The Longest Ride -- the latest Nicholas Sparks book to get the Hollywood treatment -- saw its home release this week, but like any good Sparks film, it didn't ride off into the night without a little drama.
Director George Tillman, Jr. and members of the cast turned up at Universal Studios Hollywood's Saddle Ranch Chop House on Tuesday night to celebrate its widespread release with something a bit unconventional -- a competition on the bar's mechanical bull machine.
To catch you up: The Longest Ride centers on the star-crossed love affair between Luke (Scott Eastwood), a former champion bull rider looking to make a comeback, and Sophia (Britt Robertson), a college student embarking on her dream job in New York City's art world. Conflicting paths and ideals test their relationship as they make an unexpected and fateful connection with Ira (Alan Alda), whose memories of his own decades-long romance with his beloved wife deeply inspire the young couple.
As a Kansas farm kid who came up trying his hand at rodeo riding, I jumped at the chance to show off my somewhat rusty skills. While I had some doubts about the Applebee's-esque location of Saddle Ranch, I felt positive that we could all approximate the challenge of getting a bucking beast to submit to our demands, and in that way, prove that I'm more like Eastwood than women might assume.
I filed into the restaurant’s whiskey barn entrance, where I was welcomed with gigantic cocktails and nachos to celebrate the most patriotic Sparks adaptation yet. Critics, bloggers and reality stars such as The Amazing Race's Jeff Schroeder and Big Brother's Jordan Lloyd took turns getting tossed around the barn's center by a mechanical bull covered in vegan-friendly leather, while the film's stunt team nodded politely at the dizzying messes we became after just a few quick jerky twists and spins.
The riding itself never measured up to an authentic experience, as bored waiters operated the controls like any other underwhelmed teenager manning a carnival ride. When it became obvious that everyone was too drunk, the bull rides became less Space Mountain and more Mad Hatter's Tea Cups, ensuring that even if he were alive, Hemingway wouldn't be writing about our defiant sportsmanship.
Nonetheless, between spells of vertigo, I sat down with Tillman, Jr. to find out what it was like to go from being the man behind Soul Food and the Barber Shop franchise to adapting work from the man who gave us The Notebook.
"The whole aspect of doing two kinds of stories, both the love and the action, that was intriguing," the director told ETonline. "Going from Soul Food to Nicholas Sparks is night and day, but I put my own mark on it. I spun my life experience in Chicago to bring a different quality to the material. People may see one thing from the cover, but once you get in there, people are going to be like, 'Wow, a black guy did that!'"
But what was it like to go against the old Hollywood saying "don't work with children or animals" to direct angry one-ton bulls? "That was complicated," Tillman, Jr. admitted. "I wanted a different style every sequence, and there's four or so throughout the film. Sometimes these bulls don't do what you want them to do, so PBR stepped in (Editor’s Note: Professional Bull Riders, not the beer) and brought us some of the top bull riders, helped us scout and even picked animals for the film. We used seven different cameras operating at high speeds to grab these complicated action scenes in one take, but we'd still get a look from the producer as if to say, 'If you don't get it on this next shot, too bad.'"
Considering how nerve-wracking bull riding can be, Tillman, Jr. expected that it would take a lot of work to get Eastwood up to speed, especially when his leading man showed up late to watch the bull-riding championship in Las Vegas -- on their very first day of work! Luckily, Eastwood surprised him. "Turned out I was wrong, because every day after that, he came ready," the director admitted. "He was ready in every moment."
Having spent a lot of time surfing in San Diego, Eastwood had the build to play the part, but that didn't mean he was a shoe-in to succeed as even a faux rider. "You've got our lead actor up there on a bull, and that's kind of white-knuckle, because they say twenty percent of these guys don't get out of the chute," Tillman, Jr. explained. "That's a stressful thing. Even when we pulled in a mechanical bull, which we needed to use for some of our close-up shots, that machine in still going full speed, so even those shots became dangerous."
When Eastwood wasn't riding, there was an impossibly talented team backing him up, including the film’s stunt coordinator, Troy Brown, and even the bull they used in the movie -- the top rated one in the country at that time. "We got a stunt guy that understood the animals and also brought in about 12 of the best guys from the PBR who usually rode animals like this once every week, and we had them doing five or six rounds a day to get what we really needed," the director said. "They'd already know which bulls would try to throw them in those directions I asked for: Left, right, center, they had it. It's pretty amazing to work with people who have that knowledge and talent."
While none of us non-stuntmen in attendance at the release party had what it took to ride bulls professionally, I blame that (only partially) on the mind-erasing cocktails that instilled us with liquid courage. Maybe I should have made like Dancing With the Stars' Cheryl Burke and just posed with Tillman, Jr. instead of taking on the mechanical beast...
...Or took better lessons from Bonner Bolton, one of the riders in the film who stopped by to show us his stuff.
While the event didn't carry the themes of undying star-crossed love inherent in the novel-turned-movie, it did give me a chance to get inebriated while battling a robot farm animal in front of very attractive, giggling celebrities, and that's the true meaning of
Christmas Nicholas Sparks.
The Longest Ride is available now on DVD, Bluray and VOD.