Special Report: Why Hollywood still wants to film in Montana after all these years

Posted at 3:06 PM, May 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:01:48-04

BILLINGS – There is little secret what the most iconic film shot in Montana is. People still ask where to find that spot where a young Brad Pitt cast his line into the pristine waters of the upper Yellowstone, Gallatin and Boulder rivers.

“It is the film people think of when they think of Montana,” said Allison Whitmer, Montana Film Office commissioner. “‘A River Runs Through It’ is the ultimate film. Our visitors from overseas come here just to go fishing.”

The film created a 60 percent increase in Montana fishing the year it was released back in 1992. Robert Redford, the film’s director, would return in 1996 to shoot “The Horse Whisperer.”

But like any great recipe, Montana can be found in more than 180 different productions, from documentaries and television series to short and feature-length films.

“We have little pieces of ‘The Revenant’, little pieces of ‘The Shining’ and we’re heaven in ‘What Dreams May Come’,” Whitmer said. “What could be better than that?”

The Montana Film Office was created in 1974 as a way to be a curator and source for the needs of on-location filmmakers. It works to promote the state as a filming location and invite productions into Montana for the overall economic benefit of the state.

Once a filmmaker and studio decide on Montana, the office can assist in finding locations that fit the script and continue to act as a liaison through every phase of production.

Even with the office, there are limits to the state and its ability to provide the destination movie studios need for a production.

“Our population doesn’t always have the exact proportions that a film producer needs. While we have 600 people on our crew list, a big show like Avengers will hire 600 people for a weekend.”

With a lack of hotel rooms and flights into film locations, Whitmer and crew seek to offset with access to gorgeous locations, inexpensive fees, and working with producers to “make sure we’re really the right environment.”

“All those hurdles are very surmountable, and the production value you get by shooting here in the state is unmatched,” said Matt Flanders, producer for the upcoming film Ted K shot in Lincoln, Montana.

Mother Nature tends to play a role as well.

“We have weather concerns and we have travel concerns,” Whitmer says, but when a producer needs that landscape “and that means a helicopter to get to it. And that’s what you need to have, then Montana offers it.”

Montana isn’t full of financial perks either, especially so after the Legislature allowed the sunset of one film incentive in 2015 and killed a bill that would have provided a tax credit to production companies that hired Montana residents.

It would have also given credit if the company hired and worked in “underserved” areas where unemployment is high.

Other cities and countries offer massive incentives to crews. Colorado administers a 20 percent cash rebate incentive program for production costs. New Mexico provides 25 to 30 percent. But even those pale in comparison to Canada, where producers can access combined federal and provincial tax credits ranging from 32 percent to 70 percent of eligible labor, as well as tax incentives on local qualifying, spend ranging from 20 percent to 30 percent.

Montana does have certain “built-in” incentives that benefit filmmakers, such as no sales tax and reduced location fees.

“Our public lands location fees are very accessible for producers and we offer some reduced migratory equipment taxes. We find that for overall high-end business incentives, that is up to the legislature,” Whitmer said.

The film office, which also offers grants for certain projects, wants to ensure incentives created by the state are used by high-quality projects.

“We don’t want projects that are here to take advantage of our citizens and landscapes,” she said. “We want them truly to be partners with our business community.”

Whitmer says Montana’s biggest competition for filming on-location is Utah. With similar vistas, filmmakers can disguise a spot in the Beehive State to appear as a mountainous region in the 406.

“We work on the idea that we give better personal service. We have better communities. We have friendly communities for filmmakers. And that can offset the financial hit they make take to come here.”

Some films will take the best of both worlds. “Wildlife”, an upcoming film directed by Paul Dano, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, is set in 1960, where a boy watches his parents’ marriage fall apart after they move to Montana, and his mother falls in love with another man.

The film office worked tirelessly with Dano and crew scouting locations for both financial and weather-related reasons. Instead of shooting in Great Falls, the crew doubled the town in Livingston for a week, prepping it to be what Great Falls may have looked like in 1960 as well as filming a fire camp in the mountains.

The production then moved to Oklahoma. “Oklahoma offered both the film incentive and better weather,” Whitmer said. “Is that an ideal situation for us? Of course not, we want the whole movie shot here. But we were able to help them come to a financial and creative decisions that got them the best film they could make and that really is the mission of the film office.”

Montana, as noted before, can play a minor or major role in a film. Take for example “The Shining”.

The opening helicopter shot of Jack Nicholson driving to the Overlook was filmed by a second unit on Going-to-the-Sun Road, running along the western shore of Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.

Some of this footage was added to the original release of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”. That same road appears briefly in the Tom Hanks’ cross-country run in “Forrest Gump”.

“I believe that took less than a day,” Whitmer jokes. “So that is the quickest one that I know of.”

Montana is home to prestigious film education in the state. Both Montana State University and University of Montana have film programs to build and retain those who will work in the industry.

“Graduates of those programs want to stay in Montana. They have been developing their own projects and working with filmmakers out of state,” Whitmer said.

Some upcoming projects include “Useless”, a barrel racing film that began shooting in early May. RFD-TV is filming western history in Miles City that will also feature the famous Bucking Horse Sale. The first episode that aired May 2 focused on Wally Badget. Whitmer also pointed out NYU graduates are planning to film in Anaconda,but did not specify the project.

A producer is also looking to film in Shelby and another eyeing a project in Great Falls. Both the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel have filmed throughout Montana. And a Montana production crew — Warm Springs Productions — is shooting a home improvement show in Bozeman.

You can learn more about the Montana Film Office here.

Reporting by Dustin Klemann for MTN News