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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

An Interview with Andrew Renzi and Tylee Abbott of FISHTAIL

Andrew Renzi (right) and Tylee Abbott (left)
Photo credit: Joshua Handler
An Interview with Andrew Renzi and
Tylee Abbott of FISHTAIL
By Joshua Handler

Andrew Renzi's Fishtail was one of my favorite movies at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.  A meditation on the modern American West, it is a work that won't be for everyone, but those who take it for what it is will be mesmerized.  The documentary follows Renzi's friend Tylee Abbott and his fellow ranchers on the Fishtail Ranch in Montana during calving season.  Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Renzi and Abbott to discuss the film.

Abbot's parents have had the ranch since he was young and Abbott and Renzi have known each other since they were four years of age.  In high school, Renzi came to the ranch.  Years passed, but "We wanted to do a project together and the ranch is clearly a great subject," said Abbott.

"For me, I went out there one summer…and worked with Tylee's family and the ranchers out there and…had this amazing sort of feeling like 'I have to come back here' and Tylee and I both went our professional ways and he [went] every single year...for calving season.  When we decided that we were going to try to do something together it was just the natural thing for us to do together," said Renzi.

Fishtail celebrates the American West and the modern-day cowboys that work in it.  According to Abbott, "[o]ne of the big things for us with the movie was to honor this tradition of the American West that's kind of dying and falling in by the wayside slightly and also honor the tradition of Western American art and Western American film. For me, the movie was all about nostalgia and I think it was the best way for us to capture it.

"As a kid, I grew up going to the West and developing a real appreciation, a real respect, a real reverence for the West, but the characters of the west, you know these individuals, they go about their business with honesty, and integrity, and commitment, and they never look for praise, they never have qualms or problems.  There's such integrity to it, and to me that's what the American West embodies, that's why I continue to try to celebrate it by...doing a project like this."

According to Renzi, Fishtail was never just a documentary.  Because his background is in narrative filmmaking, Renzi treated creating Fishtail the same way as if he was making a narrative.  Cinematographer Joe ... and Renzi even created a shot list and planned out the shoot ahead of time.

"The great thing about [Fishtail] is that I was able to really employ...the skill set that I had been learning as a narrative filmmaker - I knew that we wanted to shoot film, so already right there was sort of this 'well its not really a documentary because we're shooting film'.  There's not that many docs shooting film so I knew that we could compose the shots very highly, we could really control the shot composition because the great thing about the subject is that there never had to be a manipulation of it because they have a routine. So, me and Joe [Anderson] could decide where we were going to be with the camera while they did their thing and so there's a real seamless blend of what I would do in a narrative and what a documentary is. I didn't know if I was making a documentary or narrative honestly," said Renzi.

While mystical in many ways, Fishtail shows the harsh realities of living in the West; it is a demystification of the West and the American cowboy.  Abbot said, "The people that live in the West and that work in the West, they're real people and they are larger than life and they're normal simple [people] living lives.  It's not necessary to kind of create some fantasy, some fictional Marlboro Cowboy.  This is real and they're beautiful and the documentary just shows that beautiful way of life in and of itself in a very pure way."

I finally asked Renzi what the West meant to him.  He responded, "For me it's pretty straightforward: it's something that I want that for some reason I can't have, and it's this place and its this way of life. I wish I could be the type of person that's just like 'I'm going to go live in a ranch in Montana and I'm going to be a rancher for the rest of my life' but I'm not, I'm not that person but i wish so badly that I could be that that's what it's something so out of my body, but I think it's in my spirit."

The American West is still a myth to many, immortalized in the numerous films made over the past century.  While Fishtail is a demystification, it is still a romantic vision.  With its gritty narration by Harry Dean Stanton, grainy, picturesque cinematography, and epic, yet still intimate scope, Fishtail is a stunning eulogy to a dying culture.  It does not currently have a U.S. distributor.

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