Suzanne Mitchell: Telling the Epic Story of an Epic Life

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Suzanne Mitchell has already had a long and storied career as a filmmaker, winning two Emmy Awards, two Gracie Awards, and an Omni Intermedia award. It’s just usually been as a producer, often in partnership with longtime collaborator and Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple. But Mitchell’s directorial feature debut, over twenty years in the making, comes out this weekend, and it’s a doozy. It’s the story of Dayton Hyde, a man who at various points in his life had been a soldier, a rodeo clown and rodeo photographer, a bullfighter, an author, and a friend of Slim Pickens. Not satisfied with that resume, at age sixty-five he used his personal credit cards and a government sponsored loan to buy 11,000 acres of prairie land in the Black Hills as a wild mustang sanctuary. Simply put, Running Wild is the epic story of an epic life.

Mitchell is so passionate about Hyde’s life, and so articulate, and the story of the project being born so good, that we’re bringing it to you in her uninterrupted words, just as we heard it. Running Wild hits theatres on October 4th.

“I was doing television for most of my career when I got called in 1992 to produce a two hour special for ABC News for the twentieth anniversary of People magazine. And People is a weekly, so that’s twenty years of weekly issues to look through for six months in a sequestered room at the top of the Time Life Building on Sixth Avenue, and you want to just slit your wrists if you read another story about Celine Dion, or whoever.

“So I started gravitating towards those real people stories, and I decided to start lobbying the Executive Producers to let me go out and do the bulk of those, which were going to be reduced down to two minute pieces that would go into the bumper breaks into commercial. And I saw this tiny little piece about Dayton Hyde, written in 1988 when he was starting the horse sanctuary. He was sitting on a big porch of the ranch home that he left behind in Oregon, and then there was another pictures with all of these wild running horses. And I just thought, this is where I have to go. This is where I want to go; I want to see wild horses!

“We shot most of these stories in two days each, but I left five days for this shoot. So we were out there for five days, alone with this guy. And to get to the other side of the sanctuary takes literally ours. You were spending a lot of time in a truck, with a cowboy who’s telling you stories. And some of the stories were really amazing. And I realized I had met a guy who had a larger story to tell. Listen, wild horses are a huge issue in this country right now, and he was ahead of his time on that in 1992, but he has a lifelong passion for saving this planet, and it was all those stories that he involved himself in throughout his life that really resonated with me.

“At the end of the shoot, we pull away from the sanctuary, my cinematographer and me, who have at that point known each other ten years, have been around the world and met an awful lot of people, and Dayton is sitting on a log sticking up out of the ground, giving us a little cowboy wave, and I just start bawling like a baby. I said, ‘I just think we just met the most amazing guy.’ And my cinematographer said, ‘We’ll come back. We’ll do something.’ So I tucked that in the back of my brain.

“Four years later, I’m working for Oprah Winfrey in Chicago. I’m seven months pregnant. And I get a call to come back to New York and produce a special for the Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple. It was a really quick turnaround; we had about two and a half months in the field, which works out perfectly when you’re seven months pregnant!

“We were doing a piece about Gail Sheehy’s book New Passages, which talks about how in your twenties you do this, in your thirties you do that, etc. And the new part of the book was that the World War II generation was reinventing themselves. So as a producer I had to pitch Barbara some stories, and I told her about Dayton in 1992, and she told me to go for it. And now I was excited because instead of a two-minute, piece, I got to do a three minute piece!

“A few weeks later, here I am in the middle of this field, we’re trying to get a shot of these horses. You have to hide the cameraman behind a rock, hide the boom mic operator somewhere. There are all these wireless microphones set around, because you want to get that great sound, but you can’t let the horses see you, because they’re wild and they’ll go the other way. So we hide everybody but me, and Dayton goes to the other side of this ravine, and he says, ‘All right, a hundred horses are going to come running straight at you. But don’t be scared. I promise you, they will not trample you.’

“They come running up, and they got very, very close to me, running full steam ahead. I remember I stood there all by myself in my overalls with my big pregnant stomach, and I thought, ‘God, I hope he’s right.’ And they stopped. And we got the shot. And then this six foot five cowboy comes over to my five foot frame, puts his arm around me, and says, ‘So, are you gonna name your kid after me?’

“We did. His middle name is Dayton. Seven years later, my son wanted to meet his namesake, so we went out there, and Dayton was at that point in his seventies. And I realized I really needed to start this film. Barbara Kopple, who has always been very supportive of me, said, ‘If you don’t start it, you’ll never finish it.’ And here we are, eleven years later.”

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