LIVINGSTON — With a Montana International Film Festival screening of its latest movie, "Robert the Bruce," in the can, a group of local filmmakers is intent on making Livingston the Hollywood of the North.
Real estate developer and area native Carter Boehm and his production company, Ponderosa Films, partnered with Livingston's own Soundcolor Studios to build a medieval village on Boehm's Cokedale ranch to serve as the setting for the film starring actor Angus MacFadyen playing Robert the Bruce, the same role he played in the movie "Braveheart."
The movie closed out the Montana International Film Festival held in Billings' Babcock Theatre on Sunday, the Livingston Enterprise reported. A question-and-answer session with the director Richard Gray and MacFadyen followed the screening.
Following the success of this project, Boehm and company have set their sights on a movie set a little closer to home. Ponderosa Films recently purchased the rights to a Western movie, which the company declined to name.
Soundcolor Studios, led by local brothers Abram and Michael Boise, is hard at work constructing a sprawling 28-building Old Western town on land just south of Chico Hot Springs.
While some of the buildings are movie set facades, the majority are actual buildings with working electricity and plumbing. The designers incorporated Hollywood-centric features into each structure, such as small nooks that house movie cameras to better shoot interior scenes and platforms with the sole purpose of providing space for a gunfight.
Seemingly every Western movie trope has been accounted for. The "town" also boasts a church with a 62-foot-tall bell tower. If a script involves a less affluent town, the bell tower can be reconfigured to reflect that. If the script calls for the burning of the church, the actual church can be removed with a crane and replaced with an expendable stand-in.
The goal, Boehm said, is to create a ready-made Western set that can be reused for multiple movie productions.
"It's an 'If you build it, they will come' situation, we hope," Boehm said. "The more it morphed, the more we kept asking, 'Why don't we build an actual town?'"
A film tax credit passed by the 2019 Montana Legislature and recently signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock further plays into their hand.
Gray, who is signed on to direct the company's upcoming Western film, said there are only a handful of locations similar to Boehm's Paradise Valley model town. A few John Wayne classics were filmed at a facility in the Arizona desert, but after Arizona did away with its film tax credit, the movie industry largely relocated future productions to New Mexico to take advantage of the neighboring state's lax tax laws.
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Gray said the opportunities to shoot at such a facility in a mountainous wooded area are even fewer, with most companies electing to shoot their movies in Canada.
"We're hoping they will come back from Canada, these U.S. productions," Gray said. "With this film tax credit, jobs are increasing."
As was the case during the production of "Robert the Bruce," Boehm said he intends to hire mostly locals for the upcoming Western production.
"It'll be mostly Montanans working here. I'm a big believer of that," he said.
In addition to employing mostly locals, future productions will also drive business to nearby Chico Hot Springs Resort, less than a five-minute drive from the western town, Gray said.
"We have the facilities for lodging and catering just over the hill," he said.
While the resort is a logical choice for shouldering the biggest share of lodging, the movie set itself will also be equipped to handle real-life events.
"This is primarily a film studio, but nearly everything is multipurpose as well," Gray said. "The town hall, for example, can be used for green screens, production offices or a music venue."
The town's saloon will boast an industrial kitchen and a working bar, and its upstairs "brothel" will double as rentable rooms.
Boehm suggested a scenario in which the movie set, with its church, town hall and saloon, could host a wedding.
Boehm's land that houses the movie set is surrounded by federally owned land, ensuring the viewshed is maintained. Its topography allows for other sets — the construction of an American Indian village is already in the works — to be erected nearby without being visible from other sets.
"This was all planned for this purpose," Boehm said. "My goal is to make Livingston the new Hollywood."