This summer, theaters across the country have been screening the latest Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which follows the exploits of a fading film star, Di Caprio, and his faithful stuntman, Pitt, as they party, work, look for work, and encounter a group of young hippies in their neighborhood.
A pivotal sequence in the film happens at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a faded, dusty western town that Pitt’s character once used to film TV westerns. A tense standoff ensues, only instead of nervous horses and dusty pistols, it’s a cream yellow Cadillac and a tire iron against an intense group of women. It’s not a leap to envision the 1950s westerns the ranch once used as a standing set.
Places like Paramount Ranch, Pioneer Town and Old Tucson Studios have a permanent set of building, props and movable elements that a film director can walk into and begin filming right away. The sets are “standing,” or ready to use. This is different from a “backlot,” which is literally the back lot of the film studio, separate from the soundproofed studio spaces. No film jargon lives alone, so some studio operations have standing sets on their backlots.
Wanting to move off the backlots, filmmakers sought more remote locations. These movie ranch standing sets can be found in the sandstone formations and scrub brush hills of California, New Mexico and Arizona since the early days of filmmaking on the west coast.
Here in Montana, filmmakers have utilized real towns and authentic spaces for sets. Historic Virginia and Nevada Cities were famously shown in “Missouri Breaks” and “Return to Lonesome Dove.” Actors’ spurs clanked along real boardwalks. Bannack Ghost Town came alive in “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” hosting a tense rifle fight and a showdown in the old hotel.
Sometimes, the script demands more than what filmmakers can safely do at an historic site where buildings are delicate and meant to be preserved. Intense fight scenes with flying furniture, breaking glass, and old-west standoffs will put any historic preservationist on edge. The filmmakers worked closely with Montana officials to avoid damaging Bannack’s structures, while creating intense drama. You’ll notice on careful viewing that there are no bullet hits on the buildings, windows or interiors.
This is where a standing set really shines. Directors can control and manipulate the environment. Sometimes the walls are made of foam, to cushion the actors as they slam against them. Jail cells have removable bars, and the railings at the town bar breakaway at precise, dependable points for safety. Buildings on standing sets have electricity, running water and safe work areas.
Until recently, dependable standing sets have not existed in Montana, and I’m pleased to introduce you to not one, but two new locations.
In the foothills of Anaconda, Gunslinger Gulch was last seen in the featurette for the video game series “Far Cry 5.” It’s set up against a set of hills, sloping gently to the white church at the end of the street. Assembled from a collection of period-correct buildings moved to the site and set in the 1880s, Gunslinger Gulch is film ready and boasts the additional bonus of sleeping rooms and modern plumbing. The tucked away cabins and outbuildings offer many creative possibilities. Several crews have staged their shoot-outs on main street, bellied up to the saloon at the end of a hard day, and walked right to their sleeping rooms in the next building. Check it out at: facebook.com/gunslingergulch.
Adding spectacular and immense vistas to the equation, the Yellowstone Film Ranch is under construction in Paradise Valley. Perched on a bluff, this new studio, backlot and standing set facility brings to life everything needed for a dramatic western.
Set to take advantage of magic hour, that golden late afternoon sunlight, the ranch offers a livery stable, saloon, dance hall and church. That breakaway railing and fight down the stairs? Plenty of room for lights, actors and cameras. The stunning mountain views and backdrops that surround the ranch provide incredible angles and can become a character in the script. Take a sneak peek at yellowstonefilmranch.com.
Both of these incredible locations are open for filming and photography.
Learn more about available incentives, Montana crew and locations, at MONTANAFILM.COM.
- Guest Column by Allison Whitmer, Montana Film Commissioner