A new film from a Texas writer and director should be seen by anyone who cares about the environment and the protection of wildlife and wild places. It’s called Deep in the Heart by Ben Masters.
The film celebrates what makes Texas different, its diverse landscapes and wildlife. But it also takes an unusual turn. It tells the story through the eyes of wildlife, from ocelots and bison to fish and bears.
Unlike many nature documentaries, however, this one has a twist: interpretive and sometimes humorous narration by Austin’s Matthew McConaughey, using the Masters script.
The film follows a structured path to explore the wonders of the Lone State State, starting with the high plains of the Panhandle. We learn how 5 million bison in Texas were slaughtered in the late 1800s, with only a few remaining before the efforts of Molly Goodnight, who urged her husband Charles Goodnight to set aside 600 acres to help prevent the disappearance of the animal.
Descendants of these bison live in Caprock Canyons State Park. Carefully placed cameras detail the bison’s life cycle, with the introduction of new calves learning to run. And it’s exciting to see them so clearly, without having to risk your life as some tourists have recently done by encroaching on their space.
Bison recovery has a long way to go in Texas, but white-tailed deer recovery is much more successful. Today, there are more than 5 million white-tailed deer in the state, and Masters and his team of photographers capture images of the deer as they enter breeding season, with battles between bucks at big wood for the territory.
The film crew then takes us to southern Texas, near the coast, to observe an animal whose fate is still threatened. It is the mythical ocelot, with less than 80 known to exist in the United States today.
The “Deep in the Heart” team managed to place cameras in areas where the ocelot is known to live, and we see photos of a mom ocelot with two kittens. She leaves her kittens in the brush to try to find food. And McConaughey recounts as she stalks an armadillo. But the birds in the area alert other animals to the presence of a predator, and the armadillo flees. Or, as McConaughey puts it, the ocelot was “popped.”
Some of the most thrilling cinematography can be found in the Texas Hill County section, where underwater life takes center stage. As the film shows, much of Hill County sits above the Edwards Plateau, which absorbs water like a sponge and holds it underground, until it begins to rise as springs that feed our rivers.
McConaughey goes on a total Texas streak as he describes the Guadalupe bass’ mating season, which is rare and faces many threats. Remarkably, the film shows a male bass scouring a riverbed in search of a suitable mating site. The site must be free of dirt to attract a female, so the male uses his fins to sweep the sand off the rocks of the river bed.
The male bass rejects several early mating sites, especially a hollow tire, prompting McConaughey to imitate the bass and say it’s not Oklahoma. The bar finally finds a good place, and we see a female who comes to call. After a courtesy dance, the female releases her eggs, and the male aerates with his eggs with his fins and then fertilizes them. Then it’s up to the male to drag and protect the fertilized eggs until they hatch into viable fish. It takes about a month. And all of this is filmed, with judicious editing.
From there, we head to the Bracken Cave Preserve in Comal County, home to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Cameras show bats flying from their caves and rock dwellings, as they feed on insects. They must fly above vegetation and the tree line, and the greatest threat is flying too low and colliding with a bush. It’s not explained how the ‘Deep in the Heart’ crew managed to capture the scenes of a few bats colliding with bushes and trying to break free, but that’s one of the footage. the most intense of the film. (As with most scenes, it seems the film crew researched the best places to embed cameras.)
The intensity of the scenes, as McConaughy explains, comes from nearby snakes waiting for bats trapped in the bushes. McConaughey points out that baby bats, or pups, are most at risk because they don’t have the strength to take flight without being high on a rocky cliff or ledge to get ballast under their wings.
So we watch as several pups try desperately to gnaw at each other from the bush and climb the nearby rocks to take flight. But the snakes keep coming. And we get a striking close-up of a snake swallowing a pup. But another pup manages to climb some rocks and fly to safety.
And if snakes don’t get you, well, red-tailed hawks or hawks just might. They fly close to the periphery of the bat swarm and pick up the less aware pups, one by one, with their claws.
No Texas nature documentary would be complete without a visit to Big Bend National Park, and here we get a close look at black bears and mountain lions. In the park, cougars and bears are protected, but lions tend to have large ranges that can take them out of protected areas and into places where ranchers set traps to protect livestock.
In some parts of the United States it is illegal to set traps for mountain lions, but not in Texas, and thousands of people are killed, often left for dead from dehydration and exposure. In Texas, you don’t have to check traps either.
“Deep in the Heart” ends with a segment on the Big Thicket and the Piney Woods, as well as the Gulf Coast. In the early days of settlement, the forests of East Texas were cut down, but in recent decades, thanks to conservation efforts, the forests have grown back. Cameras capture the daily life of the large wetland alligator gar. They also show the “monsters of the ambush”, the alligators that prey on migrating birds attracted to the coastal marshes. And yes, we see alligators as they nibble on beautiful birds. Hey, it’s nature, and it can be brutal.
From there we see the fantastic reefs about 100 miles east of Galveston, where some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world are buzzing with wildlife. Again, the cameras show how reefs survive, with their spawning cycles: polyps are released, and then those polyps fertilize their offspring. It’s something that’s rarely been filmed, but the crew of “Deep in the Heart” does it well.
And that brings up an important point: the core of “Deep in the Heart,” besides directing and editing, is the cinematography. So any reviewer would be remiss not to mention the names of those behind the images.
The cinematographer is Skip Hobbie, but he has 10 cinematographers. They are: Austin Alvarado, Ryan Olinger, Shannon Vandiver, Hayes Bailey, Patrick Thrash, Brian Mohair, Peter Kragh, Filipe Deandrade, Christian Von Preysing and Michael Stangl.
The editor who put it all together seamlessly is Sam Klatt, with help from associate editor Juli Keller.
The producers are Katy Baldock and Jay Kleberg, who both live in Austin. Kleberg (as in Kleberg County and the King Ranch) is running for Texas Land Commissioner, FYI.
Kleberg was also part of the team that worked with Masters on his previous documentary, “The River and the Wall,” which explored the environmental impact of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
“Deep in the Heart” plays at two local theaters: the Austin Film Society and the Regal Arbor. For those unable to make the theatrical screenings, “Deep in the Heart” will be available on demand, starting July 18, on Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play.