From the Caprock Canyons of the Texas Panhandle to below the surface of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Galveston, Texas has a diverse landscape home to creatures not found anywhere else. But the makers of a new feature-length documentary say Texas never before been explored in a nature film for the big screen.
Ben Masters wrote and directed “Deep in the Heart.” He says film is how he likes to bring others into his love of nature and call to take care of it.
“I believe film is the most powerful form of media that there is to take people to a place, and hear the birds, and see the sights, and create empathy, or have an emotion, and have music and present information,” Masters said.
Masters says “Deep in the Heart” opens purposefully with a story about bringing buffalo back from the brink of extinction and ends with a call to action.
“That’s the beautiful thing about where we are right now in the conservation movement in Texas. There’s never been a time where there’s more need, but there’s also so much opportunity,” Masters said.
Hear from Masters via the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Why hasn’t anyone made a wildlife film about Texas for the big screen before?
Ben Masters: I don’t know why nobody’s ever made a Texas centric wildlife film before in the past, because we really do have some of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles on Earth. I don’t know why it’s taken this long.
What was the inspiration for you?
So, for me, this idea first started in 2014. I went up with a friend of mine, Skip Hobbie, who became the director of photography for the film. There was this horrible blizzard coming down and we went up to Caprock Canyons State Park and filmed the Texas state buffalo herd and it was my first time to ever see that. There was snow blowing and these buffalo, they were just hanging out, taking the full force of the storm. And as we were looking through the footage that night, we were just talking about how amazing it is that we still have buffalo because they were almost entirely wiped out with the exception of just a handful of individuals, and how amazing that whole story is about how they recovered and how we have this state bison herd.
That really planted the seed of making a movie, not just about buffalo, but about many different Texas wildlife species, our role in conserving them, destroying them, and kind of our place in how they’re managed and how we can support a Texas where wildlife and people can both thrive. And here we are, seven years later. We’ve got the movie getting ready to launch and it’s been an amazing passion project. I’m really proud of it.
How did you get Matthew McConaughey to narrate the film?
We took about three years to make the movie. Some of the sequences took a year to film, the mountain lion and ocelot in particular. So, once we had about two-thirds of the movie filmed, we were able to put together a rough cut. Then, I just Googled Matthew’s agent, gave him a call and was like, “Hey, I’ve got this wildlife movie. Matthew is from Texas, and he cares about this kind of stuff. Will he narrated it?” We sent him the rough cut, and it was the next day, he called me back and was like, “Matthew loves it, he’s in, let’s go.”
Do you see yourself first as a filmmaker or as someone who is concerned about conservation?
I come from a ranching background, that’s what I did growing up. We grew up in a ranching family up in Amarillo. But I’ve always been really fascinated by wildlife. That’s what I studied whenever I went to college. I went to Texas A&M and studied at the wildlife school and got into film after that. So, for me, I certainly consider myself a filmmaker, but that’s not so much because making film is my passion. I believe film is the most powerful form of media that there is to take people to a place, and hear the birds, and see the sights, and create empathy, or have an emotion, and have music and present information. It’s just such a profound way to experience something. And that’s what’s drawn me to movies.
It’s also a team sport. And I really like working with team sports and it’s fun because you’ve got all these different brains doing different little roles and it all comes together. It’s a really rewarding process.
How did you balance telling these compelling stories without making it feel like you are hitting someone over the head with a conservation message?
It was very difficult to find the right balance of emotions in the film. If you look at where we’re at in the world, we have a changing climate. We have species loss. I feel like you see it every day in the news and it’s so depressing sometimes that it’s numbing. Like nobody wants to see that, even if it’s the truth. And also, why harp on those types of emotions and that type of depressing storytelling whenever there’s also these amazing stories of hope? And that’s what I think plays prevalently in “Deep in the Heart.”
We need to acknowledge these travesties that have occurred in the past and some of these ways to improve right now in the current. But if we look at the history of Texas, it is full of really amazing stories, oftentimes of just a handful of individuals that were able to accomplish some really phenomenal conservation success stories. And we focus that prominently throughout the film.
Coming back to the buffalo, one of Texas’ earliest conservation visionaries, Molly and Charles Goodnight, they watched these bison just get slaughtered by the millions and they were like, “You know what? No, that is an animal that belongs here. We’re going to save them.” They went out and collected the last few stragglers. People thought they were crazy. And look at the gift that they’ve given us today where those five individuals are now so populated that they’re looking at expanding into different state parks and they’re giving them to ranchers that are private landowners that are starting new bison herds.
So, in the film, there’s a lot of stories of hope. And that’s the beautiful thing about where we are right now in the conservation movement in Texas. There’s never been a time where there’s more need, but there’s also so much opportunity. And whenever you watch the film at the end, there’s this call to action of like, here’s how you can get involved. No matter where you are in the state, your watershed, your river, there’s an organization that is involved and taking care of that river. There’s a lot of things that we can do, which is great, because if we couldn’t do [anything] then that would be super depressing. But that’s not the case.