Girls (and boys) on film

Area filmmakers bring skipping cowboys and ‘ripping’ female athletes to the Tahoe International Film Festival

The sun is low on the horizon, and the desert landscape stretches as far as the eye can see in panoramic, sepia-toned splendor. Two grizzled, dirty cowboys sit around a fire, staring off into the distance and wordlessly eating beans.

After a few stunted attempts at conversation about the beans, the older cowboy asks a pivotal question:

“You remember when we used to skip?”

“Skip what?”

“No, no, skip. Like skippin', like hoppin’ around, like when we was younguns.”

The younger cowboy fixes the older man with a scowl. His feelings on the matter are summed up neatly a minute later:

“We’re sittin’ around a campfire. You ain’t supposed to be thinking about when you was some little shit hoppin’ around in the grass. For God’s sake, you’re a cowboy! Born in the saddle. You’ll die with your boots on. … This is embarrassing.”

Thus begins The Last Real Cowboys, a short film envisioned, produced and directed by 46-year-old Jeff Lester. Lester is one of several area filmmakers showing their work at the Tahoe International Film Festival, which will be held at various North Shore locations Sept. 27-Oct. 2.

Among the filmmakers are two Tahoe residents, Sky Rondenet and Tiffany Sabol, of XX Productions, who will show 7 Girls, a film made up of footage of world-champion women surfers riding the waves and talking about their sport.

Though both companies produce independent films, the fruits of their labor are as different as apples and oranges, as are the circumstances that got them to where they are today.

The Last Real Cowboys is Lester’s first film. In his former incarnation as an actor, you may have seen him in NBC’s Walking Tall or the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, among others. Now, Lester and his wife, actress Susan Anton, co-own a Las Vegas-based production company called Big Picture Studios. In addition to original programming on Discovery’s Travel Channel and Robert Redford’s Sundance Channel, the company has produced award-winning commercials for the Sahara Hotel and Casino and All-American SportPark.

For The Last Real Cowboys, Lester envisioned an old-time spaghetti Western with a contemporary message. The result is 12 minutes of funny, poignant filmmaking.

“What I really wanted to do,” Lester says, “is go back to a point in history where men, in particular … where they kind of lost that ability to be children—to be silly, and to kind of do what they did so easily as children before culture took them over and said, ‘You can’t do that. You’ll look like a sissy, or you’ll look silly.’

“We have this information that the West, through our movies, looked a particular way. It’s always, like, the cowboys don’t smile, and it’s very serious, and everybody gets killed, and everybody wears a gun, and it’s all very down the line. And I really wanted to get into this whole thing of, like, what if somebody said, ‘God, I’m just dying here! I can’t live like this anymore.’ “

Actor/writer/director Billy Bob Thornton and the ubiquitous character actor Mickey Jones, who are both friends of Lester’s, play the film’s central characters. Jones has played cowboys and bikers in just about every TV show ever made, including a recurring role on Tim Allen’s Home Improvement. Both actors worked together previously on Thornton’s Academy Award-winning film, Sling Blade.

Lester also got a helping hand from director of photography Peter Smokler, whose credits include the movie This is Spinal Tap and many TV shows. A couple of local actors were recruited for the film’s final scene, and many of the crews that worked with Lester at Big Picture Studios pitched in as well.

“God bless all of them, because we couldn’t really have made it without people coming along and doing favors. It would have cost six times as much,” Lester says. “So everybody came and worked for free, and we did it on a weekend, and we really made a cool little film.”

While Lester was filming his New Age Western in the desert about an hour outside of Vegas, ex-pro snowboarders Sky Rondenet, 28, and Tiffany Sabol, 29, were trekking the globe gathering footage for their first multi-sport film, Empress.

“It was basically a movie to inspire girls to go out and surf, snowboard, skate, just to go have some fun and not be intimidated,” Rondenet says. “You know, those are all male-dominated sports. We just wanted to let girls know that there are other girls out there ripping, and that they should go out and rip, too, and have fun.”

After a favorable reaction to Empress, Rondenet and Sabol formed XX Productions—a reference to the female sex chromosomes, not pornography. They have since made three more films: Our Turn, another multi-sport film, 7 Girls, which features professional female surfers, and Hardly Angels, which showcases some of the world’s best female snowboarders. All of the films feature a killer soundtrack—Our Turn won Best Soundtrack at the 2001 Sundance X-Dance Film Festival—and all focus on live footage of female athletes doing what they do best.

“These girls are just special creatures,” Rondenet says. “You know, they’re talented, they’re worldly, they’re interesting, [and] they’re smart. … I mean, every minute I spend with these girls, it just makes me feel so stoked that I’m doing what I’m doing, because they’re really awesome, and they’re really sweet, and they motivate me to keep making these movies, because if we don’t, no one else is going to promote them, and they’re amazing athletes. It would be a shame to have them go unrecognized.”

Rondenet recalls how tough it was for her when she was a professional snowboarder.

“It was difficult, definitely,” she says. “A lot of it is who you know and where you are at that time. If you get the backing financially, you can do a lot more with your career. So if you don’t have the financial support, then you can’t do as much. It was frustrating, definitely.”

Despite the hardships, Rondenet says she and Sabol hope that their films encourage more young girls to give sports a try.

“I think it’s growing. The numbers are growing rapidly,” Rondenet says. “Especially girls who don’t do those sports, they see these movies, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so sick! I’d love to do that too.’ And I think it just kind of helps motivate them to go try it.”

While Big Picture Studios and XX Productions have both made independent films that will appear at the Tahoe International Film Festival, the two companies are miles apart in other respects. Lester is a Hollywood veteran; Rondenet and Sabol are self-taught film novices. Lester already owns a professional studio and has plenty of industry contacts willing to lend a hand; Rondenet and Sabol rely heavily on sponsorship dollars and credit cards, and they shoot all of the footage themselves.

Given the vast differences in their working conditions, it’s not surprising that Lester and Rondenet offer different opinions on indie films. Lester’s exuberance about the genre, especially short films, is obvious. He says independent films are a great form of freedom of speech in the movie industry, which is often criticized for caring less about the art than about the bottom line.

“You’re not doing it because you’re going to get a distribution deal. You’re doing it because you have something to say,” he says. “I think that shorts are great, because they’re so pure—they’re honestly so pure—because there’s only one reason to do them, I think, and that’s because you have something to say. Just to go, ‘I have an idea, and I really want to express it through a film.’ And it’s a great format to do it in. I think it’s the purest form of the art.

“I think that what’s really great about short films, and what’s great about independent films, is there’s really an opportunity to say it exactly as you want to say it. You can go out and make the film that you really want to make, and really say what you want to say.”

Although Rondenet also expresses a love for indie films, the weariness and stress that this venture has caused is evident in her voice. In its third year, XX Productions has yet to make a profit. If video sales don’t pull them through this winter, the women may have to call it quits, even though they love what they’re doing.

“I think independent films show your passion, because it’s not something you really do for the money,” Rondenet says. “I mean, Tiff and I haven’t made a penny off of these films. It’s just something you do because you love it.

“It’s like a torturous passion, because you work and you slave, and you have these highs and lows constantly, where you think you’re gonna make it, and then you don’t, and then you’re struggling, and then you’re happy. It’s an emotional roller coaster. So I don’t really know. It’s really confusing for us. Like, we love what we’re doing, but at the same time, we can’t afford to do it. … You just hang on, you know? We’re struggling artists, just like anyone else. But I love that passion. You just do it because you love it."