deep, you know, just probably what every normal South Dakotan knows.
"But once I started researching and asking around and digging up some material, he was an obvious choice," he said, "the bright-colored clothing, the Cadillacs, the womanizing, the bronc riding titles, Hollywood actor, stuntman, just everything together he was a gigantic personality."
Koehler, who grew up on a ranch in Haakon County, wasn’t a rodeo cowboy himself, but he spent enough time around them growing up to know that any movie on Tibbs was going to need something special to really capture his essence.
He plans on using normal documentary fare such as old photos, interviews and archival film footage, but he also wants to show the beauty of the sport in a new, fresh way, so he decided that some re-enactment scenes would do the trick.
“I really wanted to be able to do some bronc-riding scenes, some really cinematic, beautiful bronc-riding scenes to use within the film,” Koehler said. “So we better have somebody that looks good, not just somebody off the street, and nothing against a high school bronc rider or anything else, but we need a pro.”
Koehler said he had one other requirement.
“I also really wanted a South Dakota bronc rider. South Dakota is known for that and I wanted to keep that tradition within Casey’s film,” Koehler said.
Enter Cole Elshere.
The 24-year-old Faith cowboy is currently ranked eighth in the world standings in the saddle bronc and will portray Tibbs in the film’s re-enactment scenes. Koehler said he contacted Elshere — who recently won the Wrangler Champions Challenge in Spanish Fork, Utah, and is on the cover of the June 6 issue of ProRodeo Sports News. Elshere met with Koehler in Denver and was immediately receptive and excited about portraying a South Dakota legend.
“I thought it sounded interesting and fun, so I was on board,” Elshere said. “It’s going to bring a lot of awareness to a story that a lot of people haven’t heard and it’s fun and exciting to be a part of it.”
Elshere has been researching Tibbs’ riding style to lend even more authenticity to the film, but Koehler doesn’t want Elshere to feel too much pressure to "be" Tibbs.
"We don’t really want to put pressure on (Elshere) to look or act like Casey. It’s more the cinematic uses when it comes to the photography," Koehler said. "So we'll use shallow depths of field, silhouettes, not necessarily keeping him hidden, but we kind of want to keep Casey a mystery in the re-enactments and it would be a lot of pressure to have to look like him and act like him."
While the success of “The Buffalo King” provided the impetus for another South Dakota story, Koehler is hardly running out of material. He says his home state is fertile ground for the type of work he wants to do. And will be for a long time.
“I wanted to center around the state of South Dakota for a lot of reasons," he said. "One, I was born and raised there and two, there’s just so much great history, stories and characters and events that have taken place there and no one is really touching them when it comes to the film genre or documentaries."
The process of putting together a documentary film is a long one and Koehler has spent the past year researching Tibbs and early rodeo.
“I have been completely immersed in his life and the things that surround his life, because we want to go deeper than just his life. There are so many things that parallel his life and the challenges he had that I think will give the story many more layers than just what his life is,” Koehler said.
“The struggles of rodeo at the turn of the century is a big thing. They had their struggles from 1900 to 1930 and then as Casey was coming into it he was influenced by his father, who didn’t want him to rodeo because of the rodeo and the rodeo cowboy and how it was perceived during his father’s time was not good, and he didn’t want Casey involved with that.”
Koehler has assembled a stellar cast of characters for interviews for the movie and plans to get to work on that as soon as possible.
“We’re pretty close to being able to start some interviews and our lineup of commitments we have is pretty incredible: Charlie Daniels, Baxter Black, Gale Warner, who is one of the top rodeo historians, Larry Mahan, who is a living (rodeo) legend, the actor Buck Taylor, stuntman Dean Smith, (world champion saddle bronc rider) Jeff Willert … people that will really help to tell this story."
Koehler hopes to scrape together enough funding to get some early interviews done to put out a preview that is known as a sizzle reel. That will hopefully ramp up interest in the film.
“My hope is that if we can get some of the interviews done and put out a sizzle reel that people will see that and say, ‘Oh, Charlie Daniels is in this movie about Casey Tibbs?’ and kind of get some excitement built up,” Koehler said.