A century of filmmaking puts Montana in the spotlight

December 23, 2016

Montana has shared its scenic landscape and iconic wildlife with Hollywood since the 1920s.

From the dusty plains of Eastern Montana pictured in the 1970 film “Little Big Man,” to dramatic Kootenai Falls near Libby filmed with a camera dangling from a helicopter for the 2015 film, “The Revenant,” Montana has enjoyed a long run on the big screen.

Most of the 1976 film, “The Missouri Breaks,” was shot in Montana, including on a ranch near Billings. Jack Nicholson, dressed in the vest and white shirt, had just won an Oscar for his role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when he was cast in the Western. He and co-star Marlon Brando reportedly clashed during the filming because of “dueling egos and Brando’s outlandish behavior” on the set, according to “Shot in Montana” author Brian D’Ambrosio.

Not surprisingly, about a third of the movies shot in Montana are Westerns, beginning with the 1920 film, “The Devil’s Horse,” according to Helena author Brian D’Ambrosio.

For his latest book, “Shot In Montana,” D’Ambrosio worked with the Montana Film Office to feature 93 movies that were filmed in Montana over almost a century. He interviewed directors and actors and dug through the extensive photo archives at the Montana Film Office, finding treasures like Tom Hanks standing on the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier for a shoot in “Forrest Gump” that ended up being cut from the 1994 film. Yet there is a scene of Tom Hanks as Forrest running through Glacier Park.

Two scenes from the 1994 film, “Forrest Gump,” were shot in Montana, including a scene on the Going to the Sun Highway, which was cut from the film.

One thing is true, if Montana is on the big screen, it’s always memorable, D’Ambrosio said.

The Duke in Montana

Montana helped launch the career of John Wayne in 1930 when he was cast in his first leading role in the film, “The Big Trail.” The movie’s widescreen format killed it at the box office, but Montana’s stunning Mission Mountains and the National Bison Range in Moiese used as a backdrop drew admiration.

And filmmakers just kept coming.

Dustin Hoffman portrayed a 121-year-old survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the highly acclaimed 1970 film, “Little Big Man,” which was filmed in eight locations in Montana by director Arthur Penn. The film premiered at the Fox Theater in Billings in December 1970, celebrated with hot fry bread and Native American dances performed in the streets.

Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston were teamed in the buddy movie “Rancho Deluxe,” which has gone on to become a cult classic. Set and shot in the Livingston area, the comedy about a pair of cattle rustlers in the 1970s was called “disastrously wrong” by film critic Roger Ebert.

Jeff Bridges’ role in the 1975 comedy western “Rancho Deluxe,” most of which was filmed in Livingston, inspired such a love for Montana in Bridges that he ended up moving here. Bridges met his wife at Chico Hot Springs and married her in 1977.

Director Robert Redford, right, talks with actors Brad Pitt, left, and Craig Sheffer during filming of “A River Runs Through It.”

Montana was thrust into the spotlight again when Robert Redford brought a film crew and a handsome young actor — Brad Pitt — to bring a Montana author’s book, “A River Runs Through It,” to the screen in 1992. The idea of filming the book reportedly came out of an argument between Redford and Montana rancher and writer Tom McGuane in the 1980s in a Livingston watering hole.

“The River Wild,” from 1994, featured intense whitewater scenes on the Kootenai River and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Actress Meryl Streep almost drowned during the filming.

Meryl Streep practically drowned filming a scene for 1994′s “The River Wild” on the Kootenai River. Her understanding of the scene was that a stunt double would do the water work, but director Curtis Hanson insisted that she be in the epic shots on the river rapids.

“There were many great memories to preserve and share,” D’Ambrosio said.

He was struck by the variety of Montana landscapes featured in films. Glacier National Park was a popular filming spot, but the plains around Fort Peck were also featured in one of D’Ambrosio’s favorite movies filmed in Montana, “Northfork.”

The filming of the land rush for “Far and Away” in south-central Montana was so big it made the ground shake and a few extras suffered broken bones. Ron Howard’s 1992 epic featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, however, landed with a thud at the box office.

“Montana is a visual delight for filmmakers. There are some iconic scenes filmed here, including the Oklahoma land rush in ‘Far and Away.’ And, in another film, Montana doubles as Mongolia.”

Filmmaking heyday

Montana’s heyday in filmmaking was the 1970s when there were sometimes two major pictures being filmed at the same time.

D’Ambrosio said that Billings businessman Earl Rossell was a pioneer in filmmaking who helped pitch Montana to his contacts in California.

One of D’Ambrosio’s favorite interviews for the book was speaking with Bridges, who was featured in several films done in Montana, including “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and “Heaven’s Gate.”

“It was just fun to hear Jeff howl like he does in ‘Rancho Deluxe,’” D’Ambrosio said.

Some actors and directors have used films they made in Montana as a springboard to launch their careers. Director Tate Taylor, who filmed “Pretty Ugly People” with Melissa McCarthy in East Glacier and Missoula in 2007, went on to win an Oscar for his 2011 film, “The Help.”

Michael Cimino, directed two movies in Montana: 1974′s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and 1980′s “Heaven’s Gate.” In between making those two films, he won two Academy Awards for 1979′s Best Picture, “The Deer Hunter” — one for directing and one as a producer.

D’Ambrosio writes that Cimino was a relentless perfectionist who kept a grueling pace when making “Heaven’s Gate.” He also spent a lot of money, including ordering a $1 million set that was never used. And he worked his actors hard; in one scene he made Kris Kristofferson crack a whip 75 times until he got it right, according to D’Ambrosio.

“It is still referred to as a cautionary example as what not to do as a director,” D’Ambrosio said.

Montana has also nurtured its own filmmakers.

Montana natives Andrew and Alex Smith made their first film, which featured a young Ryan Gosling, in Great Falls in 2000. The well-received independent film, “The Slaughter Rule,” set against the backdrop of Montana six-man football, takes its title from the rule where a game is called if a team runs up a 45-point lead. Gosling later broke out with an Academy Award-nominated performance for 2007′s “Lars and the Real Girl.”

“You can look at the book and find people who have gone on to great success. Montana is part of that,” D’Ambrosio said.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows “Nebraska” actors Bruce Dern, left, and Will Forte in a scene filmed in downtown Billings.

Many folks around Billings remember the excitement when Academy Award-winning writer and director Alexander Payne came to Billings and Laurel in 2012 to film part of 2013′s “Nebraska,” which was nominated for six Academy Awards. Yellowstone County Sheriff Capt. Dennis McCave had the distinction of being in the opening scene.

A recent film, “The Revenant,” was mostly shot in Argentina, but D’Ambrosio said the filmmakers realized after most of it was filmed, they needed an iconic waterfall for one pivotal scene. They chose Kootenai Falls near Libby for a 10-day shoot in 2014. To film the scene, a camera was suspended by a cable attached to a helicopter.

Deny Staggs, commissioner of the Montana Film Office, said the footage was shot using stuntmen wearing bearskin coats over wet suits. Leonardo DiCaprio and others actors in the scene performed their parts in giant water tanks and green screen technology patched the shots together.

Copies of “Shot in Montana” are $22.95 and available at This House of Books and Barnes and Noble in Billings or online at riverbendpublishing.com.