Gallery dance at Sundance 

In the cinema marketplace, Montana teams with the scenic states

It’s the first Sunday night of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and the Images of Nature Gallery on Main Street in Park City is packed elbow to elbow with producers, directors, actors and a group of women modeling a rather revealing variety of evening wear. A photographer follows the women around the gallery, snapping photos while waiters circulate carrying trays outfitted with beds of wheatgrass. Tucked inside the grass are tiny elk burgers.

The grass, the elk and the stunning landscape photos on the gallery walls are supposed to remind everyone that this party is being jointly hosted by the states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and South Dakota. Film commission representatives from these states come together every year at Sundance in an effort to lure productions to the Northern Rockies and high plains.

They know that for each production so lured, the host state can expect about one third of the production’s total budget to be pumped into the local economy. More and more, that location is Canada, where tax incentives and a favorable exchange rate have stimulated an influx of American films.

Montana and its sister states have come to Sundance in an effort to bring some of that business back home. On a coffee table at the Images of Nature Gallery, the Wyoming Film Office has set out a stack of special cards that can be redeemed by production crews for a 10 percent discount on services like catering and lodging. The Teton state is the nominal setting for shows like Tom Selleck’s western adventure series Monte Walsh, but the program on TNT is shot in Canada. An upcoming feature starring Jennifer Lopez titled An Unfinished Life calls for Wyoming in the script, but it too is slated for production this year in Canada.

In Idaho, the Film Bureau’s Peg Owens says a film called Speaking of Sex was written for Boise, but will be produced this year in either Vancouver or Calgary. Owens recently obliged part of the film’s crew with a tour of Boise, where they may shoot landscapes that later could be superimposed over a Canadian backdrop.

Owens, like the other reps gathered at Sundance, wants her state to do more to compete with Canada. But when asked if the Idaho Legislature would entertain the idea of creating tax breaks for filmmakers, Owens shrugs and says, “Our state budget deficit was $200 million this year.”

Montana is in the same boat. However, that hasn’t stopped a group of Montana-based film professionals from making waves over the issue. Mingling at the recent Sundance party is Tina Buckingham, a casting director who dates herself as a Montanan by saying, “I go back to the Rancho Deluxe days” of the mid-1970s.

Since then, Montana landscapes increasingly have been replaced on the screen by settings in British Columbia and Alberta. In February, Buckingham will attend a Montana Film Office event in Livingston. There, a variety of film professionals plan to discuss the idea of granting the entertainment industry a 10 percent tax rebate if they agree to work in Montana.

“If you offer 10 percent back on your production dollar, that’s still 90 cents you didn’t have,” says Buckingham.

Even without such incentives, Montana’s film industry is faring better than South Dakota’s, Idaho’s and Wyoming’s. Last year the state was home to five feature productions: Disney’s Hidalgo, Heaven’s Pond shot near Kalispell, a Norwegian film titled Wolf Summer and a pair of 2003 Sundance selections.

One of these latter, titled White of Winter, is a low-budget drama that unfolds like one long awkward silence. How it made it into Sundance is unclear. Perhaps the festival hopes to keep its edge by allowing in rough and overly ambitious works like White of Winter. The otherwise unremarkable film does contain this one notable line: “Tommy hates Montana.”

For brothers Michael and Mark Polish, it was their love for the state that secured the production of Northfork in Montana. Growing up, the Polish brothers split time between California and their dad’s place on Swan Lake near Bigfork. The twins, who endeared themselves to Hollywood with their 1999 Sundance selection Twin Falls Idaho, continue to spend a few months out of every year in Montana.

Michael, the writer and director on Northfork, took the film’s name from the North Fork of the Flathead River, where he and his brother often fish. Inspiration for the storyline arose from his grandfather’s work building dams in Hungry Horse and Libby.

Northfork takes place on “the Front Side,” as Michael calls it—where the prairie meets the mountains near Choteau and Augusta. It’s a period piece set in the 1950s about a small town that’s about to be covered by the waters of a new reservoir. The film stars A-listers James Woods, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah, who arrives at the Images of Nature Gallery wearing a “Northfork” baseball hat pulled down tight over her eyes. Hannah and the other cast members all worked out of a mobile home known as the “Buffalo Lounge” while out on location.

The production took the crew from Augusta, to Great Falls (where Hannah revived her Splash character by wearing a mermaid costume into the Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge/motel pool), to Glasgow in April and May of 2002.

“They did some insane things,” jokes Sten Iverson, head of the Montana Film Office. “I mean to go to Glasgow? People just don’t do that.”

At least they haven’t since Clint Eastwood’s Foxfire in 1983. Michael Polish says he wrote Northfork long before getting his break with Twin Falls Idaho. But this film was harder to finance, so it remained shelved for almost a decade while the Polish brothers scouted Eastern Montana from peaks to prairie.

Polish hopes to make more films in Montana. But as he learned with Northfork, investors are keen on shooting in Canada.

“I said you can’t do that,” says Polish, who arrived at Sundance just in time to make the party at Images Of Nature. “We fought and fought and we lost a million bucks.”

What Polish means is, if his $2-3 million feature had gone to Canada, the government incentives could have shaved $1 million from Northfork’s price tag.

Instead, the project is “a pure Montana film,” says Polish. “And that’s important to me.”

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