Film was a watershed event for local fly fishing

By MATT RULE/Montana State News

A river, the sound of water flowing over rocks, an old man’s hands tying a fly to his line and narration from Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It” changed our state forever.

The scene is the beginning of the film by the same name and the story of brothers, of Montana, of family and of fly-fishing.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s premiere. The film boosted the local fly-fishing and real estate industries, attracted tourists to Montana, and drew attention to the state’s beauty and beloved rivers.

In the novel, Maclean casts flies and reels in trout on the Blackfoot River near Missoula, but the film was shot mostly on the Gallatin River and in Southwest Montana. That was partly because the Blackfoot is not as pristine as it once was.

“Norman’s fishery had gone through tough times,” Patrick Markey, co-producer of the film, said recently.

Livingston was also easier to transform into a 1920s-style set than Missoula would’ve been.

So Hollywood came to Southwest Montana, bringing in stars like Robert Redford, who directed and co-produced the movie, and Brad Pitt, who was still a budding actor. Hundreds of locals lined up to try out for parts in the film and women squealed at seeing Redford in the streets. The community was abuzz.

Thomas McGuane, an author who lives east of Livingston, first introduced Redford to the novel.

“It was an accident,” McGuane wrote in a recent email. “Redford was visiting me and we were talking about western books we liked. He hadn’t heard of Norman Maclean’s book, so I gave him a copy and the rest is history.”

Maclean wrote the book at age 70 after retiring from being a professor at the University of Chicago. His initial attempts to get the work published did not go well.

An eastern publisher told him the stories had “too many trees” in them. The University of Chicago press eventually published the novel, and it was declared a piece of classic literature.

Redford must not have minded the trees in the story, for he said after reading it he had an “obsession” with getting it produced.


Impact on fishing

In 1991 when Redford was directing the film, he said he hoped it would inspire people to keep some Western places and rivers wild and free. In many ways that seems to have happened, or so think a group of people – Markey, John Bailey, owner of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, K.C. Walsh, owner of Simms Fishing Products, and Dudley Lutton, who works in project development – who recently got together to discuss the film.

The Blackfoot River’s degradation was highlighted when the film could not be made there because of logging, mining and grazing issues.

“People in the business knew the Blackfoot was a disaster,” said Bailey, who owns a legendary fly shop in Livingston.

“Now it’s a viable fishery again,” Markey said. “The film was maybe the impetus to get that done.”

Some opine that the film contributed to a crowding of Montana’s remote and special rivers and an influx of “outsiders.”

“Some people say we had a hand in ruining Montana,” Markey said. “Growth scares everyone. It’s good for many, though.”

Walsh said the “the movie,” as those in the fly-fishing industry refer to it, was certainly beneficial for Simms. In fact, at the recent meeting he was lobbying Markey to produce another film.

Walsh noted that every new fly-fisherman is a new advocate for cold, clean rivers and healthy trout habitat.

Bailey said many women were inspired by the film’s cinematography and began coming to the sport for its beauty.

“Brad (Pitt) helped,” he added. “It brought in women who never would’ve picked up a rod before.”


Hollywood comes to Montana

To become so popular and beloved, the film had to be made just right – and it wasn’t easy. When the movie cast first set up shop in Livingston, the locals were skeptical. What did these Hollywood types know about fly fishing? They would probably muck it all up.

Aware of that attitude, the moviemakers announced that anybody who had anything to offer in terms of improving their fly-fishing knowledge or skills should come on over. Orvis sent them a truckload of gear to practice with. A man from Hamilton drove to the set to lend the crew a mechanic fish that could jump out of water and look like a real fish fighting a line.

“That represented to me how everyone in the industry, big and small, wanted to be involved,” Markey said.

The production crew also asked Bailey to serve as its fly-fishing consultant. Bailey spent 10 days fishing with Pitt and Craig Sheffer, who played Norman in the movie. He also stood by as the film was being made to make sure the fly-fishing looked authentic and was being done correctly.

Each day after filming was completed, the crew would watch “dailies” or the shots they’d produced that day. At one point after seeing the outcome of the day’s fly-fishing shots, Bailey said he and a friend decided they would have to take their names off the film and disassociate. The fly-fishing looked horrible.

As if he had read their minds, Redford walked up to them afterward and said, “That was awful.”

They reshot all the scenes.

At one point, the filmmakers also held a tryout to search for local fly-fishing doubles. Dozens of people turned out. None got a part except for an old man who played the elderly Norman at the beginning and end of the movie.

“He came out of nowhere,” Markey said of finding the man. “That guy had done it all. He had a heartbreaking face.”

He had just the elegance needed for the movie.

Markey knew they needed to make the fly-fishing scenes look authentic or the film would immediately lose its audience. Once the scenes looked good enough, he could begin to establish the human parts of the film.

“Most people think this is a movie about fly-fishing,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s a movie about a family.”



“There was a huge romantic Montana wave the movie contributed to,” Lutton said. “There was a big attraction to Montana. People were excited about it.”

After the movie’s release, people began contacting Lutton about wanting to live on a ranch in Montana, someplace close to water.

Michelle Becker, a real estate broker and the owner of Maverick Realty, said there was a surge of interest and prices climbed.

“Having that picture out there and the fact that it won an Academy Award for best cinematography…was definitely a nice shot in the arm,” she said.

Eric Ossorio, a real estate broker in Big Sky, said the impact of the film is waning but still significant.

“That was the foundation,” he said of the film. “Now things have built up on top of that.”

Justin King, owner of Montana Troutfitters in Bozeman, said the film changed the area.

“From a retail shop point of view, it was a great thing for business. From the viewpoint of being a local kid that grew up on the river, it went from being able to find anyplace to fish by yourself to having to get up early and get out there before everyone else,” he said.

Every once in a while, he said customers still ask to fish where the film was made. Guides take them past Brad Pitt Rock, which the actor cast from in the movie.

In addition to impacting fishing, the production also helped launch Montana’s fledgling film industry and initiated a demographic shift.

The Montana Department of Commerce called it all “A River Runs Through It Syndrome.”

Marissa Kozel, spokeswoman for the department, said she doesn’t have “hard numbers” to show the film’s economic impact on the state but that “the impact for the state of Montana has been priceless as far as promotional value.”

“The film is an iconic image of Montana and it has over the years attracted many visitors to the state from all over the world, even other filmmakers,” she said. “It has made an indelible impression on them. It just draws people to the state.”

Edited by Trudi Fisher.

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