Call Me Mule is a 94-minute documentary about a man who has been roaming the western United States with his three mules for over thirty years. His name is John Sears, but he prefers to be called “Mule.” The 65-year-old and his animals sleep outside, claiming the right to move freely. Bemoaning the loss of open space, urban sprawl, and our dependence on the automobile, Mule advocates a simpler way of life in harmony with nature. While many appreciate his nomadic lifestyle, Mule is not welcome everywhere. His confrontations with law enforcement have resulted in fines, arrests, and even institutionalization. His story may be unusual, but it has universal appeal, celebrating the creativity, courage, and resilience to choose an extraordinary way of life and defend his place in the world. This observational documentary, told in Mule’s own voice, follows his arduous 500-mile journey to deliver a message to the Governor of California.
This is how the film began.
One evening, at dusk, I got a call from a friend who lives near me in a suburb of Los Angeles. He told me to hurry down to the end of our street, look east, and see the subject of my next film. Yeah, right!
I ran to the corner just as a somewhat disheveled older man walked by, leading three fully loaded pack mules! He ignored me.
I noticed a crudely stenciled website address, 3mules.com, on one of the mule’s panniers. Curious, I went to the site and found only one page with these words:
"We are mules. We are from the outside. We live outside all day, every day. We have come to this place -- a place of golden sparkling light, a place for anybody and everybody. Give your faith, hope, and energy to this place, at which time you connect to it and receive the magic and endless possibility of infinity. As you walk in this place with these mules, you spread the awareness that this beautiful earth, like no other, can only be protected by the way we live one day at a time."
Now I was even more intrigued, so I chased him down. We exchanged a few words, but he was rather cranky and wanted to move on. However, he asked me for directions, and that was enough to give me a clue as to where he might be spending the night. As he was leaving, I asked him what his name was. He said to call him Mule.
The next morning was Christmas Eve. I had thought about Mule all night and what a unique life he led. Would he be a good character for a documentary? My whole family had come together for the holidays, and I was reluctant to go off on a wild goose (or mule) chase. But as a documentary filmmaker, I sensed a good story. The dog needed a walk anyway, so I headed out in search of the guy with the mules. No luck at first, but then I found him, already packing up to start on the next leg of his trip to who knows where.
He accepted a cup of coffee that I had brought with me. He talked a bit, very softly, and introduced me to the mules: Lady, Pepper, and Little Girl. With some reluctance, he allowed me to retrieve the video camera from my car. Surprisingly, with the camera running, he talked more and with intensity, his eyes closed and his head bent forward, concentrating on every word he said.
This is what I learned. Mule was born John Sears in a small town in northern California. He and his animals had traveled for over three decades through sixteen states and into Mexico. For the last ten years, they had lived every single day outdoors. Not long before we met, he had been traveling through the mountains near the small town of Ely, Nevada, not far from the Utah border. He had roamed this way for years, but this time his path was blocked. The trail that had been used for centuries by the area’s earliest inhabitants came to an abrupt halt. A new housing development had sprouted up on what had been open public land just a year earlier. As he traversed the West, he continued to encounter an increasing number of obstacles -- more barbed wire, “No Trespassing” signs, and locked gates impeding his journey across formerly open natural lands.
He told me that throughout his travels, he had noticed an ever-increasing urban sprawl. Open spaces where he and the mules once moved through freely and sometimes spent the night were disappearing. More and more cars were filling up the roadways, and the expanding urban infrastructure seemed to be serving just one purpose: to accommodate more automobiles.
I asked Mule if he would consider letting me tag along with him on his journey and do more filming. He said yes, with the caveat that I would help him develop his website and social media presence. It seemed like a fair trade with benefits for both of us.
Little did I know at the time that I would be traveling with “The Mules” off and on for 27 months, up and down the state of California, often by walking with them, riding a bike and even a horse, through noisy cities, quiet neighborhoods, and the backcountry wilderness. There was no crew involved in the production, and that allowed for the observational “fly on the wall” feeling one gets in watching the film. Some days I got some good footage; other days, I did not, and occasionally I did no filming at all.
Hanging out with John and his mules was a lot of fun for the most part. We grew to like each other's company. The shared experiences during our travels helped to develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect to a point. Things got more difficult, however, as time went by. He began to lose trust in me and thought he was being exploited for my financial gain. He could not accept my explanation that there is no money in indie doc filmmaking and thought I was using the filming as a "cash cow" to raise money from unsuspecting donors. However, we parted ways with no ill will, wishing each the best for our continued journeys. I will always be grateful that he allowed me into his world so that his remarkable life can be shared with others through the magic of cinema.
With the filming done, I now faced the arduous task of turning 300 hours of footage into a viable film that would hopefully enlighten, educate, and entertain a wide audience. I wouldn’t have even known how to begin the editing process, but I did know it would take years and money. After a careful review of my written proposal and budget, the non-profit International Documentary Association accepted Call Me Mule into its fiscal sponsorship program, allowing for tax-deductible donations from individuals and funding organizations. My wife, Lydia, spent six months digitizing and logging the massive amount of material and transcribing all the dialogue. Using various editors, we cut together demo reels, teasers, and selected scenes, applied for grants, hosted events, and cast a wide fundraising net via social media. We even edited a twenty-minute short that got into a few film festivals. Over time, I received grants and individual donations that covered about a third of the total budget. However, there just wasn’t enough money to pay an experienced feature documentary editor who would need at least a year to take the project across the finish line.
Enter our daughter, Nina Schwanse. When the pandemic began, she was laid off from her assistant editing job at a large TV production company. She let me know that she was available, had a vision for Call Me Mule, and would work for much less than the standard rate for editors. She had always been more of an artist and, for most of her life, veered away from any kind of conventional film production, pursuing painting and video/installation art. I said why not; let’s give it a go. Starting from scratch, she threw out everything that had been previously edited and took an entirely different approach from what I had originally envisioned. My cinematography provided her with a large piece of rough stone, and for two years, on and off, she chiseled away and sculpted it into a beautiful piece of art. Within the vast amount of footage, Nina found a way to tell John Sear’s story in a compelling and sensitive way and deservedly is credited as co-director.
In early March, Call Me Mule had its world premiere at the prestigious Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival in Greece. Later that month, the North American premiere was at the Salem Film Fest in Massachusetts.
Information about future screenings and availability can be found at 3MulesMovie.com.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
His first documentary, made at USC in 1971, garnered awards internationally and was shortlisted for an Oscar. A member of the DGA, he has had a successful career making commercials and industrials as well as directing and producing three feature documentaries. He lives in Seattle.
Nina Schwanse is an artist and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She received her BFA from Cooper Union in New York and her MFA at the University of New Orleans. Nina has participated in exhibitions and screenings internationally and ran an experimental art/performance space called Home Alone.
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