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Where I Shot It: Finding the Right Backdrop for a Character’s Spiritual Quest in ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’

Where I Shot It: Finding the Right Backdrop for a Character’s Spiritual Quest in 'Buster's Mal Heart'

[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.]

READ MORE: How the Filmmakers Found the Perfect Locations for ‘The Revenant’

When writer-director Sarah Adina Smith (AFI Fest Audience Award Winner “The Midnight Swim”) was writing her new film, “Buster’s Mal Heart,” she just assumed she would film in Colorado.

“Colorado is where I’m from and where I assumed I would have the most resources to make the movie,” Smith told Indiewire in a recent interview. “We scouted there, but Quentin Tarantino was shooting “The Hateful Eight” and using up the state’s entire tax incentive. Also it didn’t quite have that spirit that I was looking for. I love Colorado and it’s an incredibly interesting place, but there’s something about Montana that has a little bit more of the spiritual quest-type atmosphere I needed for this film.” 

The film is a surreal mystery starring Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as an eccentric mountain man on the run from authorities who survives the winter by breaking into empty vacation homes. He’s haunted by a recurring dream of being lost at sea only to discover that the dream is real: He is one man in two bodies. “It’s an existential journey and we felt like Montana is the place where people go to seek solitude and confront nature and their maker,” explained Smith.

“Both plot-wise and structurally what Sarah has done with this movie is find a way to talk about things like free will, God’s will, what it is to be a man, what it is to be a husband and father and how you fight to find a place in the world with all these forces at play,” added producer Travis Steven (Jodorowsky’s Dune).

“When you are doing a movie about one person’s emotional journey, it’s really nice to have that set against the most epic backdrop possible. This movie is Rami Malek in several different incarnations and to see Montana behind him in scene after scene 

— it’s kind of like what they are doing with ‘The Revenant,’ you feel that battle that this movie is about,” he added.

The location needs for “Buster’s Mal Heart,” which received a Big Sky Film Grant to film in Montana, were very specific and it took three extensive scouting trip to the state before settling on shooting around Glacier National Park in the town of Kalispell. On each of these scouts, the directing and producing team received assistance from a location expert in Montana Film Office.

“We had some really tough things we were looking for,” recalled producer Jonako Donley. “For example, we needed a cave. There’s plenty of caves in Montana, but it’s hard to find one that would be accessible for a film crew, that we could get permission to shoot and would be safe from grizzly bears. Finding that would have been impossible without someone from the film office to guide us.”

Another factor that had to be taken into account was they only had 18 shoot days to make the entire movie. It wasn’t simply just about finding the right locations for the story, but locations that were grouped together and would not require daily company moves.  

One stroke of luck was finding a hotel, which is the film’s main interior location, where the cast and crew could also stay. In the film, Malek’s character breaks into multiple expensive vacation homes, but the production couldn’t afford to be constantly moving from home to home spread out along the mountains, so another time saver was finding one estate that had multiple homes on the same property.

According to Donley, the people of Montana were incredibly welcoming to the production and even became part of the film itself. “You get all kinds of extreme people who end up in Montana,” explained Donley, “everyone from back-to-the-land hippies to extremist militiamen to people who want to find solitude and contemplate nature and existence. It’s just an unusual collection of really smart and interesting people and just like the landscape became part of the movie, so did the people.”

The most indelible mark Montana left on the film though is its unique light. “The lighting there was really special,” gushed Smith. “It was like dawn and dusk lasted longer there in a lot of places. There’s just the beautiful flat light that allowed us to take a great advantage of magic hour. They call it Big Sky, but until you spend time out there you don’t quite understand what that means, but it really feels like the sky is bigger out there, which is a magical feeling.”

READ MORE: Where I Shot It – Alex and Andrew Smith on How Setting Can Be Its Own Character

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