Snow falling on pines 

For its big-screen adaptation, James Lee Burke’s “Winter Light” gets the real Montana treatment

It was midnight in Jocko Canyon and Julian Higgins was standing hip-deep in snow with a blizzard roaring around him. Any other person's main objective would have been to get inside and stay there, but Higgins was thrilled with the weather. He was shooting the finale of a short film he'd been dreaming about making for years. And the finale called for snow.

The blizzard, which struck on the last day of February 2014, was the worst Missoula had seen in years. The tow truck companies in town warned Higgins that if he got stuck up in the canyon, he was on his own. And although a few local plows braved the storm to help the crew create a flat place for equipment and shivering actors, executing anything was a long, slow, cold process. Higgins smiled through it all.

"It was fortuitous, it was perfect," says Higgins. "It was a cinematographer's dream, because the light hit every snowflake. We needed the weather in the last scene to be magical and it was. We rolled the dice by shooting in Missoula and we lucked out in a big way."

The Winter Light film project began in another snowstorm, in New Hampshire in 2011. Higgins had just finished his graduate thesis film, Thief, at the American Institute of Film, for which he'd won a Student Academy Award. He was sitting in his family's cabin in front of the fire, feeling lost and restless. His mother, a longtime James Lee Burke fan, gave him a book of the bestselling author's short stories to read. Although the director was facing building pressure to begin a feature film project, the first story in the collection spoke to him immediately—and it didn't leave his mind until he decided to make it into a film.

"I remember feeling so hungry for it as I was reading it," Higgins says. "By the end of the story, I knew I wanted to make it into a movie. It's one of the few things that I've read in my life that I was immediately drawn to. I wasn't in the mindset of making another short—the conventional wisdom is to start moving toward a feature—but my enthusiasm for 'Winter Light' never went away. I did a few other projects and got older and wiser. And I reached a point in my life when I realized, why didn't I do this project when I knew I wanted to?"

First published in 1992 in Epoch magazine, "Winter Light" is the story of Roger Guidry, a 58-year-old literature professor who lives alone on the edge of a national forest in Montana. When a pair of men attempt to cross through his property to hunt on public land, the confrontation ignites a series of escalating events that makes Guidry question how far he's willing to go to stand up for his beliefs.

"It's about an honorable, kind and decent man who discovers that he doesn't have many allies, and about the struggle between good and evil that goes on every day," says the author, Burke. "And it takes place during Montana winter, when it feels as if death has a lock on this earth. But there's light in this man. He's dealing with wicked men. These men aren't hunters. They are people who simply want to kill. They are not sportsmen, they are psychopaths."

click to enlarge Raymond J. Barry stars in the film adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light.”
  • Raymond J. Barry stars in the film adaptation of James Lee Burke’s short story “Winter Light.”

Higgins' approach to past projects, with a keen focus on authenticity, has served him well. His 2011 award for Thief led him to his television directorial debut at the age of 26, with one of the final episodes of long-running drama series "House." His 2013 short film Here and Now was selected by Ron Howard as the winner of Canon's "Project Imagination" Film Contest.

After successfully getting the rights for "Winter Light," from a cooperative Burke, he cast Raymond J. Barry (Dead Man Walking, Training Day, "Justified") as Roger, as well as Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell in "Mad Men") and Josh Pence (Tyler Winklevoss in The Social Network) as the two hunters. Screenwriter Wei-Ning Yu brought Burke's story from the page to the screen with an elegant script that, like the short story, treats the landscape as a main character.

Higgins said filming in Montana was never in doubt. He has almost always shot on location, and after a scouting trip to Missoula in January 2014, he knew that no other place would be true to the story he was telling. He chose a cabin in Jocko Canyon for the professor's home"The paint froze onto the siding before it was dry," he says and Harold's Bar in Milltown for the hunters' hangout.

"In my last five years of filmmaking, I've only shot one day on a stage," he says. "When you drive an hour through the wilderness to get to a location, it changes everything for the actors. It extends to the whole crew. There's nothing to distract you. You are in it. The only challenge was to capture it as best we could."

His quest to preserve the heart of the original story went past location. Although the screenplay contains a number of changes to Burke's short piece of fiction, all of the changes were made carefully and with the purpose of keeping true to the ideas and atmosphere created by Burke. The largest alterations have to do with bringing past events in Roger's life into the present and with turning many of Roger's inner thoughts into real actions on the screen.

"The interesting thing about adaptation is that to capture the essence of something, you have to change it," Higgins says.

Burke, although pleased to hand his work to the group of young filmmakers, was not involved in the process after giving his blessing.

"Film is a collective art form," he says. "I feel very flattered, but it's a different medium and it's separate from the book. I'd like to claim credit for everything that works in the film, but then I have to be accountable for the things that don't. It's just a different entity. I know [Higgins'] record and he's made good films. I look forward to seeing it."

The 30-minute film is, indeed, a different entity from the short story. But the final product succeeds in finding the soul of Burke's "Winter Light." As the hunters' flashlights cut through the darkness in the final scene, thousands of whirling snowflakes are illuminated and then quickly lost again in the night. In the distance, Roger chops through the snow, celebrating a moral victory, even though it is likely paired with extreme personal loss. It is, as Higgins felt when he was filming it, a magical moment.

Winter Light screens at the Roxy Sat., July 18, at 2 PM, 4 PM and 6 PM. Filmmaker Q&A to follow each viewing. Tickets available at www.theroxytheater.org, or the box office.

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