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Redford’s Film Changes Montana’s Landscape

Perhaps no other film has done as much for both the ecological restoration of rivers in the West and for production in the state of Montana as Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It.”


Based on Norman MacClean’s popular 1976 novella about a family of Montana men in the 1930s whose passion for fly fishing acts as a metaphor for their views on life and love, “A River Runs Through It” was made into a 1992 movie by Redford starring Craig Sheffer, Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt. A River Runs Through It carried a very positive environmental message, which has not been lost on distributor Sony. The company issued the film on Blu-ray disc last week, outfitted with a slew of supplemental features including a pair of newly produced featurettes that cover the production of the film and the ecological problems and subsequent resurgence of the Blackfoot River, the setting of the film’s story and one of Montana’s most beautiful and renowned natural river valleys.


As the story goes, the Blackfoot River was ecologically damaged in the 80s, the result of chemicals from a regional Montana mine, logging activities and other waste leaking into the river. According to former Montana Film Commissioner Lonnie Stymack, who was serving during the time of the film’s production from 1990-91, the waste that was leaked into the river ironically made the water “clearer and more pure-looking,” but the film’s shoot, while initially planned to happen on the Blackfoot, was ultimately moved to several other locations, due in part to the Blackfoot’s environmental condition and pollution.


“I wanted to be as authentic as I could with this and shoot where the book actually took place in Missoula and on the river that it took place on, but the Blackfoot was polluted and Missoula was so overdeveloped that you couldn’t find a place where it was the way it used to be,” says filmmaker Redford. “So I filmed it in Livingston and for the Blackfoot, I filmed it on five other rivers and pieced it together.”


(Many of the fishing scenes were filmed in the Boulder River Valley, south of Big Timber, Montana, and on the Yellowstone in Livingstone.)


After the film was released to critical acclaim, a solid box office gross of $43 million, three Academy Award nominations and a Best Cinematography Oscar for D.P. Philippe Rousselot, the Blackfoot River received a heightened degree of national attention. In 1993, The Blackfoot Challenge, a not-for-profit, landowner based group of Trout Unlimited, the national organization for the improvement and betterment of the nation’s fishing streams, created its charter, though Blackfoot landowners had been working on the ecological concerns and conservation easement legislation since the late 70s. That the film and its popularity helped to draw attention to the Blackfoot River cause is undeniable.


“’A River Runs Through It’ was a major factor in improving the image of the restoration effort, says biologist/conservationalist Donald Peters on the Blu-ray disc supplemental documentary The Blackfoot Challenge: Rescuing a River. “It gave this river some notoriety. There were also some donations via the production that actually funneled into the restoration project.”


“The producer, Patrick Markey, and director Robert Redford really were very helpful in our efforts after the movie came out,” added Bruce Farling, the executive director of Trout Unlimited Montana, in the doc. “After the movie came out, they let us use their movie, they let us use their names and they helped with our fundraising.”


Former Montana Film Commissioner Stymack agrees that while the film’s popularity—more so than its actual production—created an awareness of the state’s rivers’ ecological concerns and beyond, but that a greater benefit came in the form of subsequent productions.


“We really appreciated that the movie was made, that it showed what Montana is about, and not just its beauty, but its character,” says Stymack. “And to whatever extent that it focused on the plight of rivers everywhere–and not just Montana and its rivers and environment–we are thrilled.”


Stymack also points out that feature film production in Montana was on an “upward trajectory” at that time and following “A River Runs Through It,” such high-profile, substantially budgeted feature films as Ron Howard’s “Far and Away,” Curtis Hanson’s “The River Wild,” John Woo’s “Broken Arrow” and Vincent Ward’s “What Dreams May Come” did substantial shooting in Montana.


“And Redford came back and shot ‘The Horse Whisperer’ a few years later,” she added.