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Filming ‘The Last Rider’

Director Sebastian Keck found McHenry County’s countryside perfect to film “The Last Rider.”

Move over “Groundhog Day,” there’s a new movie putting Woodstock and McHenry County on the film location map. This past August, the countrysides of Woodstock, Bull Valley and Ringwood ran wild with horses, Native American actors, plus lights, cameras and lots of action as “The Last Rider” brought the Old West to life. With a cast and crew of 30 people, seven horses, a modest budget of $12,000 and a passion for storytelling, director Sebastian Keck’s vision became a reality over the summer.

The film’s shooting duration lasted about 10 days, but for Keck, born in Chicago and raised in Woodstock, the entire process will last for a full year. Keck is studying filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago, and “The Last Rider” is his senior project, as well as a school project for the crew that consists of other Columbia students and friends.

Although the film was technically an assignment and the entirety of the shooting equipment belongs to the school, the ambition to get the project off the ground is Keck and his crew’s alone.

For Keck, his filmmaking journey began long ago as a curious kid with a camcorder.  “I’ve always been interested in filmmak-ing,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and got my start through taking my dad’s VHS camera and videotaping all the wildlife — deer, horses, the odd raccoon in the area.”

Not much has changed since then. Keck’s inspiration from flora and fauna in his youth would also leave an imprint on the themes of “The Last Rider,” which features some of the most picturesque landscapes in McHenry County. Some of this land used to represent the once-vacant plains of the West includes Ringwood’s Glacial Park and private, roving countryside in Woodstock and Bull Valley. The scenery is perfect for the plot.

“I’m really proud of this area,” he said. “I think McHenry County in the summer is as beautiful as anywhere else in the country and I told myself there was no reason we couldn’t make this movie here, as we got offers to make it in Montana and in Minnesota.”

Setting the Scene

“The Last Rider” follows a close account of historical happenings and simultaneously gives the audience a timeless love story with good dose of action sequences. The scene is set in the late 1890s at the closing of the American Frontier. In just 20 minutes, Keck hopes to express a multitude of emotions to his viewers that stay with each audience member long after the credits roll.

As an extra challenge to cast members, little dialogue is used throughout the film — a part of production that Keck found thrilling and difficult at the same time.

“When you think about it, how often do you say what you mean? Very infrequently,” Keck  commented.  “[We’ve  used]  body  language, mood, lighting, landscape, time of day, circumstances, etc. In film, in two sentences you can say the circumstances instead of trying to show it visually, and I think people are smart enough to figure out [what’s happening without dialogue]. I have faith in my audience and that’s where the magic really happens. People can figure it out — you just have to give them the opportunities to do so.”

Keck, in addition to being a nature-lover, also has a deep respect for the history and this particular time period and is excited to be completing his senior project using a topic he’s studied for years. Having directed other short films such as horror, monster and even features set in Lake Michigan, Keck wanted to pour his heart and soul into a final project with the flavors of the Old West. Additionally, the more recent revival of Western films had a hand in Keck’s creation of the script. He recalls Rodney Grant — the actor who portrayed Wind In His Hair in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” — being the first actor he wanted to learn more about.

“It wasn’t Schwarzenegger or any of those guys,” Keck said of his first silver screen idol. “I remember seeing [Grant] and thinking ‘who is that guy?’”

The Perfect Cast (of Humans and Horses)

Right from the beginning, Keck was told by his directing teacher that finding and slating a good set of cast members would be the most difficult challenge of the short film. The senior’s film class started in January, but was it was nearing the end of June before he discovered his main character, Round Mask, played by Native American actor Samsoche Sampson.

Keck began his search with high hopes for several potential actors who had all the talent and skills required for the role; however, too often a hopeful would end up living in a distant region — one as far as Alberta, Canada. Sampson was unknowingly right under Keck’s nose the whole time, but finding him was a twist of fate.

“Luckily, one of our producer’s families is a member of the White Earth Nation, which is a [Chippewa] tribe up in Minnesota,” Keck said. “They knew somebody, who knew somebody, who knew Samsoche. Samsoche lives in Chicago and we actually go to the same school (Samsoche is a fine arts student at Columbia). So we had to go to Minnesota to find out about the guy who lives down the road.”

Keck explained that the lead female role, Agata, was easy to fill as the production team had almost 70 women audition for it.

Casting the right horses for the movie was a whole different animal. Certain characteristics and traits were evaluated as part of the extensive audition process for each 1,000-pound hopeful.

“We’re outside for filming,” Keck explained. “There’s heavy movement and there are a lot of foreign objects, like cameras, so you need horses with good dispositions, trailer experience and the ability to keep their cool.

“Nobody knows it, but this is some of the best horse country in the nation – it’s as good as Kentucky,” added Keck, who is also a polo player. “And from that I knew, we could find the horses we needed here, and we have.”

With Keck at the helm, the production team scrutinized at least 40 horses before whittling the choices down to the seven that will be making their debut in “The Last Rider.” And the McHenry County community can take a slice of the credit when it comes to the team’s final equestrian decisions.

Behind the Scenes in McHenry County

“The Last Rider” is certainly an international production as the cast and crew hail from all corners of the United States and one member even made the trek all the way from Mexico. Assistant director Monica Dahl originates from Livingston, Mont., head producer Max Erwin is from Little Rock, Ark., and cinematographer Kelsey Talton traveled north from Orlando, Fla.

“I’m really proud to be making movies with  really  hardworking  students  and  filmmakers who are also my friends,” Keck said of his colleagues. “The thing is, no matter what you’re doing, it’s who you’re working with that makes it a great experience.”

Keck and Jenni Reed, the film’s photographer, are the only two crew members from Woodstock, but their dedication to the area only aided in flourishing their working relationship with the community. A majority of the film’s budget went toward McHenry County and contributed to the local economy. Regional businesses like the Heritage Inn of Harvard offered their hospitality to cast members during filming.

“The response from the community has been fantastic,” Keck said. “Our support is great because it all ended up going right back into the community — from going to the gas station to purchase water bottles, to buying food for a barbecue or visiting the local farmers market,” Keck said. “For us being a bunch of college kids on a budget, we put about as much back into the community as I think we could have.”

Reed also believes in the value of community-based filming.

“[It’s] a big part of the film,” Reed said. “We wanted to keep it local; this town was so proud of ‘Groundhog Day’ and there’s a lot of town pride in general. So many people in the community have either volunteered their money or their horses and it really is a community effort.”

That’s a Wrap!

Keck is aiming for a spring 2013 premiere during which time he wants to reward everyone who has participated. “I’d love for everyone to come with their families who had anything to do with it and fill up a theater together and watch what we created,” he said. “Everyone who has participated and supported us is invited. I could not have asked for a better team.”

The team has grown to include not only the original cast and crew, but folks like Neil Michling of Bull Valley, whose talents were discovered last-minute. “He became our second assistant director — we found him four days before shooting,” Keck said. “He’s the hardest-working guy.”

Another major contributor, Tawney Denn of White Spring Farm in Woodstock (, loaned horses, lessons, and even rode in the film. “The movie wouldn’t have been what it is if it hadn’t been for her,” Keck said. “ She came out for three days, brought food and loaned us her truck.”

The stunt double for Samsoche, Casey Kantenwein, a local horse shoer, did some “crazy riding” for the film.

When it came to feeding a hungry crew, a few parties came to the rescue. First, Keck’s mother Sandy cooked lunches for everyone during the shoot — probably about 400 total meals. “She and my father Jeffrey were so supportive — they backed me the entire time,” he said.

El Niagara Mexican Restaurant in Woodstock donated a catered meal for the first day of shooting. “The area has a great reputation for the quality of people who live here — we met so many of them during this project,” Keck said. “I cannot speak enough kind words about them.”

The Next Chapter

“The Last Rider” certainly won’t be the last McHenry County — and the world — will see of Keck and his work. Like many young directors, after graduating, he plans to head to where the action is in California where he can apply what he’s learned through filmmaking and college. “I view [‘The Last Rider’] as an exercise as much as anything else; seeing how this knowledge works before I start trying to break the rules — this project is about using the rules and using them to my advantage.

“I hope I’m successful enough that I can bring big movies back to the Midwest and really help the communities by bringing serious business back here,” Keck added. “My whole goal is to get into the [American Film Institute].”

Part of the road to that goal involves submitting “The Last Rider” and his future films to festivals. Keck plans on entering “The Last Rider” in the Student Academy Awards festival, the American Indian Film Festival and even the Vienna International Film Festival.

“I’d just love to know that someone in Vienna had seen it,” Keck said with a smile. “The reasoning for sending the film overseas that is that when people from Europe think of America, they think of the West. They love Westerns and the production may actually have a greater effect over there than here.”

In the Can

Other films Sebastian Keck has worked on include:

  • “The Red”
  • “Rings”
  • “Alley Fool”
  • “Nostalgia”
  • “Bayou Tales”

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