"If it stands still long enough, I'm going to shoot it."
Ranchero is, to me, a film about willful stasis and the courage it takes to break old, entrenched habits. Apathy, entropy, and the slow dissolution of hope and self can become so familiar and routine that we sometimes find a sort of sick comfort in its dire predictability. We've all been in dead–end jobs, bad relationships, poor living conditions, etc. and had that feeling of hopelessness — the sense that where you're at is where you're doomed to remain. In that dark place, people can convince themselves that they somehow deserve what fate has thrust upon them.
It is also a film about legacies — individual, familial and cultural — and about the sacrifices made by those who came before us. It is about acknowledging these debts while being free to pursue individual dreams at the potential cost of tradition and parental expectation.
Ranchero presents several unsuccessful options for escaping these situations. Characters disappear into drugs, will themselves to remain childlike, or affect the signifiers of a romanticized past. When Jesse, the main character, leaves the ranch for the city after the death of his father, he must decide if he will allow the weight of history to hold him forever fixed in time or if he can take the steps necessary to become an active participant in his new life. He must also negotiate new relationships: reconnecting with his old friend Tom while tentatively reaching out to his new neighbor Lil' Bit, and finding a place for himself in Los Angeles — a city that doesn't always live up to its idealized image. Each of these characters must find a way out of the darkness — each working to overcome his or her own weaknesses, to get out of the shadows of the past, and find direction in a harsh, chaotic world.
When Brian Johnson showed me his script for Ranchero, the damaged but dynamic characters immediately intrigued me, and we both wanted to see them fully realized on film. I was fortunate enough to work with a great crew who enthusiastically helped to create a stylized urban universe. Los Angeles as depicted in Ranchero is bright but lonely, a town where our protagonists are decidedly on the outside of opportunity. From the intentionally simplified interiors to the avoidance of recognizable L.A. landmarks, we worked hard to present a non–traditional version of an often–stereotyped city.
This is a film about a photographer and I wanted the story to be seen through his eyes. Shooting in strict, rigidly composed frames and only breaking free when the scenes became chaotic or unstable, D.P. Michael Bratkowski and I collaborated to achieve a very specific visual design. Later, with editor Don Burton, I was able to expand on this idea — at times, jumping from "portraiture" to "landscape" in a single cut to establish Jesse's simultaneous involvement with and separation from the events and personalities depicted. The camera itself is a character in "Ranchero." It reflects Jesse's evolution and point of view. I wanted the audience to be aware of the frames within a frame, to be gradually drawn in to the film along with our protagonist.
Throughout rehearsals and production, I was privileged to work with a talented ensemble of actors who portrayed their luckless, struggling characters with dignity and considered nuance. Independent films are notorious for challenging conditions and tight shooting schedules. Our cast was always prepared, quick thinking and ready to adapt to overcome any and all obstacles encountered.
I had a great time working with everyone on this film. We worked long hours (many of us also working day or night shifts at our regular jobs throughout the shoot). There were cold nights on the ranch location when we slept on bare floors, and sweltering days spent tripping over each other in a cramped Valley apartment full of equipment. There were times where I'm sure every person on the set questioned his or her own sanity and/ or career choice. We struggled toward a common goal and I think we achieved it. It was never easy but it was always worth it.
Ranchero is a cowboy song. A simple, melancholy film. A film about stagnancy and loneliness but also about hope.
— Richard Kaponas