"Ocean of Grass" — Meeting the Fans

Georg Joutras, director of "Ocean of Grass" playing this week at Alliance's Geju Theatre, talks to area residents Saturday at the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center  as he signs movie posters.

Independent Film Lets Audience Step Onto Custer Co. Ranch

Alliance has been called an “Oasis in the Sandhills.” ‘The description is etched in stone on three welcome signs. Drive 15 miles east or south and the stabilized sand dunes rise, leaving irrigated fields behind. Ranching weaves a key strand into the economy, culture and heritage of the area.

Want to experience the Sandhills — buy a ranch, become a hired hand, help at a branding or two. Or, simply buy a ticket to “Ocean of Grass” showing downtown this week. The McGinn family is there on the historic screen — experience a year on a Custer County, Neb., ranch.

Showings of the documentary will reach 100 this month. Development of “Oceans” was a more than three-year process starting with preliminary cinematography (January 2014) through secondary post-production “tweaks and improvements” (November 2017). Director Georg Joutras states in a film/history status listing on his website that the film, his first, screened to a sold-out audience at the Kansas, City FilmFest on April 15, 2018.

“I would say in my opinion, a majority of Nebraskan's know about the Sandhills, but a minority of that same group have ever been out among the 19,300 square miles of the Sandhills Region with the exception of driving thru it to another destination such as South Dakota or Wyoming,” he said.

From Ogallala, Joutras is familiar with this end of the state. He even played golf at districts during high school at SkyView golf course. Since then, though, he has driven through Alliance without spending much time here.

Joutras has not been a part of every showing for his film. Alliance has been among the communities he has spent time in as part of his one-man promotion and distribution process. “Ocean of Grass,” debuted on the GeJu (Alliance) Theater with two shows Friday evening, Jan. 18. The next day people had two opportunities to met him — at the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center in the afternoon then a question and answer session following after the movie.

Mentioning during a T-H interview at the museum that he had been about everywhere in Nebraska, the Sandhills have captivated his for years.

Asked about memorable times on the road, he said, “Getting up every morning and seeing what palette Nature would provide that day was always memorable. Being out among the hills, the cattle, spending time reminiscing with Mike McGinn while calling cows to feed was always a highlight, seeing the care in which all the McGinn's extended to the animals in their stead was also memorable. As I've said during my q&a sessions after many of the film screenings, there are a lot of happy cows out there.”

“It (‘Ocean of Grass’) started as a result of being gifted a small GoPro camera back in 2014. From there, I decided to head back out to the ranch, which I had been visiting since 2003, and shoot some video. I honestly never thought anything would come of those efforts,” Joutras said. “I ended up creating a film trailer after about 4 months of shooting with the GoPro and a digital camera I also owned, and showed it some folks. They encouraged me to continue the process of creating a documentary film about this special place on our planet. Over the course of the first year, I captured all aspects of the ranch operation, and upgraded my equipment as I went along. Then, after that first year, I invested in a cinema-quality 4K video camera. The quality from this professional-grade camera was so much better than what I had already shot, I decided to take another year and reshoot everything.”

“ … the 4-year period it took to get the film to theaters was simply what it took to complete the film to my satisfaction. I enjoy grinding on the film edits and color grading to get just the look and feel I intuitively knew I wanted the film to have.”

The 22 months after filming wrapped was spent in post-processing requirements — editing, color correcting, sound design, creating captions, and having a score written for the film by noted-Nebraska composer Tom Larson, he said.

Flying over the Sandhills in a fixed-wing aircraft cattle dot seemingly-endless hills near shadows of windmills lengthening with the day. Hangars sit beside historic ranch houses and shop buildings. Audiences taking in the film see the McGinn ranch from the same view that the family has in years past while checking their herds.

This ranch is like others in its family history (four to five generations since Homesteading days) and its shift to Black Angus cattle from Herefords, the predominant breed decades ago. Beyond that this family is as unique as any other. On his website, cast and crew bios label the two senior brothers the “The Elder” and “The Partner.” While the action and scenes mirror ranch life over about a year, Joutras develops each family member’s role and personality as well as interviews with those who have known them for years. On Saturday he described the ranch as more than a place to live for hired hands that often retire there. After the film began to spread to theatres in Nebraska, as well as locations in Wyoming and Colorado (so far) he heard from a ranch hand that worked with the McGinn’s 70 years ago.

“Definitely it could have documented any number of Sandhills ranches, but the McGinn Ranch is somewhat unique and lent itself to the making of the film because I knew the folks at the ranch for 11 years before I ever started shooting video,” the filmmaker explained. “That advantage allowed me to be embedded in the day to day operations of the ranch, and more or less be forgotten about as the ranchers went about the daily chores required to keep a 130+ year Sandhills ranch running. They allowed me to help out with daily chores, ones that I could not mess up too bad such as checking water, running pastures, and feeding, and when there was something I wanted to document with my cameras, I would immediately switch into cinematographer mode.”

Having known the McGinn's for over a decade before starting the film gave Joutras an intimate understanding of the family dynamics, the relationships with neighbors and friends, and a feel for the area.  “I produced a book on the ranch in 2007 titled ‘A Way of Life,’ which still may be found out in internet,” he said. bookstores occasionally. The book, while giving a glimpse of the ranch and the people who call the region home, did not fully captured the feeling of the place.

“You only get one chance to do it right, he emphasized, and by that point Joutras was “feeling quite confident there was a story here that would resonant with folks, so I committed to that process.”

As a result of “Ocean” being seen out in the world, he has had the opportunity to work on three other film projects to date. 

- “Untold Stories of Route 66, Women on the Mother Road,” and “Becoming Galactic - the alien encounters of Sherry West” (both in production)

- “Debt of Honor, the Saturday Writers Workshops of Donald Freed”

Of note, he said, nothing in the film was staged: it all happened as it occurred.

Asked if "the feeling of contentment and being one with our planet" (a quote from his website) is something a casual visitor can gain or if an individual needs to spend more time/live in the Sandhills to experience that feeling, he replied:

“Certainly, one can appreciate the stark and subtle beauty of the Sandhills just by driving through the area” But it really does take some extended time visiting and interacting with the landscapes, at the ranches, and the population of the region to get an intimate connection with these important lands.”

Talking a family friends he has not seen in a few year, at the museum Saturday, Jourtras said he hopes the film has a life in theatres of 10 years.

“The reaction from audiences has been nothing short of phenomenal. They seem to be drawn into the story and lives of these ranchers, the stunning scenic quality of the film, and the authenticity that permeates Ocean of Grass,” Jourtras commented. He has heard from “uncountable folks” that they have seen the film multiple times and continue to bring friends and family members to view it.

“There are cheers, tears, introspection, laughter … the response really does run the gamut of emotions. People are getting out of the film exactly what I hoped they would.”

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