Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel conceptualized and crafted a screenplay about a Montana family in deep conflict without ever having stepped foot inside the state. Their long-overdue introduction took place in September 2020, when they were scouting locations for the adaptation of “Montana Story.”
Fourteen months later, the California natives and current New York residents look back on their entire production experience with a mixture of excitement and appreciation, comparing themselves to a pair of sponges who soaked up the greatness that was all around them in Montana.
McGehee and Siegel said the humility of Montana is on full display in the forceful intensity of “Montana Story” — from the drama, emotion and rapidly shifting variables bound up in its geography, to the lockstep professionalism of the local crews, to the pure, non-conforming, rebellious spirit of its always-a-topic-of-conversation weather.
“We wrote the script when the lockdown in New York was intense and hopping on a plane and going to Montana (in mid-September 2020 to scout) was an adventure at that point,” said David Siegel. “We hadn’t done anything like that for months. Montana exceeded our expectations as far as beauty, and the local crew was fantastic, and there was nothing disappointing about Montana, and we loved being out there.”
Exploring the divide that can unhinge even the most reliable relationships, “Montana Story” depicts the struggles of a son called Cal (Owen Teague), who returns to the 200-acre ranch of his upbringing to tend to the end-of-life issues besieging his abusive, unprincipled father.
As the old man lays incapacitated from a brutal stroke, brain damaged, a few breaths close to death, Cal struggles to pay off the man’s debts while the family estate dissolves into misfortune and bankruptcy. A subplot involves the mercy killing of a 25-year-old horse called Mr. T and the drive Cal must take with his begrudging older sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), to pick up a horse trailer in Browning. Tension between brother and sister carries weighty implications and all of the stickier elements of their childhood, from death, loyalty and the specter of familial betrayal, haunt the film.
The film was written at the height of COVID-19 uncertainty and crafted and revised at a period in the U.S. teeming with tension and violence, influences that the directors say permeated into the decidedly somber view of the film.
“When the lockdown occurred, we were feeling a lot of different things,” says David. “There was the election, the lockdown, the virus — a lot of pain caused across the country and it stewed those feelings for the story for 'Montana Story.' We were writing and self-isolating, doing it over the phone and Zoom and along with executive producer Mike Spreter, the three of us kicking around ideas for the story, writing the script in separate places … We [Scott and I] both grew up in California, and were familiar with large expanses of land, et cetera, and we knew we both wanted to make a film in Montana, where we could use a small cast, and where the virus load was low. At that point (of writing the screenplay), Montana was one of the least-affected areas, and by September that had changed.”
The landscape of Montana crystallizes the somber shades of the plot. The principal shooting location of the film takes place on a ranch south of Livingston in Paradise Valley. Secondary locations include downtown Livingston, Ringling (which fills in as Browning) and the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. When the rig that they just purchased breaks down on their return home from Browning, the vast panoramas only deepen the perception of Cal and Erin’s sense of spiritual homelessness.
Poignancy resides at the surface, but it is darkness and despair that provide the most formidable impression. Among other lasting visual imprints, shots of Erin on horseback with the snow-capped mountains in the distance are scrumptious; closing drone shots of unencumbered horses allegorical. Even the most pedestrian moments throughout, such as Cal lighting up a smoke on the front porch steps of the ranch house, still manage to evoke a hushed, contemplative tableau that’s suggestive and assured, all in equal measure.
Two things about the approximately 28 days of filming in Montana stick with David — the nutty, at times powerfully cold weather, and the local crew’s commitment to slog through it all, undeterred.
“The local crew took the idea of layers to a whole new level,” said Siegel. “We arrived the third week of October and stayed to the end of November, basically. We were told that it was the worst snowstorm in Montana in October ever. We had to scramble the schedule and the weather that we got in the movie, and we are really happy for it. … Though we knew that we couldn’t have had it turned into dead winter while we were here, or else we were not going to be able to shoot.”
Thanks to a wide range of weather patterns, the directors had the opportunity to accept and embrace a type of creative lawlessness. When the production began filming, the weather was invitingly sunny, with skies of confident blue overstuffed with puffy, benign-looking clouds.
“Everywhere you looked, it was one beautiful sunlit vista after the next,” said Siegel. “But then shooting was hit hard by snow.”
Local crews, however, handled the melodramatic shift of tangled temperatures with characteristic aplomb.
“We heard of other people who had had good experiences with Montana crews,” said director Scott McGehee, “and it proved to be true for us as well. We had a lovely local crew, flexible, competent, and that had an attitude with an impossible ability to withstand cold temperatures with no problem. We were bundled, freezing, while the grip and electric crew showed up with a pair of jeans and their Carhartts, and that seemed to be enough. We knew we had a very tight window to do the film before the bad weather was going to come.”
Though it pressured the production, the significant snowfall of October 2020 — punctuated by more than two feet of snow amassed uninterruptedly for 48 hours at some elevations — ultimately lent one more layer of transient, ambient texture to “Montana Story.”
“There were three major snowstorms, two of which were blistering,” said McGehee. “In a way, that made for good images for the movie. There is snow in the film and non-snow in the film. In the end, we had wide open vistas that we got to shoot in, and we will never forget some of these images.”
A Montana experience
A couple of other memorable notes from the production include the fact that the film crew spent three days shooting in Ringling, a town of approximately 35 residents, about 50 miles north of Livingston, even setting up base camp at the Ringling Bar. Also, Cal, who, in the film has left the state and works as an engineer in Cheyenne, Wyoming, comes back to Montana in the company of a mandolin. As it turned out, the mandolin that you see on the screen is owned by actor Owen Teague, and the instrument made its way into the script and score after it was learned to have been manufactured by a luthier with Montana ties.
Because of COVID-19 concerns, the directors were forced to limit the cast of the film to just eight characters in the movie total. Three Montana folks, though, found their way into the final production as day players.
“John Ludin, who runs the Ellen Theatre, in Bozeman, he has a small part in the movie,” said McGehee. “He auditioned and we liked it. We didn’t know the connection to the Ellen Theatre [where John is the executive director] until we got to know him a bit. He plays an unscrupulous family lawyer. Rob Story doesn’t have a speaking part, but kind of a major part as the father who is in a coma throughout the movie, lying in bed. It is quite challenging to be as still and quiet for the long periods he had to do that for. Kate Britton played the real estate agent who is brought around to see about selling the ranch.”
Evaluating the premise to conclusion nature of their work, the directors noted their appreciation of the “attractive” Montana film tax credit, “a big factor” that enabled the production of such “a small movie.”
“We did not have tons of money,” said Siegel, “and it (the film tax credit) makes the movie affordable. As much as we were committed to Montana on a creative level, I’m not certain that we would have allowed ourselves to follow up on it, or that we would have been able to commit to it, without the tax credit.”
While the directors’ interest in Montana at first was abstract, perhaps even a bit too romantically inclined, it didn’t take much time on the ground for the relationship to get deeply personal, and something about the experience impacted them harder than they had anticipated.
“We had imagined a Montana based on our ideas of lore and what we had grown up with in the West,” said McGehee. “Though neither of us had been to it, we planned to transpose these feelings into a colder version of that lore. We were trying to get a feel of the issues around the land, of who lives in Montana, and those things in relation to one another. We knew of its association with images of natural beauty. It exceeded our expectations.”