I'm a fan of obscure facts and I'm obsessed with minutia. I like to read details about how writers pursue their craft: what their desks look like, what their processes are. I like behind-the-scenes stories about the recording of albums I dig. I'll even happily learn about landmark records I don't care for if the process of bringing them to the world is fascinating. That I remember very few of these facts is beside the point. I enjoy the revelations that come with learning. Which is a long way to explain why I expected to wholeheartedly tear into the new book from Helena writer Brian D'Ambrosio, Shot in Montana: A History of Big Sky Cinema. And I did.
I love movies. If I suddenly found myself living in a world without books, I think I could find it bearable as long as movies were still around. That said, I'm not a cinephile to the extent that I can quote dialogue from obscure foreign films (I can quote from early Bill Murray comedies) or list the works of my favorite director. That's where a book like Shot in Montana comes in. It's not a scholarly treatise on the importance of Montana cinema. It is an encyclopedic work on the 93 movies that have been filmed, or partially filmed, in Montana over the last century—and D'Ambrosio talks about them all.
In the introduction, D'Ambrosio shows how the diversity of Montana's landscapes and its remoteness have allowed it to play the role of many other areas of the country and the world. It's been China, Norway, Oklahoma and even Heaven (at least a couple times). It's been featured in hits—A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer, The Revenant—and movies that were, well, less so (Call of the Wild 3D, anyone?). As interesting as the author's overview is, though, the real joy of Shot in Montana is venturing into the meat of the book: the stories behind the movies themselves.
The book is organized alphabetically by movie title, starting with 2008's A Fork in the Road and ending on 2003's Wolf Summer. Each listing provides the cast (at least the notable members), the director, the locations in Montana that were used, and the year the film was made. D'Ambrosio follows the basic information with a page or two on the making of the movie. In the case of Michael Camino's Heaven's Gate (1980), that story makes for several pages. Filmed in Butte, Kalispell and Glacier National Park, Heaven's Gate features a big-name cast: Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Rourke. Camino had just come off winning the Academy Award for best picture for directing the Vietnam War classic The Deer Hunter. Heaven's Gate, for which he demanded complete creative control, is considered one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history. D'Ambrosio does a fantastic job describing the troubled production.
Books like Shot in Montana are fun to just open and browse for nuggets of cinematic history. 1993's The River Wild, starring Meryl Streep as a river guide menaced by a diabolical Kevin Bacon? It's one I hadn't considered in years, but now I remember I loved the movie. A version of Jim Thompson's classic noir novel The Killer Inside Me starring Stacy Keach? I seem to recall that movie having been made, but that it was shot in 1974 in Butte makes me want to run out and find a copy ASAP. It's great fun just to see what 15 or 20 minutes with this book might turn up. The problem is falling into the rabbit hole of such an approach and realizing that minutes have turned into an hour or more.
There is also an index broken out by movies, locations and actors/directors/writers/crew. I mentioned Bill Murray earlier. Turns out he hasn't been involved in any movies made in Montana. But other "Saturday Night Live" funnymen have, like Chris Farley (the awful '96 Lewis and Clark spoof Almost Heroes) and John Belushi (the '81 romantic comedy flop Continental Divide). Both actors probably went to their graves regretting they ever made movies here.
I can't speak to how Shot in Montana holds up for educated film buffs more deeply immersed in movie history. But for me, an armchair critic and somewhat-more-than-average fan, it's nearly perfect. (The only quibble I have is barely worth mentioning: I wish genres were included in the headings for each movie.) I'll be looking through this book for years to come.
Brian D'Ambrosio reads from Shot in Montana at Fact & Fiction Fri., Nov. 4, at 5:30 PM and again at Shakespeare & Co. Sat., Nov. 5, at 1 PM.