Conor Allyn’s film about paralyzed barrel racer Amberley Snyder releases on Netflix March 8.
Director Conor Allyn (Java Heat, Pocket Listing with Rob Lowe and the late Burt Reynolds) has been living in L.A. now for almost four years, but that doesn’t mean he’s turned in his Lone Star State credentials. “Once a Texan, always a Texan,” says the former Dallasite in an interview in advance of the release of his film Walk. Ride. Rodeo. Out on Netflix March 8, the movie tells the inspirational story of paralyzed barrel racer Amberley Snyder.
We talked with Allyn about making the movie and working with Amberley Snyder.
Cowboys & Indians: What attracted you to the Walk. Ride. Rodeo. project?
Conor Allyn: Obviously the story. I think the crux of any good story or movie is its protagonist. In this case, you had a young woman who was exceptional already before her accident. In a very normal moment, the mistake she made in terms of how the accident happened, anybody could do. It was not a deer jumping out in the road. It was just a mistake a teenage driver made of not quite paying attention. In a moment, her life was in ruins.
Everyone can relate to the momentary distraction, near-miss, etc.
And I was drawn in by Amberley herself. She wouldn’t take no for an answer in terms of her recovery. I was incredibly moved by that. I had just had my first child a few months before reading the first script, so I related from the aspect of a parent, too.
Amberley’s mom is another character. As a new parent, I was crushed by the script but relieved that Amberley helped her parents out of the situation and the strength of her mom raised her up. The two dug themselves out together. Amberley went on to do something more exceptional than she would have if she’d had the use of her legs.
From a personal perspective also, I think every actor and director looks for exciting challenges in their work. It can be difficult to work with animals, but it’s an exciting challenge. This story is filled with horse work and rodeo. There’s a lot of action. Rodeo itself attracted me. I grew up in Dallas, and I’ve been to many rodeos. It not a sport that gets lots of a Friday Night Lights treatment. It such an exciting sport and so passionately loved by its followers. The opportunity to get to work in that space was amazing.
C&I: How did the film and your involvement in it come about?
Allyn: The biggest component was the dogged determination of protagonist Amberley Snyder. She pitched it to a production company. Originally her life story was optioned by Desert Wind, but nothing came of it. Some producers I’d worked with on a Lifetime original movie called Zoe Gone — Sean Dwyer and Elizabeth Cullen — had heard about Amberley. Elizabeth’s family lives in Colorado; they’re very horsey and into rodeo. Sean and Elizabeth and their company, Poke Productions, were looking for next thing. They like inspirational stories. They agreed to option her life rights. Sean’s a producer but also a really great writer. He showed it to me two years ago. Sean and Elizabeth, like Amberley, had dogged determination to get this amazing story told.
We eventually got it in front of Netflix and they pretty immediately said, “Let’s do this.” I remember Sean calling me on a Tuesday that they had a little interest from Netflix. Within 48 hours he had a deal based on her life rights.
The funny thing about this industry and a story like this, you can have an amazing story and have people go nuts on it and then it could take 5, 6, 10, 20 years for it to be developed from script to having the right people connecting at right time in the right environment. In this case, Amberley’s accident was more than eight years ago. The first production company optioned her life rights five or six years ago and nothing happened for a while. I’m pretty sure Sean and Elizabeth showed Netflix last February; in March we knew we were making a movie. In June we were nailing down locations and casting. By July we were shooting.
We shot whole thing in New Mexico, in and around Santa Fe, except for a few days in and around a big arena in Albuquerque.
C&I: Talk a little bit about making the movie. What were some of the standout things about where and how it was filmed?
Allyn: What jumps to mind immediately goes back to Amberley — the level to which she and her family were involved in the movie was really exceptional. We were able to do everything at such a better level because of her and their involvement. Amberley did all of her own riding and stunt work. For everything before the accident, her sister, Autumn, was the stuntwoman. And then for the scenes after the accident, when Amberley had no use of her legs, Amberley did all that on her own horse Power.
Just from an execution standpoint, no stunt person in the world could do that job — to run these barrels but let your legs flap around ... you can’t do it. It would be impossible. If Amberley hadn’t been down to do that, we wouldn’t’ have been able to get those scenes.
Amberley really is photogenic. She’s gorgeous; her sister is gorgeous; they look like each other. So you’ve got two accomplished barrel racers who look alike. And we had the actress Spencer Locke playing Amberley. She really threw herself into it. All three of them have beautiful, long blond hair. They look like beautiful mirrored images of one another. To have three people playing the same role with dedication was amazing. They just took the film to another level. Without that it would have been a much lesser picture.
C&I: Were any particular scenes especially challenging physically, logistically, emotionally? Why were they tough?
Allyn: Amberley was on the rodeo circuit while we were shooting. She’d be with us Monday through Friday; then she’d drive to a rodeo for the weekend. It was a tough schedule and a lot to ask. She wanted to be there as much as possible.
But the scene of the accident in particular was tough. That’s playing out the worst day of someone’s life in front of them. I would never tell her she couldn’t be there for the filming of it. She’s not someone you tell what to do. She doesn’t need your protection. But did she really want to see it? We talked about it. It’s also a film-crew issue: Every time you pull off a big action scene, the crew claps, but that would be weird if she were there witnessing it.
Amberley decided to pass on being on set that day. Other than that, she was there almost every day of the shoot making sure we were authentic.
In addition to being a stunt person playing herself, she was our rodeo expert. The dialogue is really how rodeo people speak. How they are portrayed in the film is how they dress, how they walk, how they treat their animals.
This movie has to stand up to expert scrutiny. We want the experts to be able to watch and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s darn well-done.”
C&I: How about aspects that were really gratifying?
Allyn: Easy. I’ve done lots of movies. This is maybe the 10th I’ve directed. I have never made a movie that I am so proud of, particularly to show my own kids. I knew that from the script. Most movies these days are thrillers. Before this, I’d never made a movie without a gun in it. There’s nothing wrong with action movies. But this movie is whole other level of gratification. I’m proud to show it to my kids. It means more than entertainment. It’s more than laughs and cries and thrills. But it has that too: It’s thrilling, emotional, but ultimately you walk away feeling better about yourself, human nature, the world. You come away inspired.
C&I: Had you ever worked with horses before? What was that like?
Allyn: We never owned horses when I was growing up, but I’d been riding dozens of times. We have a small family home in Colorado and we’d ride. I always loved horses. My childhood room was cowboy-themed, but I didn’t really know the rodeo world.
On the set, the lead actress did a good amount of training before the movie started. She took riding lessons. She’d been on horse before, but she really wanted her riding to look good. On set, we had a really accomplished horse trainer, Bobby Lovgren [War Horse, The Lone Ranger, Seabiscuit].
We have Amberley’s horse Power and a couple of trained movie horses who look just like him. One of the horses played the War Horse war horse. Having these highly trained horses let us do things we couldn’t have otherwise.
These horses can look at you on command, can move from A to B and hit their marks, can pick up a brush with their mouth, can get up on hind legs. Power is an actor in this movie. He can get out and run the barrels, and the others can take over the actual acting roles where they need to show emotion or do things on command.
C&I: How about Amberley? What was it like meeting her, seeing her ride, and working with her?
Allyn: I think if you’re in the business, you can take for granted how much there is to know about the process. That’s not her life. She’s totally new to this. She’s no doubt a quick study of anything. Like any professional athlete, she can excel in just about anything. Lately, she’s been doing a lot of motivational speaking. On our set, she was presented for the first time with how movies are made, how she fit in that process, and how she could help make the movie the best it could be. It was definitely something she figured out in about 24 hours on set.
C&I: What kinds of special accommodations on set did you have to have to work with a paralyzed actor?
Allyn: Surprisingly few. We had a preproduction meeting about providing access to bathrooms, transportation from base camp to set so that she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. She’s one of our stars, but Amberley is not precious like that. She did not need or want special treatment. She’s game to not act like she’s in a wheelchair. She doesn’t want special treatment.
Particularly when she was up on the horse, I would forget she’s paralyzed. She’d need help getting up, but then she was just up on a horse. I would find myself totally forgetting, and crew members would mention it too. That was one of the amazing things: It was all about not being handicapped, even if you’re stuck in a wheelchair. Your attitude determines what you can do.
Anytime Amberley was doing her riding or practicing a scene and she would go run the barrels, if she was rehearsing, you couldn’t not watch her do it. It really was magnetic. Even if you were trying to work on something else, everyone was just naturally pulled in to watching her run. There’s a woman we saw in a wheelchair a few minutes ago, and now she’s racing around barrels blowing us away. That never got old.
I’m very excited about releasing this movie because I think everyone will have that same feeling when they watch the movie.
C&I: Did you use any special techniques to capture the riding action on film?
Allyn: One of the special things we did in the movie — and this is technical — was that on a couple of the rodeo days, we had a phantom camera that can shoot 1,000 frames a second. That’s really, really, really slow. It’s slow enough that you can see the horse coming around the barrel like a motorcycle coming around a tight curve. The rider and horse are at a ridiculous angle to the ground, and the dirt is flying. The danger and thrill of the sport really come across. It really gives a sense of what it’s like to be on that horse doing that. It’s pretty jaw-dropping.
C&I: Amberley’s story is sad but powerfully inspirational. What’s your take on how the movie will play to audiences?
Allyn: It’s trite to say “resilience of the human spirit,” but that really is what the movie is about. We have a line in the movie that’s borrowed from one of Amberley’s motivational speeches: “You don’t get to make every decision in your life, but you do get to decide your attitude.”
Here’s someone who had everything that was important to her, in terms of direction she wanted to go, taken away. She could have succumbed to that and become a different person.
But with perseverance and help and the love of those around her, she decided not to give up and just proceeded. And in proceeding, she has accomplished so much more.
If she was just a barrel racer, we would not be talking now; there’d be no movie. Instead she’s a successful motivational speaker who has changed lives and helped other people through real difficulties. She’d done a lot more as a racer who has to deal with a wheelchair.
At the end of the day, this is about overcoming the accident and how it made her a better person.
Photography: Courtesy Netflix