The Impact – ‘A River Runs Through it’

March 4, 2012

Fly Fishing Montana

A River Runs Through It

So, what impact did the book/movie of ‘A River Runs Through It’ have on Montana and Fly Fishing?  Well, Carly Flandro from The Bozeman Chronicle has a great story that answers this question.

Here is the story:

CARLY FLANDRO, Staff Writer

A river, the sound of water flowing over rocks, an old man’s hands tying a fly to his line and narration from Norman Maclean’s novel “A River Runs Through It” changed our state forever.

The scene is the beginning of the film by the same name and the story of brothers, of Montana, of family and of fly-fishing.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s premiere. The film boosted the local fly-fishing and real estate industries, attracted tourists to Montana, and drew attention to the state’s beauty and beloved rivers.

In the novel, Maclean casts flies and reels in trout on the Blackfoot River near Missoula, but the film was shot mostly on the Gallatin River and in Southwest Montana. That was partly because the Blackfoot was not as pristine as it once was.

“Norman’s fishery had gone through tough times,” Patrick Markey, co-producer of the film, said recently.

Livingston was also easier to transform into a 1920s-style set than Missoula would’ve been.

So Hollywood came to Southwest Montana, bringing in stars like Robert Redford, who directed and co-produced the movie, and Brad Pitt, who was still a budding actor. Hundreds of locals lined up to try out for parts in the film and women squealed at seeing Redford in the streets. The community was abuzz.

A headline in a 1991 issue of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle read: “Redford says film may bring changes.”

How right he was.

‘It was an accident’

Thomas McGuane, an author who lives east of Livingston, first introduced Redford to the novel.

“It was an accident,” McGuane wrote in a recent email to the Chronicle. “Redford was visiting me and we were talking about western books we liked. He hadn’t heard of Norman Maclean’s book, so I gave him a copy and the rest is history.”

Maclean wrote the novel, which includes “A River Runs Through It,” as well as other stories, at age 70 after retiring from being a professor at the University of Chicago. His initial attempts to get the work published did not go well.

An eastern publisher told him the stories had “too many trees” in them. The University of Chicago press eventually published the novel, and it was declared a piece of classic literature.

Redford must not have minded the trees in the story, for he said after reading it he had an “obsession” with getting it produced.

Impact on fishing

In 1991 when Redford was directing the film, he said he hoped it would inspire people to keep some Western places and rivers wild and free.

In many ways that seems to have happened, or so think a group of people – Markey, John Bailey, owner of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, K.C. Walsh, owner of Simms Fishing Products, and Dudley Lutton, who works in project development – who recently got together to discuss the film.

For one, the Blackfoot River’s degradation was highlighted when the film could not be made there because of logging, mining and grazing issues.

“People in the business knew the Blackfoot was a disaster,” said Bailey, who owns a legendary fly shop in Livingston.

“Now it’s a viable fishery again,” Markey said. “The film was maybe the impetus to get that done.”

Some opine that the film contributed to a crowding of Montana’s remote and special rivers and an influx of “outsiders.”

“Some people say we had a hand in ruining Montana,” Markey said. “Growth scares everyone. It’s good for many, though.”

Walsh said the “the movie,” as those in the fly-fishing industry refer to it, was certainly beneficial for Simms. In fact, at the recent meeting he was lobbying Markey to produce another film.

Walsh noted that every new fly-fisherman is a new advocate for cold, clean rivers and healthy trout habitat.

Bailey said women were inspired by the film’s cinematography and began coming to the sport for its beauty.

“Brad (Pitt) helped,” he added. “It brought in women who never would’ve picked up a rod before.”

Hollywood comes to Montana

To become so popular and loved, the film had to be made just right – and it wasn’t easy. When the movie cast first set up shop in Livingston, the locals were skeptical. What did these Hollywood types know about fly fishing? They would probably muck it all up.

Aware of that attitude, the moviemakers announced that anybody who had anything to offer in terms of improving their fly-fishing knowledge or skills should come on over. Orvis sent them a truckload of gear to practice with. A man from Hamilton drove to the set to lend the crew a mechanic fish that could jump out of water and look like a real fish fighting a line.

“That represented to me how everyone in the industry, big and small, wanted to be involved,” Markey said.

The production crew also asked Bailey to serve as its fly-fishing consultant. Bailey spent 10 days fishing with Pitt and Craig Sheffer, who played Norman in the movie. He also stood by as the film was being made to make sure the fly-fishing looked authentic and was being done correctly.

Each day after filming was completed, the crew would watch “dailies” or the shots they’d produced that day. At one point after seeing the outcome of the day’s fly-fishing shots, Bailey said he and a friend decided they would have to take their names off the film and disassociate. The fly-fishing looked horrible.

As if he had read their minds, Redford walked up to them afterward and said, “That was awful.”

They reshot all the scenes.

At one point, the filmmakers also held a tryout to search for local fly-fishing doubles. Dozens of people turned out. None got a part except for an old man who played the elderly Norman at the beginning and end of the movie.

“He came out of nowhere,” Markey said of finding the man. “That guy had done it all. He had a heartbreaking face.”

He had just the elegance needed for the movie.

Markey knew they needed to make the fly-fishing scenes look authentic or the film would immediately lose its audience. Once the scenes looked good enough, he could begin to establish the human parts of the film.

“Most people think this is a movie about fly-fishing,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s a movie about a family.”

Livingston transformed

When the crew was here, Livingston was transformed. Fake storefronts were constructed over Callender Street businesses so they would fit an older era. Paved roads were covered with gravel. Horses and buggies replaced vehicles. Livingston mothers with day jobs dressed up as 1920s prostitutes and solicited customers while leaning over a balcony.

Livingston local Vann Gravage, who was then 6 or 7 years old, landed a speaking part in the film as the young Paul Maclean.

He said every kid in town tried out for the part. In his interview, Gravage, now 26, said he remembers being asked what he wanted to do when he grew up.

“Be a professional sword fighter,” he said.

Maybe that answer was his ticket for the acting job. In the movie, Paul tells his brother Norman he wants to be a professional fly-fisherman, which Norman tells him doesn’t exist.

Eventually, the moviemakers left and with them went the 1920s facades, the actors, and the buzz. Still, their presence made an impact that is felt even today.

Impacts

“There was a huge romantic Montana wave the movie contributed to,” Lutton said. “There was a big attraction to Montana. People were excited about it.”

After the movie’s release, people began contacting Lutton about wanting to live on a ranch in Montana, someplace close to water.

Michelle Becker, a real estate broker and the owner of Maverick Realty, said there was a surge of interest and prices climbed.

“Having that picture out there and the fact that it won an Academy Award for best cinematography…was definitely a nice shot in the arm,” she said.

Eric Ossorio, a real estate broker in Big Sky, said the impact of the film is waning but still significant.

“That was the foundation,” he said of the film. “Now things have built up on top of that.”

Justin King, owner of Montana Troutfitters in Bozeman, said the film changed the area.

“From a retail shop point of view, it was a great thing for business. From the viewpoint of being a local kid that grew up on the river, it went from being able to find anyplace to fish by yourself to having to get up early and get out there before everyone else,” he said.

Every once in a while, he said customers still ask to fish where the film was made. Guides take them past Brad Pitt Rock, which the actor cast from in the movie.

In addition to impacting fishing, the production also helped launch Montana’s fledgling film industry and initiated a demographic shift.

The Montana Department of Commerce called it all “A River Runs Through It Syndrome.”

Marissa Kozel, spokeswoman for the department, said she doesn’t have “hard numbers” to show the film’s economic impact on the state but that “the impact for the state of Montana has been priceless as far as promotional value.”

“The film is an iconic image of Montana and it has over the years attracted many visitors to the state from all over the world, even other filmmakers,” she said. “It has made an indelible impression on them. It just draws people to the state.”

Kelly Pohl is the program director at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and a Bozeman local. She wrote in a recent Chronicle column that the film “forever changed” her hometown.

The impacts, she wrote, have been bittersweet.

Norman’s legacy

Maclean passed away in 1990, so he never got to see the film based on his novel. If he had, what would he have thought of the movie, its success and its impacts?

He probably would’ve been ambivalent, daughter Jean Maclean Snyder said in a recent interview.

Maclean probably would’ve had an evolution of reactions – starting out upset by some parts and gladdened by others, then mellowing in time – son John Maclean said.

Neither sibling can say for sure, but they certainly have their own views of the film.

Jean, an attorney, described the movie as masterful and appreciated Redford’s work.

“A lot of what I liked was the very artful job they did of casting people and of the way in which the country was used. It looked so beautiful,” she said.

John, an author, former journalist and fly fisherman, said the fishing industry exploded after the movie.

“It was the most enticing fly-fishing movie ever made,” he said. “In the first year after it came out, the fly-fishing industry grew by 60 percent, and the following year by another 60 percent.”

He remembers seeing people on the Missouri River from places as far away as Japan fishing in costumes like those worn in “A River Runs Through It.”

John is also a member of Trout Unlimited, and he said that for years after the movie, the organization had trouble raising money for any river other than the Blackfoot.

“The effect there was profound,” he said.

The crowds on the Blackfoot eventually drove him away from the river, though, and now he only fishes it in the early or late season.

John now lives in the East where he said that, among anglers, “the book is the Bible and the movie is what did it.”

Remembering their dad recently, John and Jean said he was a man that lived in two different worlds – Chicago and Montana – and he was a different person in each. In Chicago, he had an intellectual connection to the world. In Montana, he had a hands-on connection, Jean said. Both were important to him.

“He was a wonderful man to go fishing with,” John said. “I loved fishing with him more than anything I’ve ever done. He could make it magic, turn it into this epic of beauty and grace and heroism. He could make you feel like a million dollars, like you were part of a wonderful piece of literature, like you were a work of art.”

Two decades after the film “A River Runs Through It” premiered, and even longer since the novel was published, Norman’s words continue to live on.

“I will tell you that that story is magic,” John said. “The legend hasn’t died out. It’s died down, but like an old fire, it’s burning in deeper.”

 

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5 Responses to “The Impact – ‘A River Runs Through it’”

  1. Kirk Werner Says:

    20 years, already? Thanks for posting the article and making me feel old.

    Reply

    Chubbs Reply:

    I feel your pain Kirk. i remember watching it in the theater. :)

    Reply

  2. Montana fishing guide Says:

    Even though the film is 20 years old we still get a lot of comments and requests related to the movie. The fishing shots were on the Gallatin and several of the other scenes were in the Bozeman and Paradise Valley areas. The scenery in the movie really captivated people and it still initiates folks to plan a fishing vacation to Montana.

    Reply

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