The heart wants what the heart wants.
That’s the core lesson of A Brony Tale, the new documentary examining the world of bronies, a sect of fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic that’s predominantly male, ranging in age from 14 to 57, coming in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life.
A Brony Tale, produced by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), follows My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic voice actress Ashleigh Ball on her first trip to BronyCon, and her initial exposure to brony culture. As the documentary wears on, it shifts away from Bell to dig deeper into the world of bronies, a community that includes high school students, DJs, tattooed bikers with handlebar mustaches and war veterans. If there’s one thing the movie makes clear, it’s this: If ponies make you happy, there’s nothing wrong with that.
With A Brony Tale now in select theaters and arriving this week On Demand, Spinoff Online spoke with director Brent Hodge about how the documentary sprang to life, what he discovered along the way, and his own history as a fan seeking community.
Spinoff Online: I’m curious about how the idea for the film came to you. Was brony culture on your radar from the beginning? Did you become aware of it through knowing Ashleigh Ball?
Brent Hodge: Ashleigh and I had met when we were working at CBC in Canada. We had done some stuff with her band, Hey Ocean. I knew she was a voice actor. We were out for dinner one night, a group of us, and it was right before Christmas. I said, “How’s acting going?” She explained that she had booked all these shows, Care Bears, My Little Pony, and she’s been getting all these emails from guys. Everyone sort of giggled about it. But I thought it was unreal. “What do you mean, guys? There’s no way guys like this show. I’ve seen the show, it’s for 2-year-old girls!”
So she showed me the emails, and they were hilarious. Guys asking her about “The Sonic Rainboom” and what the metaphors behind it were, and the song “Winter Wrap Up” from Season 2. It was mind-boggling. We just started filming it. We had to film it. She’s becoming famous among this group of dudes. They invited her to BronyCon and it all snowballed.
The rest is history. Stephen Colbert and Howard Stern and Fox News started doing bits on this [phenomenon]. And I realized it was bigger than us joking around. It was getting massive. I started looking into it more and emailing these guys back, and decided to do a documentary.
Once you started digging in, what were some of the most surprising findings about My Little Pony and brony culture?
I kind of realized very quickly that it wasn’t even about the show. They would say that they liked the animation and storylines, but it was about this community that they created. It’s like any fandom. Like Star Wars or Trekkies, they meet up and have conventions. They have fan art, fan fiction, they talk online — the escapism that any fandom has. This wasn’t all that different. I instantly figured that out.
The big line I always take away from this film is that you can’t underestimate what makes you happy. [An interview subject] who fought in Iraq, he said that. Whatever it takes to get you through; if it’s a pony, there’s nothing wrong with that. I see that as well, where they just found a support network through one common interest.
The first brony you interview in the film is “the manliest brony in the world,” a man named Dustykatt. He’s a football-playing, bike-building, beer-drinking brony. Did he feel like the first person you had to highlight, as the extreme opposite of the perception some people might have about guys who are into My Little Pony?
It’s two-fold. One, he’s the first Brony I met. He came first for that reason. And he also broke it down. He really broke down the show for me, just down to its basic core, of who the characters are and the archetypes. I felt like that was the first thing we needed to show.
But I really strategically picked and chose which bronies went into the film. We interviewed 20 or 30 more than were interviewed in the movie. I was very particular because I wanted the audience to relate to a brony, whether you’re into motorbikes or you have a family or you’re in high school or college or you’re a DJ. Whatever it is, I wanted you to have that there’s a slight feeling that you’re not that far from being a brony.
You might think that [bronies] live in the middle of nowhere, but they’re all over the country, they’re probably in your city, and they have very similar hobbies to you.
You also interviewed researchers who had the demographics of the brony community …
I was just looking around online, different stats and different info. And there was this one study that these guys created. I just reached out from their website, BronyStudy.com. I almost didn’t care about the stats as much as I cared about their story and why they were doing the research. I found out that [the researcher’s] son was into My Little Pony. What a good dad! He’s taking what he’s good at in this world and applying it to his son’s hobbies. Those are the qualities you would want in a dad.
For the most part, A Brony Tale focuses on the positive aspects of brony culture. What were some of the negative aspects you found, in terms of how these fans are treated online or elsewhere?
The Internet’s so horrible. [Laughs] Even now, with the film coming out … we just got a great review, and then there are a thousand comments that are just horrible, hacking into the brony community. It’s less about the quality of the movie and much more about the community itself. Our YouTube gets hit with them too.
I think high school kids, they have the hardest time [of the Brony community]. If you’re in your late 20s or whatever, hopefully you’ve figured it out by now. Hopefully you’re strong enough and adjusted, and you’re an adult; you’ve made it in this world for 20-something years, so hopefully you’re okay with a few comments. But when you’re 15 or 16, you have to be pretty brave to come out as a brony, to come out and say you like a kid’s show. Getting it at that age, when you don’t have a real support network, if you don’t have any other bronies in your high school? That’s the hardest thing.
Was it a conscious choice not to highlight the bullying aspects of brony culture?
It wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. It was Ashleigh’s story I wanted to tell. It was telling itself as we were going. We didn’t even get into the show. We didn’t interview any writers or animators, anything. I felt that, as a fandom, I didn’t want it to be an overview of the fandom; I wanted it to be stories that went into the fandom.
What were you a fan of growing up, and how did that help you connect to the bronies?
I loved hockey. I was a big ice hockey guy. That’s not something people shun in Canada. But I did relate to the brony community… because it’s a team game, and you learn what it means to be part of a team. And what does it mean to be a Ranger or a Mighty Duck, associated with something? I could relate to why they wanted to be a part of something. But I had it pretty easy growing up; I felt like a lot of the people I interviewed had tragic stories, where something happened to them that triggered this a little bit. Not all of them have the same kinds of stories as Brian, who was in Iraq. But there was a sense that some of them didn’t belong in any community and there was a sense of longing.
When you’re part of a fandom, you feel like you’re on the same page as people. It’s like a secret code, a way of communicating that no one else knows. We quest in this world to be loved and accepted and tolerated by other people. That’s why we get into these things. I still talk on hockey forums. I talk about the game, just like bronies talk about the episodes. There’s not a big difference to it.
When you challenge the status quo of anything, you’re going to meet a lot of people who are skeptical. You’re going to see a lot of heads turn. They might not react the way you want. But that even happens in hockey. I’m an Oilers fan and they’ve been the worst team for six years. But even if it’s a little embarrassing, I’m going to stay an Oilers fan. They’ve been there when I needed them. And I think it’s the same for the bronies.
A Brony Tale is in limited release and available on VOD this week.