Growing up in Virginia, I remember reading the book Misty of Chincoteague about the wild horses of Assateague Island. I still haven’t gotten around to attending the annual Chincoteague Island swim, an item on my bucket list. I remembered Misty when I was sent a screening link for The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses, a new documentary from Virgil Entertainment and Steven Latham Productions.
The documentary focuses on the 80,000 mustangs, or wild horses, residing on federal lands in 10 western states here in the U.S. It premiered in theaters last month and will be available on VOD platforms beginning November 23. The film introduces viewers to the history of the wild horses, shares unique personal stories of amazing people interested in their future, and sends a reminder of why they need our protection.
Mustangs is executive produced by Robert Redford, Patti Scialfa Springsteen, and Jessica Springsteen, a USA Olympic Equestrian Silver Medalist. There’s music by Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and even a Diane Warren-penned track by Blanco Brown. The documentary is co-directed by Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley.
I had an opportunity to ask Latham, who also served as producer, more about the project. Latham is the President of Steven Latham Productions and an award-winning filmmaker. You may have seen his previous documentaries, including The Living Century, The Last Editor, and the Shelter Me series.
At the onset of our conversation, I was surprised to hear that Latham’s family owned a wild horse. Making a documentary about mustangs became an idea much later in life, when he was working on his Shelter Me series for PBS. “My family adopted a wild horse from Chincoteague, Virginia, so I grew up with one! We brought the horse from Virginia back to Massachusetts,” he said.
Prior to starting his own production company, Latham did time in affiliate relations at Universal Worldwide Television and then at PolyGram Television. His career also took him to working in publicity with Paramount Pictures before serving as an executive with Ketchum Communications and Grey Advertising. These experiences set him up well for developing excellent writing, pitching, and communication skills to use with talent, other creators, and financial representatives. These comprise part of the backbone of what he loves doing now as a producer-director: “true independent production from idea to distribution.”
With many programs under his belt about the animal-human bond, I asked Latham what’s important when it comes to filming animals, an activity he truly loves. Across his film portfolio, he’s told me, he’s covered stories about dogs trained in search and rescue, dogs aiding in conservation efforts in Zambia, and cats helping Alzheimer’s patients.
For Latham, the keys are passion, respect, and patience. The crew doesn’t use wranglers and handlers for animals that are uncooperative. “We never set up shots or say we’ve got to get this or that. I love showing what animals are doing or capable of. Whether you’re holding a neonatal kitten or standing near a thousand-pound horse, I personally bring a lot of joy into doing this. That element of joy really comes out,” he explained about his documentaries.
Latham also added, “If an animal is anxious, we back up. If we have drones, we make sure it’s not intrusive and flies a certain altitude. You need to go in and not be Hollywood.”
He enjoys making documentaries because of the opportunity to educate people, letting audiences have experiences and adventures they wouldn’t otherwise have had. That’s instrumental for exploring a little known topic like wild horses. “I like to say that we stamp people’s passports as they go to all these places in America. There’s a commitment of us as filmmakers to go to these places, which are really hard to get to.”
Mustangs was a project that took three years to make. The crew, co-director Conrad Stanley, and Latham took their time with interview subjects to spotlight their stories. They spent five days with trainers for a horse competition, 10 hours with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Philipps, and two days with the darting gun team in San Wash Basin, Colorado, to list a few examples.
Since the documentary includes a segment about veterans, I asked Latham about how he approaches interviews on sensitive topics. He prefers to go into his interviews without any restrictions. There’s prep work involved ahead of time and on-site to build trust and rapport with veterans. “A big part of it is when you arrive, you don’t just pop out the cameras and start filming,” he cautioned.
He also said,
We’re talking about war and what they’ve done and seen. When they realize their story can help other veterans, they’re like, okay. It’s absolutely sincere that I want to hear their stories. I also want others to know what services are available. It’s important for them to tell their stories.
Latham has collaborated for years with Stanley, who is also the editor of Mustangs. They worked closely on the research and shoots, breaking up with different crews to capture footage. “All of it together is having a vision of what the story is, how it fits in, and thinking of the end product. It’s a true co-director partnership,” he elaborated.
From his experience researching and making Mustangs, Latham came away with a lot to think about. “I truly want people to have a deeper appreciation for our natural world, the animals, and our land. I want to remind people these are our horses and this is our land,” he said.
Unfortunately, wild horses received “disgraceful” treatment in America these last 100 years. He said,
I have enormous respect for the mustang. They are tough and majestic! You could make the case that they should be the animal representing this country, versus the bald eagle. The one thing we do with a lot of things we say we cherish or revere is that we don’t necessarily do what’s needed to protect them.
Latham reflected on the work that we need to undertake, adding, “If we don’t change it, this will be an American tragedy, to be honest with you. I always like to have hope in my films, because change should come from inspiration rather than desperation.”