Wyoming struggles to make mark as film-shoot destination

2013-11-17T12:00:00Z 2013-11-18T07:59:05Z Wyoming struggles to make mark as film-shoot destinationBy KYLE ROERINK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
November 17, 2013 12:00 pm  • 

CASPER - Hollywood came to Wyoming last year.

Many are wondering when it will be back.

Whether it’s a blockbuster, indie flick or a television series, Wyoming has a long history of missing out on projects where the landscapes, story line and attitude are a perfect fit for the Cowboy State. The missed opportunities are usually spawned by the state having too few tax credits, limited industry-trained professionals and a dearth of production equipment. So the entertainers and their troupes go elsewhere.

Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” takes place in Wyoming but was shot almost entirely in Canada. The popular television series “Longmire” has deep Wyoming roots but films in New Mexico.

This weekend’s nationwide release of the film “Nebraska,” directed by Alexander Payne ("The Descendants"), marks a recent bright spot for film lovers in the state. A few scenes of the film, which is already gaining Oscar hype, were shot in Johnson County. With actor Jamie Foxx recently standing in the foreground of a Tetons backdrop for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” Payne’s “Nebraska” proves that in the right circumstances Wyoming can offer world-renowned directors what they’re looking for — even if only for a few takes.

“Nebraska” is a road-trip "dramedy" about a Billings man who thinks he’s won $1 million. His son thinks it’s a scam. But suspecting his senile father doesn’t have much time left to live, he agrees to drive him from Montana to Lincoln, Neb., to claim the illusory prize.

Payne, a native of the Cornhusker State, prefers to shoot on location rather than in the fabricated studios of Hollywood. So when it came time to scout locations, Payne wanted to shoot a few scenes in Wyoming to authentically map the road trip.

Payne searched for the right locations for a year, “Nebraska” producer Albert Berger said.

“He’s always looking for an environment and a reflection of the story,” he said.

The town of Buffalo fit the mold for the idea plastered in Payne’s head.

Johnson County was overrun by 12 semis worth of equipment and more than 70 members of the “Nebraska” crew when the production came to Wyoming last year.

The filming was not only a boon to the Buffalo economy; it landed a few locals on the set and in the film.

A scene between actors Bruce Dern and Will Forte takes place at the Elbow Room Lounge outside of Buffalo. It’s a scene that’s stuck in Berger’s head and it should give state officials, young directors and moviegoers the chutzpah to open more doors for the entertainment industry in the state.

In a dim, hazy bar near the shores of Lake DeSmet, Woody, a crotchety old man played by Dern, enters and asks for a beer. He sits down next to one of the Wyoming extras. The Wyomingite remains silent, his face stoic.

“The guy sitting next to Bruce Dern has such a strong presence, you feel like you are authentically there,” Berger said. “Alexander is trying to situate these characters in the real world, and the extras are an important factor.”

Even though the start of the scene has a somber patina, Payne injects it with humor.

Woody’s son, David, played by Forte, was filling their car with gasoline when his father wandered off. He believes his father gave up drinking and is surprised when he sees Woody tending a beer at the bar. Like any obstinate barfly, Woody feels no remorse.

“Beer isn’t drinking,” he says.

Wyoming is familiar with having movie stars in the state, but they’re seldom seen mingling with the locals. In the star-filled enclave of Jackson, whispers of Harrison Ford flying a helicopter and Sandra Bullock cavorting around town border on myth.

When the cast and crew of “Nebraska” went to Buffalo there was plenty of mingling between the laymen and Hollywood, said Angela Jarvis, executive director of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce.

“They weren’t in the star-studded role of entertainment,” she said. “It was a down-to-earth feel. When the actors came in, they shook hands, gave hugs and visited with us. There were no autographs and no cameras. They felt welcome.”

Jarvis always has her arms open for the entertainment industry. Aside from “Nebraska” and a few projects for television, it’s been hard for her to land more productions.

Wyoming just doesn’t have 12 semis worth of equipment for movie-making, she said.

“In a lot of those states those trucks are already there,” she said. “Here you can’t rent anything close by.”

For the few production houses in Wyoming, limited accessibility to people and equipment makes the state’s entertainment infrastructure precarious.

In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other entertainment hubs there’s accessibility to talented crew members, production equipment and a pool of quality actors, said Greg Epstein, supervising producer for Teton Gravity Research, a production company based in Jackson.

“It’s all right there at your fingertips,” he said.

There’s also a lack of knowledge as to what Wyoming has to offer, he said

Some of the world's largest players in cinema have filmed in Wyoming, Epstein said. Steven Spielberg shot parts of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” near Devils Tower and Clint Eastwood filmed “The Outlaw Josey Wales” in the state.

“They all knew,” Epstein said. “There needs to be more location scouts who have access to what Wyoming can offer.”

To build an infrastructure, the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s film office teamed with Central Wyoming College to start building a firmer base of Wyomingites trained to work in the industry, said Michell Howard, director of strategic partnerships for Office of Tourism.

Howard has been pushing as hard as anyone in the state.

“There are opportunities in Wyoming,” she said.

The Legislature approved a tax credit for film productions spending more than $200,000 and supplied the funds to start the film program at CWC.

It’s the first step in a long road ahead for Wyoming, said Jeremy Nielsen, instructor of film, movies and digital contents at CWC.

The 12 to 15 percent tax credit the state doles out to the industry isn’t enough, he said.

New Mexico recently passed what is known as the “Breaking Bad” law, named after the popular television show.

Lawmakers in the state hiked its tax credit to 30 percent after New Mexico officials attributed an increased amount of tourism in Albuquerque to the show’s success and its wide-angle, vibrant shots of the blue skies and sandy desert.

Nielsen used to live in Utah and said the state’s 25 percent tax credit didn’t do much to appease the industry.

“The industry was frustrated at how low that was,” he said.

For now, Nielsen is trying to offer his students experience on as many sets as he can.

He has a few projects in the works, but is optimistic about what’s coming down the pike.

He has no worries about his kids moving out of state and finding jobs on sets. But Wyoming is a different story.

“There’s not enough work in the state’s film industry to support a career here now,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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