Film and TV

Hanna Ranch director Mitch Dickman on Kirk Hanna's legacy

Kirk Hanna was a cattle rancher, a conservationist and a Colorado legend before his untimely death at age 43. His pursuit of a utopian vision for the ranching way of life, and his impact on open-space preservation and resource management, are just part of the story told in Hanna Ranch, a new documentary from director Mitch Dickman. Hanna's vision for the future of ranching may be what makes his story worth sharing, but at its heart, it's a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, full of conflict and despair, with vivid characters and an inspirational vision of a world that balances the needs of rural and urban populations for a better future for all. Hanna was a Colorado original, and the film offers a rich character study, an engaging narrative and a compelling argument for the importance of the man's work and his legacy. Before the film opens today at the Sie FilmCenter, we spoke to Dickman about how he came to work on the project, the challenges he faced and the state of Hanna's legacy today.

See also: Hanna Ranch presents a moving portrait of eco-cowboy Kirk Hanna

Westword:Can you give us a quick overview of the story, and what Hanna Ranch is all about?

Mitch Dickman: Hanna Ranch tells the story of one man's fight to protect his family and his land. It's indicative of a lot of the challenges that have occurred in the West, and that occur to this day. It delves into conservation, mental health, family and food.

How did you come to this project? What was your introduction to Kirk Hanna's story

My introduction to the story was [an article] on the ten-year anniversary of his passing in the Rocky Mountain News, rest in peace, and I read it and got the whole story, or as much as you can get from a newspaper article, from that. I filed it away with a lot of other things that I thought would be a good idea to turn into a film. This turned out to be one I couldn't stop thinking of.

Hanna's story has been well covered in local media across the state, and it's such an iconic story of the Mountain West and the ongoing conflict between urban and rural communities, but somehow the whole thing is still somewhat obscure. Is there a reason for that?

I think part of it is, they use the term "visionary" to describe [him] and by nature of that, he was ahead of his time. A lot of the things he was talking about, that he was getting press for, a lot of people thought he was out in left field. The work that he started so many years ago is still being done now. It's one of those "quiet hero" stories -- somebody whose impact might be greater than it appears on the surface, as it's covered by the news media. I think there's a lot of people similar to Kirk Hanna who've done tremendous work and it's gone unnoticed, but his is at the top and the tragedy that goes with it adds a whole other layer than makes his story different.

He certainly makes for a fascinating character. It seems like his story would translate well to a narrative feature.

Yeah, I don't know if you heard the story, but that is the genesis of [the project]. I first wanted to fictionalize the story and after about six months I went down and asked Ann [Hanna, Kirk's widow], and it was just an awkward moment to sit down with her and say, "I want to purchase your life story and make a fictional film from it." As you can kind of tell from the film, she's pretty tough as nails, and she was like, "No, that's not going to happen." Then she rolled out all those newspaper articles out on the floor and said, "There's your film."

Keep reading for more on Hanna Ranch

What kind of challenges did you run into in making the film?

Building trust with the family, both in a long term way in agreeing to do the film, but also within the actual interviews. Over time you build trust during the interview, trying to make people forget that there's a camera there and just getting them to talk.

One of the challenges with filmmaking in general is not just making the film, but getting it out there. That's a challenge we're still working on today.

One of the real strengths of the film is it tells a compelling story. There's a nice narrative through line, it's not just an info dump, which is a trap a lot of docs fall into.

I feel like it's a more engaging way to tell a story, through people and characters and story and arc. I think a lot of times documentary filmmakers just feel like they can take an issue and run with it, and I find myself not liking those films as much.

Hanna was very much on the bleeding edge of ranching practices and resource management, but a lot of the ideas he championed have gone on to become widely adopted, right?

Correct. Conservation easements as a tool in general are definitely more widely used than they were. He started one of the first agricultural land trusts in the United States. He was at the forefront and that's standard practice now. The work is still being done by people that looked up to him years ago.

How long did the project take, from start to finish?

Basically I met with Ann almost five years ago for the first time. We started rolling cameras four years ago this month, May of 2010. My daughter was due on Kirk's birthday, right as I started making the film. There's always a bit of the connection of the film and trying to raise a child, and trying to balance that. I tried to do my best to be a hands-on father, staying home at times. That slowed down the process a little bit, but not much. But it was like, here I am doing the biggest film I've done, and also trying to being a child into the world. The balancing of those two things was really challenging and beautiful at the same time, and something I'll be proud to show her when she can understand it.

What else do people need to know about the film?

It was a team effort. [Director of photography/editor] Zach Armstrong was super-important in the process. He was somebody who was with me from day one, as was Karl Kister, the executive producer. I mean, a lot of people [contributed] but I really have to give it to Zach from the cinematography standpoint and as an editor. Zach spent hours out on the ranch. There were many, many shots that didn't make it into the film. Karl was in his first time as a producer and he had a great eye. And, of course, all the other people who worked on the film.

Now that this is finally done and out there for people to see, what's next for you?

We just started a new film called Rolling Papers, a documentary following Ricardo Baca and the Denver Post marijuana team from when Colorado went legal for recreational pot on January 1. It's the opposite from a film standpoint [from Hanna] -- it's entertaining, funny, a hot issue, not the timeless story of tragedy. That's what we're shooting right now.

Different in some ways, but another story that's shaping up to be an iconic part of Colorado history. Seems like maybe you're creating a niche for yourself.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I'll just be pegged as a Colorado filmmaker, and I'll be happy with that.

Hanna Ranch opens today at the Film SieCenter. Find showtimes and more information here.

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Cory Casciato is a Denver-based writer with a passion for the geeky, from old science fiction movies to brand-new video games.
Contact: Cory Casciato