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Western movie inspired by Star Wars filmed in Highlands

Candice Desmet and Sasha Kane star in Western movie Land of the Free. Candice is pictured on Karen Inkster's pony Connie.
Candice Desmet and Sasha Kane star in Western movie Land of the Free. Candice is pictured on Karen Inkster's pony Connie.

P​erthshire horse rider Karen Inkster’s ponies feature in a Western movie filmed in the Highlands of Scotland. Ahead of its release in April, Gayle Ritchie finds out more.

A Western movie filmed in the Highlands of Scotland inspired by Star Wars. A woman working for the “Pony Express”, a mounted relay mail service, on a mission to save a man from execution.

It might sound a bit off-the-wall but Youssef Sefiani’s new film – Land of the Free – is already attracting global attention.

London-based photographer, YouTuber and film director Youssef, wanted to show the world that he didn’t need hundreds of crew members or millions of pounds to make a great Western film.

Rather, he would do it on a tight budget, with a small production team, and in Scotland with two ponies from Perthshire.

The ponies – Standardbred rescue cross Connie, and Appaloosa Jess – belong to Karen Inkster, who runs a natural equine centre near Dunkeld.

Karen with Jess on location in Glencoe.

When Karen spotted a Facebook post saying that the film crew was looking for horses, she didn’t hesitate to get in touch.

And before she knew it, she, Connie and Jess were on their way to Glencoe.

“The production team are from London and they’d put a couple of horsey posts up in the Fort William area saying, ‘Does anybody have any Appaloosa and paint horses for this Western movie’?” explains Karen, 45.

“It was in just three days time. I thought, ‘They’ve probably got somebody and it sounds a bit random – a Western film being filmed in Scotland in the middle of winter!’ But I sent a message and someone got back to me asking for pictures of the horses. That was it!

“It was a completely last-minute thing, driving up there thinking – what on Earth am I getting into?’”

Karen Inkster jumping her pony Connie.

Adventure

Karen drove the ponies up the night before filming and kept them in stables while she stayed with a friend.

Initially Connie, who has travelled all over the country with Karen on various adventures, was quite stressed: “She didn’t eat her dinner or her hay which was odd, because she’s been so many places with me. Jess, on the other hand was absolutely fine.”

There were two film locations – one in Glen Nevis and the other in Glencoe – and the plan was to make scenes look as though they were shot in North America, or certainly somewhere a bit more “Western”.

“It was quite a small production, with about 15 people, including actors and actresses, directors and people with big microphones, booms and make-up people,” says Karen.

“It was quite low key. They loved the horses! I think they were the most photographed horses in the world that day. Every single crew member wanted photos and the main actress, Candice Desmet, could ride, and was really gentle. She fell in love with Connie.”

Candice leads Connie while Mengqi He holds Jess.

Brave ponies!

The film crew hadn’t anticipated how wet the Scottish weather would be, and none of them had brought proper rain jackets.

Instead, they had cheap ponchos which flapped and rustled and didn’t go down too well with Karen’s ponies!

“They also had a big silver boom and this big fluffy microphone. They were walking up this path and Connie was like, ‘What’s this!’ and she spun round,” says Karen. “She was really upset! I only just managed to hold her! I was worried for a moment that she’d disappear and head for the hills!

“Jess was more chilled. She was a bit of a movie star, like ‘Which side of me do you want?’ She’s a complete flirt.”

Candice walks with Jess.

The ponies star in five scenes, with one being particularly challenging to set up – Jess had to bolt and leave Candice in the middle of nowhere.

“I had no idea how we were going to get her to run away from the camera, so one of the crew took Connie round the corner, while I held on to Jess,” explains Karen.

“I then took her bridle off and kind of shooed her away, so she wanted to run to Connie. The first few times she did exactly that, and it was fine, but on the last take, even with flapping jackets and trying to get her to run off, she was like, ‘No thanks’ and started eating grass! She also tried to eat this big black foam boom microphone which made everybody laugh.

“But when there were fight scenes and guns, both ponies were just like, ‘ooh!’”

Inspiration

Youssef says the inspiration for the film came from Star Wars.

“In the last Star Wars trilogy, the lead character is a female – Rey Palpatine is the main role,” he explains.

“In Rogue One, another character is a female. Unlike the female reboot of Ghost Busters, Ocean Eight or Charlie’s angel, Star Wars emphasises females working alongside males.

“When I start working on Land Of The Free, I wanted a female character as strong as male character, in a wild world.

“So the idea of the Pony Express (a mail service that used horse-mounted riders from 1860 to 1861 between Missouri and California) sounded a good idea.”

Sasha Kane with Jess.

In essence, the film focuses on Mary (played by Candice) who is a rider for Pony Express. She has only a few days to deliver a letter which could save a man from execution.

As she heads off on her mission, she meets a young woman (played by Mengqi He) who is being chased by a bounty hunter. Mary has to make a choice.

Will she save the woman, thereby jeopardising her original mission? Or will Sky, an army deserter played by Sasha Kane, help her to complete her mission?

Sasha Kane and Candice Desmet in action on the film set.

Western world

“Western is usually a ‘lawless’ wild world,” reflects Youssef.

“I linked that to what is happening in the cinema industry right now. There is a change of culture about the way woman are depicted in the cinema industry. Either they are the prize to be won by the male hero, or they need to be on an all-female crew to be empowered. Women were under-represented in the movies; the amount of female lines were way lower than male lines. How about getting a mixed team with equal strength and skills?”

The movie is being produced by Youssef’s company, ysefiani.co.uk, and the first “short” version will be used as “proof of concept”. His ambition is to raise enough funding to make a TV show based on the short.

Youssef is planning a first screening of the film in April at a cinema in London. Thereafter, he will send it to festivals worldwide and share it online.

Candice on Connie.

He describes the experience of filming with Karen and her ponies as a “blessing”.

“Candice, the main actress, has years of experiences of riding horses,” he says. “That helped a lot as she knew very quickly how to connect with the personality of the horses.

“It was fantastic to find Karen. She is so passionate about her horses and very approachable. She made it all so easy.

“We filmed in Scotland as there are many gorgeous landscapes which we think we can make people to be the north of America.”

Popular ponies

Two of Karen’s ponies, Connie and Spanish Mustang Monty, featured on the BBC’s Grand Tours of Scotland’s Lochs with Paul Murton last year.

He had heard about a trip she made to the Outer Hebrides in 2017, unsupported, with Connie and her deaf collie dog Pip, to raise thousands of pounds for animal charities.

Paul Murton on Connie and Karen with Jess while filming BBC’s Grand Tours of Scotland’s Lochs.

The gruelling 19-day journey saw the daring trio trek 270km from Vatersay near Barra to the Butt of Lewis, visiting 13 islands along the way and camping out under the stars.

Karen went on to give talks about the trip and wrote a book about her adventure called The Deaf, The Daft and The Ditsy, donating proceeds from both to charities.

Karen, a former field officer for ScotWays, the UK’s oldest outdoor access group, did a recce of potential rides for her and Paul along old rights of way.

When lockdown lifted in September 2020, they were able to film at Glen Lednock near Comrie.

Karen Inkster, her pony Connie and collie dog Pip.

Karen runs Equine Unlimited, a natural equine centre near Dunkeld with the tagline “where the horse comes first”.

It promotes barefoot and bitless riding and positive reinforcement training techniques, allowing owners and riders to seek the best relationship with their horse without use of dominance, force or pain.

Karen runs Equine Unlimited near Dunkeld. Picture: Steve MacDougall.

Karen uses a bitless bridle on her horses and keeps them “barefoot”, as opposed to getting a farrier to nail on shoes.

In 2019 her endeavours attracted the attention of the World Bitless Association, who were so impressed they named Karen the very first World Bitless Champion Ambassador.

It’s a role that sees her promoting bitless riding globally.

Karen with Jess and Connie. Picture: Steve MacDougall.
  • Karen has raised more than £10,000 for various animal charities. She gave more than £1,100 to World Horse Welfare in December.
  • For more details about Land of the Free, see ysefiani.co.uk

 

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