A day spent with Willie Nelson in Luck

Willie Nelson doesn’t love to do music videos; he’s the kind of guy who’d prefer to do the real thing rather than lip-sync to a track. But since no artist in today’s media landscape can get away with never stepping in front of the camera, finding the right director for such a project is critical.

Enter filmmaker Andrew Shapter — a man the iconic musician came to trust so much after filming a quick and simple video for “A Horse Called Music” that he invited Shapter to spend a day simply hanging out, cruising around the Nelson World Headquarters in Luck, Texas. 

And to the delight of fans across the world, Nelson allowed Shapter’s unobtrusive cameras to roll as they roamed the property tending to Nelson's horses, and while they discussed Nelson's memoir and a moving moment with Ray Charles. The result is a rare look into a day in the life (of a day off) with the Red Headed Stranger.

This video marks the beginning of Shapter and Nelson's creative relationship, which has now turned into more than 100 hours of footage that they both hope to someday make into a documentary, peering into the artist's private and captivating life. Not too long after Nelson's 81st birthday, we asked Shapter to recount for us this first, magical day. 

What’s a day spent with Willie Nelson in his natural habitat like? 

It's like spending a day with an Native American chief, but on this day he was alone — the tribe was gone and it was just the two of us and my shooting partner, Paul Galvan. It was a beautiful spring day. The ranch was peaceful with only the sounds of nearby horses. It was surreal.

Moreover, can you describe that “habitat” and what you set out to capture as you explored it with Nelson himself?

We didn't really have an agenda or a plan. Around that time Willie was writing his memoir Roll Me Up... and I started asking about it. He started to read his favorite parts while Paul filmed our conversation. We covered so many stories in a short time. Many of his stories were pretty damn funny, and they're all in the book. A page turner, for sure. 

The story of Ray Charles, which is in the footage we shot, came up because I wanted to know more about it. I knew that it was one of last times Ray performed before he passed. As you can see in the video, Willie was moved to tears by that performance, and he was once again when I played it back to him in the edited footage.

The rest of the video shows him driving me around the ranch. We went to every corner of the property, mostly the unpaved areas. At one point, we got lost and he asked me, "Do you know where we are?" I didn't. So we got out of the truck and shared a smoke, talked some more about his book, politics and music. That was the probably the best part of the day. It's etched my my memory forever — that's for sure.

Tell us about some of the activities/locations we see in the short film: a bar, an old guitar, a horse arena?

The area is called "Luck, Texas," a.k.a. Willie's "World Headquarters." It's a part of his private ranch that includes the still-standing set of his movie Red Headed Stranger.

He lives there a few weeks out of the year and has a full time staff caring for rescued wild horses. Years ago, he learned that they were to be slaughtered and he rescued as many as he could. Today he has around 70 to 80 horses on the ranch. And those horses love him.

I swear he's a horse whisperer. You see that love at the end of the video where the horse nudges him and is affectionate. He's like a magnet, they follow him and watch his movements. Those horses can tell he's pretty special.

And the most surprising thing you learned?

I learned that he is incredibly fit for a man in his 80s. He hopped on and off his horse like he was in his 20s. The man is strong as ever.

How did that day with Willie encourage or impact you as an artist yourself?

One of the most inspiring things to me is Willie's career trajectory. The Willie Nelson that the mainstream world knows today got a later start than most. He was already in his 40s before he became a star performer. That really stuck with me as someone who didn't direct my first film until later in life. He inspired me to think long-term. 

How did this project end up to be so special? Was it, in a sense, because it wasn’t a project at all and spontaneous? 

It was just one of those things that happened. Neither us expected we'd be spending the day together, but we did. Soon after that day, Willie invited me out to shoot more in the months following. I spent more time at the ranch quietly filming the inside of his world. We did a couple more music videos for the label. We filmed the making of his latest album and we shot a large portion of his tour.

All in all, I have over 100 hours of footage that could be a great movie someday. I know Willie would like to see it happen, but his management has yet to approve it. Who knows, maybe someday his fans will finally get the chance to see it all come together.