Montana Goes Hollywood 

Behind the scenes at a big-time film shoot in the Bitterroot

The hustle and bustle of grips and electrical assistants assumes a purposeful, predetermined order. One by one the moving parts of the movie machine click into place.

“How does that silk look on Catherine?”

Catherine Oxenberg is not wearing any silk. A crew member is holding a four-by-four foot frame sheeted with diaphanous fabric between a blinding HMI light and the graceful blond actress, clad in a black skirt and a gray cashmere sweater. Silks, opal, two-sixteen, Hampshire Frost—these terms all belong to the relentlessly technical vernacular of movie lighting.

“Rolling sound!”

Oxenberg is flicking hair away from the back of her neck, still chatting with the make-up artist who’s been hovering, mothlike, one pace behind her between takes in this scene. She’s been advised to hold her head at a different angle for this attempt. Now she leans into the passenger side window of the scene’s one big prop—a green sport utility vehicle with California license plates. The scene freezes for a moment and a camera assistant holds up the clapper with the time code displayed in glowing digital red.

“Set!”

The cameras are rolling; the pulse rolls right up the chain of command to director Robin Murray, peering nonchalantly into a monitor to the right of the cameraman.

“Action!” he says.

It’s quiet on the set. The actress opposite Oxenberg, on the driver’s side of the vehicle, delivers a line of dialogue that is muffled, from where we’re standing, by the cab of the SUV. Oxenberg’s reply, on the other hand, comes across with pristine clarity:

“Don’t worry about me. You behave.

We’ve been here since a little after 11 a.m. We left the car along the gravel road, followed a twisting python of electrical cables down the bony hill from a shed-sized generator parked next to a snowbank, stepped across a few banks of red pine needles and kinnickkinnick, and stumbled into the midst of it: the set of The Flying Dutchman, a 90-minute feature film being shot in and around the somnolent logging town of Darby. The production crew has already been in the Bitterroot for a couple of weeks, renting properties, designing “ice cavern” set pieces inside the Darby VFW hall and finally rolling film.

Today’s schedule is given over to scenes to be shot around two cabins at the edge of Lake Como, at this time of year a solid sheet of snow-dusted ice. One of the two cabins was built in 1935 by the Hamilton Hikers’ Club as a destination and meeting place for their newly-formed group of hiking, skiing and camping enthusiasts. For the duration of the Lake Como shooting, it will serve as the mess hall for the roughly 45-person crew; the other will house thousands of pounds of lighting, sound and camera equipment, the endless coils of black cable, all the cumbersome luggage of a feature shoot.

The lake is nestled at the base of Como Peaks, a craggy congregation of sentinel points that rings the lake’s western edge with the stony impasse of a damning jury. It’s an unqualifiedly beautiful place to shoot a movie. The weather looks promising as well: mildly overcast but threatening to turn gorgeous, with a few open patches already scoring the dirty-nickel gray into slices of tenuous blue.

But producer Chris Arnold isn’t convinced, and we quickly learn that a great day to go out hiking, skiing or camping with the Hamilton Hikers’ Club doesn’t necessarily translate into a great day for shooting a film outside. Arnold is strolling around the gentle slope on the cabin’s downward side, occasionally glancing skyward to gauge the shooting conditions. He gives us the first of many short treatises on natural light that we would hear throughout the day, how it must be yoked, diffused and augmented with electric lights to appear natural on film.

“We designed the movie so that no kind of weather could really put us back,” he says. “But overcast weather is actually perfect for us because we like to create our own light. In fact, the first few days were very sunny, and it took quite a while to put up enough blacks and things like that to where we could do our own lighting. These kinds of conditions are ideal,” he juts his chin upward, “because once the sun comes out, it’s very directional and you start having problems with continuity.”

Further down the slope, a shot is already in progress. It consists entirely of Rod Steiger, dressed in black pants, hat and leather jacket, peeking around a pine tree. The cameras are about to roll.

“Quiet on the set,” someone commands, and human silence breaks out—mocked faintly by a slight wind sighing through the pine trees.

One of the first things you notice on the set of a movie is how far removed the individual scenes seem to be from any kind of cogent whole. The call sheet from the previous day’s filming describes particular scenes with strictly-business brevity: “Mother’s been bad,” “Boy opens bedroom door,” “Man stares out over lake,” “Gloved hand opens door.” Each shot description is followed by a script number and a list of the cast members required to shoot it; “Gloved hand opens door” lists the necessary cast as simply “Gloved hand.”

We had driven up to the set on Lake Como purposely knowing as little as possible about the plot of The Flying Dutchman, curious to see if we could piece the narrative together based on the snippets filmed between lengthy pauses to shuttle sound and lighting equipment from one side of the cabin to the other. We can’t. The scene with Rod Steiger peeping out from behind a tree trunk is one of many like it—presumably indispensable to the narrative, eerily pointless without the context.

Being Rod Steiger

After completing a few takes of the tree trunk scene, the crew strikes camp on the slope and begins setting up a new scene closer to the cabin. Steiger retires to the main room, where a comforting fire crackles in the fireplace but most of the warmth comes from a blazing gas-fired element that radiates smelly orange heat. A make-up crew immediately begins covering Steiger’s face with protective tape as they set to work on his beard with what looks like a can of black spray enamel.

Director Murray strolls across the room. “They’re making his beard darker,” he says. “It’s for a flashback to 20 years ago.”

There he sits, thoroughly indisposed: Rod Steiger, Academy award-winner who has portrayed Napoleon, Mussolini, Pontius Pilate and Al Capone (“They say I’ve played more people who actually lived than any actor ever,” he later tells me, peering from the passenger seat of a courtesy vehicle through bluish-black eyes rimmed with lagoon green). Rod Steiger in a brown barber’s apron, a Kleenex stuffed into each eye socket while a pair of tapers and sprayers transforms his character into a version of 20 years earlier. Apart from his newly-blackened beard, he looks every bit of his almost 75 years. And for an actor whose screen career has spanned half a century, he looks impossibly real.

The grips and lighting crew, meanwhile, have been rigging Steiger’s next scene. They’ve laid a semicircular dolly track around a bench where the flashback Steiger and his flashback son, played by teenage Corvallis actor R.J. Talbot, will bond over a moment of sadness, the particulars of which are again irrelevant to the day-tripper. Steiger and Talbot take their places on the bench. The young actor, clad only in his shirtsleeves, shivers against the cold as a make-up artist stoops over him to apply the artificial tears. Obviously irked by the unavoidable delays involved in “tweaking” the scene after the initial blocking and camera rehearsals, Steiger petulantly barks out orders:

“Hold it, Jesus Christ! Put some clothes on the boy!”

Seconds later, in a fit of improvisation, Steiger is calling around the set looking for a handkerchief to wipe the boy’s tears.

“Handkerchief! Handkerchief! Hasn’t anybody on this set got a handkerchief? I want to dry the boy’s tears!”

Inspiration strikes again. Steiger calls out for someone to give him the name of a local tribe (“Kootenai,” someone suggests), which Steiger then weaves into an ad-libbed story about the towering mountains off to his left. After each take, he immediately commands a crew member to put some clothes on the boy.

By all accounts, Steiger’s stringent professionalism makes him, if not always a cakewalk to work with, a solid class act. As we take in the flashback scene from a railing that skirts the south face of the cabin, Steiger’s lighting stand-in, Bill Davis, nudges me and whispers, “That’s how you win Academy awards. Strictly cut and dried. And he’ll walk off the set in a heartbeat.”

Steiger’s take-no-mess demeanor on the set has clearly won the grudging respect of the cast and crew.

“He’s gruff as shit,” confides one crew member. “He’s like the grandpa you wish you never had. But he’s a professional.”

Fourteen-year-old R.J. Talbot, who admits that he’s never seen a film with Rod Steiger in it, says that he’s enjoyed working with the actor some 60 years his senior.

“It’s great,” Talbot shrugs happily. “Just do what he says and try to look sad. That’s what I’m doing.”

Heaven’s Gate and Beyond

Prior to the critical and commercial successes of made-in-Montana epics like The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It, the Treasure State’s greatest claim to cinematic fame was Heaven’s Gate, the plummeting 1980 bomb that bankrupted United Artists and thoroughly destroyed the career and reputation of director Michael Cimino, whose Vietnam odyssey The Deer Hunter, had swept the Oscars only a year before. Heaven’s Gate cost in excess of $36 million dollars (a then unheard-of sum) to produce and made Montana an accessory—both visually and in the reams of critical bile-spewing the film incited—to what was up until that point the most universally trashed movie to ever see a theatrical release.

No cloud, however, is without its silver lining. Heaven’s Gate was a box office disaster, but it poured millions of dollars into the state’s economy. The fact is, movies—even bad ones—are good for Montana. Last year, a total of 101 made-in-Montana productions—including documentaries, commercials, TV shows and two feature films—dropped some $8.6 million into the state’s coffers. Not the biggest year ever, but not bad for an industry that distributes the wealth on all levels and leaves autographs and movie star anecdotes in place of yawning craters and poisoned groundwater.

According to Lonie Stimac, Montana’s modest but steadily growing success in the movie industry boils down to an abundance of natural and human resources and the willingness to accommodate outside interests in a mutually beneficial manner. As one example, she holds up Broken Arrow, a 1996 action-thriller film starring John Travolta and Christian Slater as rival daredevils chasing a couple of loose nukes around the high country of—Utah.

“Broken Arrow could have been shot anywhere,” Stimac says. “But they filmed it in Montana because we have a private rail line that was willing to work with the producers of the film. And it meant several million dollars to the people of Montana.”

Stimac has been the director of the Montana Film Office since 1990. Her office is the administrative headquarters of the Montana Film Council, which was created in 1974 as an offshoot of the state Department of Commerce and Travel Montana with the simple directive to attract as many commercial film projects to the state as possible. Funding for Stimac’s agency comes from the 4 percent Accommodations Tax on overnight lodgings, a non-optional surcharge paid by state employees as well as tourists.

The Montana Film Office maintains an active website that offers a trove of helpful information and connections for anyone planning an on-location shoot. Montana’s scenic endowments—lakes, waterfalls, rivers, mountains—are carefully itemized and beautifully illustrated, as are manmade structures of particular interest to filmmakers hoping to bank on the state’s frontier appeal: railroads, ghost towns, mansions, dams. Pages of tables, lists and graphs cover every technical consideration, from climate and sun charts to tax laws and links leading to Montana-based production crews.

Roughly half of The Flying Dutchman’s 45-person production crew are Montanans—although, admittedly, more often by residence than birth. According to Stimac, a show of strength like this can only lead to bigger opportunities for the state and its small but growing attendant film industry.

“We think it’s great,” she enthuses. “That’s exactly what the mandate from the legislature calls for—that the money be spent on promoting Montana. That’s the reason we exist, and the ultimate result is that it brings money into Montana. Ten years ago, it wasn’t possible to live here and make a living year-round in this industry, but now we have commercials and smaller projects that employ 80 percent Montana crews. That’s a success story, as far as we’re concerned.”

“We’ve had enough productions here to gain the confidence of producers,” she continues. “So now they’re more inclined to come here for things like commercials and smaller projects. With bigger features, they’re often going to fly in a lot more of their own people. Not for lack of talent here, but because the filmmakers often have the same group of people they work with from movie to movie.”

“They get very good cooperation from Montana agencies,” she adds. “But what I really like about it is that it hits every sector of the economy. They hire locksmiths, they need sanitation people to come out to their sites and clean up, they rent heavy equipment, they rent motel rooms and buildings. And it doesn’t leave any damage or pollution it its wake. It’s very environmentally friendly. And if it’s not,” she says, “then we want to know about it.”

Montanans in the Movies

Location aside, a lot of Montana has gone into the making of The Flying Dutchman. We meet Mary Keene, a Cascade resident whose craft service, Coffee, Tea and Me, provides light catering like juice, cinnamon rolls, macaroons and hot beverages on the set.

“I was working security for Don Rickles in Atlantic City,” she tells us, “and he told me to go back to college and learn the technology. He told me that I would earn more money backstage than I would as a star. And it’s true.”

We meet Doug Catlin, The Flying Dutchman’s still photographer, whose wife Melanie Alvarez-Catlin painted the nightmarish canvases that appear in the film. Melanie’s early work, which she did in New York City in the late ’80s, was recommended to director Murray by mutual friends; the director was impressed enough to rewrite the script to make actor Eric Roberts’ character, a psychotic sculptor, into a psychotic painter instead.

We meet Rick Willets and Scott McDaniel, joint owners of Dotson’s Saloon, a Darby watering hole that serves as the unofficial branch office of The Flying Dutchman’s cast and crew. Willets got hired as personal assistant and driver to Eric Roberts during the actor’s stay in the Bitterroot, and he confirms what we’d been hearing around the set all day: that the actor is a friendly, down-to-earth guy, genuinely interested in other people. Scuttlebutt around Dotson’s is that Roberts is thinking of purchasing land in the area.

McDaniel, speaking of butts, made his mark on the film in a rather unusual capacity. He’d just returned from vacation when the production office called him up looking for a “butt double” for Rod Steiger. The producers needed a youngish posterior to use in yet another flashback, this time a rather racy one.

“I’d just gotten back from Texas, and they’d lost their butt extra, I guess,” says the soft-spoken McDaniel, “So they had to have somebody help out. They put a g-string on me and the girl, we hopped up on the bed and dry-humped for a few takes. It was an experience,” he shrugs, adding a tick to an invisible tote board, “Chalk another one up.”

We ask Willets who he thinks got the better deal.

“Oh, I think I did,” Willets replies. “I didn’t have to be in the bathroom for hours with people powdering my ass.”

“Yeah,” McDaniel sheepishly adds, “I guess they brushed a little powder on.”

When the crew breaks for dinner, we also meet a Livingston resident with a hint of a Southern drawl: Jerry Mundy, the production’s best boy electrician. Over a plate heaped with steak, chicken and a baked potato smothered with fixings, Mundy gives us thoughtful, articulate answers on everything from finances and bond companies to the problems of creating artificial moonlight. He also answers the perpetual end credit question that has plagued many a filmgoer: What does a best boy do?

“I’m in charge of all the resources of the electrical department,” he explains, “Making sure everything is pre-rigged in time, that it’s de-rigged, and that everything is accounted for at the end of the show.”

He’s also in charge of hiring and firing in his department. His previous experience with other members of the film’s Los Angeles lighting crew made him an obvious choice to work on The Flying Dutchman. And he’s adamant about hiring local electricians.

“One of my requirements is that we hire as many Montanans as possible. One of the problems in our area is that when a feature film comes up, the producers tend to think there aren’t any qualified people here to do the job, so their immediate response is to hire people in L.A. and bring them up. So every opportunity I get I hire as many Montanans on my side as I can.”

“That way,” Mundy pauses for a bite of baked potato, “they gain more experience, and when the producers go back to L.A. they say, ‘Yeah, there are people up there who can do the job.’ And it attracts other people to Montana.”

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