Nebraska’s wide-open spaces have received increasing cinematic attention in recent years. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska took moviegoers on a madcap, melancholy road trip in 2013. Then, in 2018, came the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology fable The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Netflix. Also last year, Nebraska director Georg Joutras debuted his documentary Ocean of Grass about a year in the life of a Sandhills ranch family.
Where Payne and the Coens use Nebraska landscapes and skyscapes as metaphorical backdrops for archetypal—but fictional—portraits of Great Plains life, Joutras takes a deeply immersive, reality-based look at rural rhythms. Joutras celebrates the people who work the soil, tend the animals, and endure the weather.
As Hollywood dream machine products by renowned filmmakers, Nebraska and Buster Scruggs enjoyed multi-million dollar budgets and national releases. Ocean of Grass, meanwhile, is a self-financed work by an obscure, first-time filmmaker whose small and visually stunning documentary is finding audiences one theater at a time.
For his indie passion project, Joutras spent countless hours at the McGinn ranch north of Broken Bow. Aside from an original music score by composer Tom Larson (a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Glenn Korff School of Music), Joutras served as a one-man band—handling everything from producing and directing to cinematography and editing. He’s releasing the feature-length documentary via his own Reconciliation Hallucination Studio. In classic roadshow fashion, he delivers the film to each theater that books it and often does Q&As.
A decade earlier Joutras self-published a photo illustration book, A Way of Life, about the same ranch—one of several photo books he has produced. The 56-year-old is a lifelong photographer who feels “attuned to nature.” From 2001 through 2008, he operated his own gallery in Lincoln, where he currently resides. A chance encounter there with Laron McGinn, who makes art when not running the four-generation family ranch, led to Joutras visiting that expanse and becoming enamored with life in the Sandhills.
Joutras’ family moved to Ogallala in 1973 when he was 11. He lived there until college, and he moved back from 1993 through 1999 (as a partner in the radio automation company Prophet Systems). Although he was positioned on the southern periphery of Nebraska’s Sandhills for many years, Joutras says he had never stayed on a ranch or stopped in the Sandhills until beginning his photography book. It was a region he drove past or through; that all changed once he spent time there.
Joutras is not the first to create a film profile of a Nebraska ranch family. A few years before his childhood move to Ogallala, a caravan of Hollywood rebels arrived. In 1968, Francis Ford Coppola—along with a crew that included George Lucas and a cast headed by Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Shirley Knight—shot the final few weeks of Coppola’s dramatic feature The Rain People there. That experience introduced Duvall to an area ranch and rodeo family, the Petersons, who became the subjects of his 1977 documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which filmed in and around Ogallala.
The McGinns’ ranching ways might never have been shot by Joutras if not for his meeting McGinn. By that point in Joutras’ life, he had already left behind a successful tech career having developed a point-of-sale system for Pearle Vision and an automated radio system (Prophet Systems) acquired by Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia). Having achieved financial security, he refocused his energy on photography.
Joutras only got into doing the film after his family gifted him a video camera, and he began documenting things on the ranch. After investing in higher-end equipment, he decided to ditch the year’s worth of filming he’d shot with his old gear to begin anew.
“The picture quality was so much better than what I had shot the prior year that I was going to have to shoot it all again,” Joutras says. “So, I put another year into shooting everything that goes on out there. I basically worked alongside the folks at the ranch. When something happened I thought I should capture, then I’d go into cinematographer mode.”
Ocean of Grass premiered April 15, 2018, at the Kansas City FilmFest with its Nebraska debut that June in Broken Bow. That’s when he really discovered the film’s resonance with viewers.
On June 10, his first screening at Broken Bow’s Tiffany Theater played to a sell-out crowd, while the theater offered spill-over seating on its second screen. The next day, on Sunday, the theater showed the documentary on all three of its screens to sold-out seating. The documentary continued playing the Tiffany Theater for five weeks.
Sold-out screenings have followed at cinemas across Nebraska—including three sold-out shows at the Hastings Museum’s Imax in late 2018 (which spurred additional showtimes scheduled for March 21-28).
“People are getting something out of this film,” he says. “They say it reflects the Nebraska ethos. I never did this film anticipating I’d make even one dollar on it. I just had this story I really wanted to tell. It’s certainly achieved much more than I thought it would. It’s done well enough that I’ve recouped pretty much what I put into it.”
Joutras believes his film connects with viewers because of how closely it captures a certain lifestyle. The rapport he developed and trust he earned over time with the McGinns paid dividends.
Joutras says he wanted to earn his keep, so they let him feed cows, run fence, and check water. “I got the footage I did by being around enough and being embedded with them and being part of the crew that works out there. You have to be around enough to where you’re nothing special—you just kind of blend into the background.”
His depiction of a people and place without adornment or agenda is a cinematic rarity.
“What I was really trying to capture was the feeling of this place—what it feels like to be out there among the people, the cows, the wind, the sun, the cold. Everything that makes it special. You’re seeing the real thing. Everything in the film is as it happened. Nothing was staged,” Joutras says. “These people are authentic. What they’re doing is authentic. Pretty much everyone you come in contact with in the ranching environment is their own boss. People don’t have to fake who they are. It’s really the American story of hard work trumps everything.”
The film makes clear these are no country bumpkins.
“They are some of the smartest people I know,” he says. “They know how things work and are very articulate expressing their beliefs. By the end of the film, I think you understand and admire them,”
He believes viewers fall under the same Sandhills spell that continues to captivate him, which he says he tried conveying in the film.
“The quality of life I think is exceptional. The pace of life slows down. You get to see real Americans doing real hands-on, get-in-the-mud work,” Joutras says. “Out there I feel more in touch with nature and what’s important in life. I feel more grounded. I feel I can breathe better. It’s really just a feeling of peace.”
The film’s rough-hewn spirit and soul are perhaps best embodied by family patriarch Mike McGinn.
“Mike’s a great guy. He’s sneaky funny. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being in a pickup with him going out to feed cows, which can take half the day or more. He was always reluctant to talk on camera,” the director says, adding that McGinn was the last interview of his filming.
“We got him to watch the film and, at the end, he turned to me and said, ‘That’s my entire life right there,’” Joutras says. “That was a great moment for me.”
Rather than hire a narrator to frame the story, the only voices heard are those of the ranchers, “because they said it better than anyone,” he says.
Beyond the McGinns and their hands, the film’s major character is the Sandhills.
“From a visual standpoint, there’s nothing that gets me more excited than attempting to capture really interesting and varied scenic shots that speak to people,” Joutras says. “The Sandhills are beautiful beyond belief in all their details—from the grass to the slope of the hills to the clouds coming across the prairie to the sound of the wind. It all works together.”
He acquired evocative overhead shots by mounting cameras to drones. The aerial images give the film an epic scope.
Ocean of Grass’ visuals have turned him into a cinematographer for hire. He’s contributing to three films, including a documentary about the women of Route 66.
Future Nebraska-based film projects he may pursue range from rodeo to winemaking.
Meanwhile, he’s pitching Omaha theaters to screen Ocean of Grass.
“We’ll get it into Omaha one way or another,” he says. More screenings throughout Nebraska, as well as out-of-state, are in the works.
Joutras is just glad his “little film that can” is getting seen, winning fans, and giving the Sandhills their due.