FORT BENTON — Hollywood actor and director Ed Harris spent time in Fort Benton recently, scouting the area for a new film he plans to shoot in 2020.
Harris, accompanied by producer Robert Knott and set designer Waldemar Kalinowski, were scouting for the movie, “The Ploughmen,” an adaptation of the novel written by Missoula author Kim Zupan.
“I liked the story and thought it could work,” said Harris, who wrote the screenplay based on the novel. “And the more I spent time with it, the more I liked it because of the characters, and it’s a really good story.”
“The Ploughmen” is Zupan’s debut novel. It is set in north-central Montana and tells the story of a deputy sheriff officer’s odd relationship with an imprisoned killer.
“My wife read a review of it in the New York Times, and read it. She then referred it to me,” Harris said. “After I read it, I found out the rights were available and I briefly talked to Kim about it and then optioned it.”
Harris wants to stay as true to the book as possible by shooting much of the film in Montana and keeping the script as close to the novel as possible.
“I wrote a script based on the story, and then started altering things that I felt cinematically would help. It’s still the same story, but there are a few differences,” Harris said.
Harris has a longstanding career in Hollywood, appearing in movies such as “Apollo 13,” “The Rock,” “The Abyss” and “The Truman Show.” He currently appears in the HBO show “Westworld.” In 2007, Harris directed the movie “Appaloosa,” which he co-wrote with Knott, but since then other directing opportunities have fallen through.
“The last film I’d directed was ‘Appaloosa,’ which was back in ’07, which was too long ago. I’ve been looking for something to direct since then,” Harris said.
Harris plans to do the exterior shooting in Montana and most of the interior shooting in New Mexico, where there are better filming incentives.
Though New Mexico’s incentives might be more appealing, the filming done in Montana will provide opportunities for creating local jobs and supporting the local economy, he said.
“There are a bunch of scenes where we’ll need extras. We’ll probably have even a little bit of an audition for some certain smaller roles and see what we can come up with out here,” Harris said.
Last month’s Montana trip was to be the last outing to Fort Benton before filming of the movie begins, slated for June 9, 2020.
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“I’m going to be on Broadway for like six months from November to April, so I wanted to come up here and try to really finalize where we can shoot what, because by the time I get out of that play, we’ve got seven weeks of pre-production and I didn’t want to spend that seven weeks looking for stuff — so I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Harris said. “I think it’s just a question of how much we can actually afford to shoot up here.”
While in Fort Benton, Harris and crew worked closely with the Chouteau County Sheriff’s Office.
“The people have been really supportive out here,” Harris said. “The sheriff's department and the courthouse have been great. Everybody has been great, very welcoming and supportive. That’s one of the reasons why I want to shoot here.”
Kim Zupan is a Missoula-based author originally from the Great Falls area. Zupan studied creative writing at the University of Montana and then became a carpenter for financial stability. “The Ploughmen” is his debut novel, and it received high praise in the media.
“Well, one is always hopeful about having success,” Zupan said. “You kind of work in a vacuum and you like to think it’s good and you never know. It’s a mistake to have too much hubris as a writer.”
Shortly after the novel was published in 2014, Zupan found out that Harris wanted to make a film about the book.
“My initial reaction was elation at first, of course. Very quickly that was tempered by the many stories I'd heard of books being optioned and films never coming from it,” Zupan said. “The fact that it was Ed Harris, whose work I’d always admired, made me feel like it was a great fit.”
The storyline of “The Ploughmen” is one with which Zupan has some personal familiarity.
“One of my best friends growing up became a Cascade County deputy. There was a career criminal loose at that time. The old killer had taken a liking to my friend,” Zupan said. “This story percolated in my head for many years, but I wrote many books in the interim.”
Zupan taught carpentry for nine years at Missoula College until he quit two years ago to pursue writing full time. He was a full-time carpenter for 25 years and occasionally still works on projects.
“Physically and mentally, it's good for me to pull a carpentry gig once a month. That’s what I’ll be doing next week,” Zupan said.
Upon learning that Harris was in Montana to do some final scouting for the film, Zupan said he was excited to know that things are progressing with the film — but that he’s not letting his hopes get too high.
“One has to be careful not to take it too much to heart. I remain hopeful, though,” Zupan said.