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LIVINGSTON – An exhibit about film at the Depot Center may be as much about prayer as history.

“It’d be nice to think some day the filmmakers will return,” said Lynette Dodson, the exhibit curator.

Meanwhile, Dodson hopes film fans will come.

Realists would say filmmaking in Livingston ended after the heyday 1990s when “River Runs Through It,” “Horse Whisperer,” and “Everything Rises” relied on local color, landscapes and people for production.

Not just Livingston, but Montana, was flush with film dollars, from $10 million spent to turn Norman Maclean’s classic “A River Runs Through It” into celluloid, to the $80 million spent making “Horse Whisperer.”

But the money and the movie makers went north of the border after that brisk decade, lured by better tax incentives, more value for U.S. dollars and locations that looked like Montana, even if they were in British Columbia.

“Not everyone misses the film industry,” Dodson said. “But, from an economic standpoint, this town and the state as a whole sure were better off.”

  Brad Pitt starred in “A River Runs Through It,” based on the Norman Maclean classic.

Montana had a love-hate relationship with film making. While plenty of folks enjoyed the money, others feared the consequences.

Before “Horse Whisperer” was in the can, there was an effort to persuade Robert Redford to delete references to where it was filmed since it might attract people. People meant outsiders; outsiders meant landscape-plundering subdivisions.

No legislative effort was made to combat the film flight to Canada, reflecting a perceived popular disdain for Hollywood frills and fads.

But this exhibit – “2001: A Montana Odyssey, the Story of Film in Livingston” – can’t help but make even casual film buffs a tad nostalgic.

Sure, railroad runs through Livingston. And, yes, the river runs through Livingston. But, undeniably, film runs just as vibrantly through the city’s history.

“We only have to look around and recognize how big a role film, filmmakers and film stars have to understand we’re not just about trains and flyfishing,” Dodson said.

Think of it as basic R’s. Rails, river and reel-to-reel.

Film making in the Livingston area has always been an up-and-down deal.

Before Redford brought two productions to the area, there were lesser-known films. Early black-and-white promotional films produced in the area by the Northern Pacific Railway in the 1920s demonstrate the effort.

Later, came what some consider the best film made in Livingston, if only because it was a wacky, offbeat 1970s counterculture film. “Rancho Deluxe,” based on a Tom McGuane screenplay, is talked about as if it was made in the area yesterday.

“I remember being a teenager and thinking this was really hot stuff,” Peggy McMillion said with a laugh.

“People lined up to go in to see it, and 20 minutes later they lined up coming out. All that sex and violence. It was blasphemy.”

That film was all wrapped up in other film-related histories. Director Sam Peckinpah ensconced himself in the Murray Hotel, playing bad poker, shooting a revolver to ward off intruders and engaging in legendary drinking bouts.

His suite is still requested by visitors, said Diane Kaul, owner of the Murray.

  Robert Redford co-produced both “A River Runs Through It” and “Horse Whisperer” in the Livingston area.

“The Old Iguana sleeps, and the answer is No,” is on the sign outside his rooms, an admonition to unwanted visitors.

Actually a tour of the Livingston area is a good idea for film buffs who come to see the exhibit, Dodson said.

Besides the Murray, The Owl was a popular hangout for film folks. Chico Hot Springs Lodge recently added the Warren Wing, which includes photographs of actor Warren Oates, who lived in this area.

The Pickle Barrel has hanging on its walls photographs by Thomas Burns, which he took during local productions. The Sport, which has been the location for several productions, is also the home of film memorabilia, Dodson said.

The Montana Film Commission donated several Montana film posters, including a “Horse Whisperer” poster from the Pacific Rim.

The Hunter Neil Co. in Bozeman produced “Shadow Casting” and “Visions of Grace,” behind the scenes documentaries on the filming of “A River Runs Through It” and “Horse Whisperer” as well as “Guide Season,” a drama for PBS. The firm has donated these and several other locally produced videos to the Depot and the Livingston Library.

Dodson has been involved with the film history in Livingston since she was a teenager, an avid observer in 1974 when “Rancho Deluxe” featured some heavy hitters: Jeff Bridges, who wound up marrying Sue, a local girl; Sam Waterson, who now headlines “Law & Order”; Oates, whose Paradise Valley place was bought by Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid.

Some came; some stayed.

The personalities of some of the actors lingers since some of them make homes in the area.

Peter Fonda is considered “a local,” Dodson said. As is Quaid, who in the past not only enjoyed the repasts at Chico Hot Springs, but cooked his own gourmet trout dishes and mixed his own exotic martinis.

Patrick Markey, who, with Redford, co-produced both “River” and “Whisperer,” lives in the area.

The history blends well with the present, which is why Dodson worked to celebrate both. Not everything in the exhibit relates to films made in Livingston.

But some of the more interesting items relate to the people involved with film who live in the area. Peter and Becky Fonda loaned the small American flag sewn to his leather jacket in “Easy Rider.” His Golden Globe award from “Ulee’s Gold” is displayed as well as Academy Award certificates.

  Director Sam Peckinpah stayed at the Murray Hotel during his filming time in the Livingston area.

Dodson is modest about her role in the creation of the exhibit. A small grant from the Montana Arts Council helped pay for displaying it, and Depot Director Diana Seider lent her enthusiasm to providing space for it.

“I can’t name all the people who got behind the idea,” Dodson said. “But it was amazing to see how many came forward with items they had collected.

We didn’t have a lot of money to work with.”

The exhibit is eye-dazzling because so much is included. Al Giddings, who has been involved in spectacular successes with “The Abyss” and “Titanic” lent memorabilia. Tiny fairy ears from the movie “Legend,” written by local screenwriter William Hjortsberg, are in the collection.

There is also a compelling gallery of photographs. Redford chatting with a covey of locals. Quaid directing shots during “Everything Rises.” The remaking of the downtown to create a 1920s era town for “River Runs Through It.”

Dodson hopes this year’s exhibit is only a prelude to next year, the 10th anniversary of “River Runs Through It.” She’s organizing a celebration that will include showing the movies that made Livingston and Montana famous. It would mark a decade since the release of “River Runs Through It,” she said.

Dan Burkhart can be reached by phone at 328-7133 or by e-mail