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[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.]
In July of 2013, award-winning director Julian Higgins teamed up with actress-producer Abigail Spencer (“Rectify,” “Mad Men,” “Suits”) and actor-producer Josh Pence (“The Social Network,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Draft Day”) to create the short film “Here and Now.”
Ron Howard and Bryce Dallas Howard selected “Here and Now” as the winner of Canon’s “Project Imaginat10n” Film Contest. Higgins, Spencer and Pence teamed up again for “Winter Light,” a short film adapted from a story by acclaimed best-selling author James Lee Burke.
The existentialist film stars Raymond J. Barry (“Justified”), Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Q’orianka Kilcher (“The New World”), Michael Bofshever (“United 93”) and Pence (“The Social Network”). Award-winning cinematographer Andrew Wheeler shot the film on 35mm film in Missoula, Montana in March 2014. The 30-minute film has been hitting the festival circuit, including Raindance, LA Shorts, Las Vegas Film Festival, Montana Film Festival and the New Hampshire Film Festival, where it won an award.
Indiewire recently connected with Higgins and Pence to talk about the film and its Montana setting.
How did you go about finding the right locations for “Winter Light”?
Julian Higgins (JH): “Winter Light” is adapted from a short story by Montana author James Lee Burke, and in the story, he’s clearly writing about a specific area in the western part of the state. A big part of what attracted me to the material was the relationship between the characters and the landscape – it was clear right away that our locations would be critical to the emotions and themes of the story.
As Los Angeles-based filmmakers, conventional wisdom would have us shooting “Winter Light” in Big Bear or something. But our feeling was, if the story takes place in Montana, let’s look at Montana first! I didn’t want to limit ourselves before thoroughly exploring the possibilities. And sure enough, the reality of western Montana was so much more epic than anything we could have found in Southern California.
Josh Pence (JP): In a wonderful twist of fate, our cinematographer Andrew Wheeler’s brother, Tim, lives in the area that inspired James Lee Burke’s story. So our initial scouts were based on Tim’s recommendations, which is how we found our main location, our protagonist’s residence.
JH: Tim, Josh and I drove all over the western part of the state together, and eventually landed back at the original places we’d seen visiting Tim in his home canyon near Arlee.
JP: We had another advantage with Pamala Burke (daughter of James Lee Burke) and her friends, all locals of the greater Missoula area. Word of mouth led us to some of our favorite locations, like Accu Arms and Harold’s Club.
JH: We would ask everyone we met for location suggestions. That’s how you find the real places, the ones that aren’t in any guidebook.
Tell us a bit about your location scouting process – what do you look for and how do you choose?
JH: I always start by looking for the wide shots. What’s the vantage point that will immediately convey the basic geography and also evoke the flavor of the setting in a single shot? “Winter Light” is a bit of an existential story, so I wanted locations where people and buildings would appear small and inconsequential within a vast landscape. I needed plenty of open space around each location so we could always reference the mountains. Even when considering interiors, I wanted to be able to see the landscape through the windows, so we’d never lose that sense of the surrounding wilderness.
JP: Authenticity. Character. Places that feel lived in. There are practical considerations as well: Can we move a camera around in here the way we want? Where can we park trucks? Is this area safe for our crew? But mainly we’re looking for places that evoke something subconscious, while also providing immediate context. And the hope is this place sticks with you, even after you walk out of the theater. The cold remains in your bones, the snow in your eyes.
JH: I guess I’m not entirely satisfied with something feeling “real.” I’d like to find locations that evoke something more poetic, that feel iconic or even mythical in a way. I think of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, for example – they both paint ostensibly real places, but with a simplicity and visual clarity that renders them iconic. I look for that kind of simplicity and clarity when I’m location scouting.
What was the most challenging aspect of scouting? Were there any specific locations you had difficulty finding?
JP: Location scouting is one of my favorite parts of the filmmaking process. There’s generally ample time and very little pressure at that point. Driving with Julian for hours upon hours down obscure Montana country roads – that’s my kind of adventure. The most challenging aspect of scouting is ending it. I’s difficult to stop scouting because there are endless options, especially in a place like Montana.
The most challenging location was our protagonist’s residence. Roger’s cabin was the focal point of our search because every other location would have to work around that.
JH: One big challenge in scouting was the question of snow. The film is set in the dead of winter. Without that sense of snowy isolation, the story doesn’t work. We found beautiful locations outside Missoula, but we were concerned that we wouldn’t get the snow we needed because of the low altitude. In the Bozeman area, at a higher elevation, we knew we’d get the snow, but we didn’t find locations that had the same visual poetry. I remember weighing the pros and cons of each place with my assistant director, Gary Cotti, and he said, “You’ll definitely get the snow you want in West Yellowstone, but you’ll make a better movie in Arlee.” So we rolled the dice, and mere days before we showed up to shoot, there was a huge snowfall in Missoula and we got the best of both worlds.
At what point did you connect with the Montana Film Office and how did they help the process?
JH: We knew we needed to enlist the support of the Montana Film Office (MFO) as early as possible. When Josh and I first went up to Montana to scout, we made sure to set a meeting with Deny Staggs because it was clear it would never happen without the MFO’s support.
JP: The MFO was absolutely essential in the making “Winter Light.” Deny Staggs is a true advocate and supporter of passionate people. Our first meeting was in Helena for lunch, which, in itself, is quite remarkable. I don’t think many film offices would take the time to actually sit down to a meal, particularly with two filmmakers pitching a short film. But Deny is that guy. And that’s how he runs the MFO. It felt like a family from the beginning. The moment the MFO committed their support was the moment I truly felt like making “Winter Light” was possible.
The MFO also connected us to some key players like our incomparable united production manager (UPM) Allison Whitmer, and many other local crew members. They also helped coordinate subsequent location scouts and local partnerships, not to mention providing tax breaks and financial support for the production as well as its afterlife.
JH: “Winter Light” was the recipient of a Big Sky Film Grant, which really put us over the top in being able to bring the production to Montana and shoot it entirely on location.
Ultimately, how important is location to the final product?
JH: Finding the right locations is all-important, and effects every aspect of production. It’s not just about the visuals – I find that shooting on location gives so much to the actors and the crew as well. It brings inspiration and energy and focus to the production. It’s a constant reminder that this is not just another job, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For this reason I try to shoot on location as much as possible. Once you’ve made a movie outdoors in Montana in the winter, it’s hard to imagine trying to achieve the same results shooting in a green box in Burbank.
JP: In the case of “Winter Light,” shooting anywhere but Montana was never an option, so location was absolutely essential. You can’t fake the Montana landscape. And again, the intangibles bring true life to the piece. The best example I could give you is Harold’s Club. When you see Roger driving up to the bar, the neon signs lit, the train tracks in the foreground, the people that naturally populate the place…that’s when you know that you’ve found the right place. It’s magic.
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