[Editor’s Note: This article is presented in partnership with the Montana Film Office, a central information source for on-location filmmakers. Click here to learn more.]
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Alex and Andrew Smith made their debut with “The Slaughter Rule,” a football drama starring Ryan Gosling which premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. For both that feature and their second film, “Winter in the Blood,” which premiered at the 2013 LA Film Festival, the twin brothers chose to shoot in their home state of Montana.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by award-winning Native American author James Welch, “Winter in the Blood” tells the story of Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic Blackfoot Indian man who returns home after a bender and finds that his wife has left him.
The novel was set in Montana and the Smiths wanted the setting to feel authentic. “We are very interested in veracity,” said Andrew Smith, during a recent interview with Indiewire. “Particularly in this story, which came out a such a specific place, we wanted to be true to that place. So we not only shot in the region where it took place, we actually shot on some of the exact locations that were mentioned in the novel in 1974. We had very specific places, and found ourselves delighted that we could still shoot there. Time moves slowly in Montana.”
Thanks to special incentives from the Montana Film Commission, the Smiths were able to shoot in their home state. Though they relied on location scouts and know the region well, the Smiths said they relied on the Montana Film Commission to provide help with locations.
“It was a combination of working with local people, with the film commission and also with a location scout,” said Alex Smith. Andrew explained that they were also careful about getting permission to shoot on the reservation. “We worked with the tribal council when we were shooting on reservation land. We had official scouts from the state, but we also had really good range riders who would take us around and knew each and every mile of the reservation,” he said.
Alex said that early on there was talk about shooting in Canada, but that “we felt like if we embraced the place that bore the book, it would embrace us.” That turned out to be the case. He said people in the community were making them dinners and putting the crew up and bringing them props to use for free.
“As Montana filmmakers, it was important to shoot it there,” said Alex. “And part of it is, we believe that if we get the location specific, it becomes universal. But if you try to create a generic location, it’ll get pulled down. So we’re trying to emulate other people’s hometown, other people’s experience of location if that makes sense. Those are all reasons why it was very important for us to shoot in that location.”
When asked for tips about finding the right location, Alex advised to stay true to your vision. He explained that one of the key locations in the film was a ranch and though there are countless ranches in Montana, they had a specific look in mind. They kept driving past one and wondering if it would work, but the location scout through it might be inaccessible. They waited for the weather to change and ended up shooting about one third of the film there. “So the tip would be ‘if your gut is telling you this is the place, don’t let go of that idea. Make it happen,'” he said.
For their new film, “Walking Out,” based on an award-winning short story by David Quammen, they’ll be shooting in central Montana. “It’s a place that’s had more films shot than where we shot for ‘Winter in the Blood,'” said Alex. “But, luckily, in a state like Montana, nothing has been shot out.”
They said they’re also looking for the perfect location that is also accessible for a crew. “You just have to remember that all that matters is what’s in the frame. You don’t need to be remote to feel remote — as long as you’re far enough from the road, it can feel remote,” explained Andrew. “Sometimes it’s essential for your day to not be in the hardest place to access.”
Because of their longstanding relationship with the Montana Film Office, “we’re becoming the Montana poster boys for film,” said Alex.
It’s important to take the time to get location right, added Andrew “because landscape is a character. So we treat it with as much care as we would in casting our actors.”