For their upcoming David Quammen adaptation, Montana’s own filmmaker twins tell how bitter winter, authenticity and Dungeons & Dragons inform their Montana stories.
By: STEPHEN CAMELIO
It’s mid-January and snowing. With the light fading, it’s getting damn cold. Following a snowy path deep into the woods, an older man turns to a boy and says, “This is about as real as it gets.”
The remark wasn’t part of the script. Filmmaker Andrew Smith was stunned when he heard actor Matt Bomer say these words between takes on the set of the new film, Walking Out. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a compliment that I’ll take,’” Smith says.
It isn’t like Andrew Smith and his twin brother Alex are in need of praise. Co-writers and directors of feature films The Slaughter Rule, Winter in the Blood and now Walking Out, they’ve been nominated for two of the most prestigious awards in independent film—Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Film Independent’s John Cassavetes Award—and have garnered prizes and nominations from countless other film festivals.
These accolades have allowed the twins to work with some of the best filmmakers in the world. But as storytellers who pride themselves in capturing the true nature of Montana and the West, Bomer’s words hit home in a way no award ever will.
At 49 (Alex is 14 minutes older), the Smith brothers say, “Legend has it” when asked if they’re identical. But they aren’t indistinguishable. Alex, who lives in Woodstock, New York with his wife and dog, tends to focus on a story’s bigger picture.
Andrew, who teaches at the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and splits his time between teaching and being with his wife and two daughters in San Francisco, gravitates more to “the poetry of the moment,” as his brother puts it. On set you’d think these diametric approaches would lead to disagreements, but more often than not their opposing styles complement their films. And their upbringing informed their storytelling.
The Smith brothers take pride in where they come from: a remote ranch in the Blackfoot River valley outside Missoula. It’s where their mother Annick Smith and her husband David settled in 1972 after moving west from Chicago in 1959. Though David passed away in 1974 when the twins were six years old, Annick stayed on to raise her family—and still lives on the ranch today.
“We didn’t have a TV and there was no Internet so there was a lot of playing in the woods, reading and playing Dungeons & Dragons,” Alex says. “Whether it was the pinecones becoming magical bombs or our fence-fixing gloves turning into ‘Gauntlets of Ogre Power,’ we started creating worlds and creating characters and bouncing them off each other—essentially doing what we do today.”
"It’s about going up a mountain and coming down transformed. This story haunted us, so we chased it down."
This remote, independent childhood didn’t always mesh with other kids their age, making the Smiths a lot like the outsiders their films often highlight: the lonely kid who just lost his father in The Slaughter Rule, the nameless, confused Native American in Winter in the Blood, the estranged father and son on a perilous hunting trip in Walking Out.
“That sense of being outsiders allows us to identify with folks on the margins and who are underrepresented,” Alex says. “We don’t hunt, we don’t fish, we don’t cowboy, but we’re Montanans—we just come from a different kind of background and had different influences from the kids that we grew up with.”
Those influences have a lot to do with their family. Before their father David passed, he was a professor of literature at the University of Montana who had started dabbling in screenwriting and documentary filmmaking.
Their mom is a writer and filmmaker whose long-time partner is William Kittredge, the renowned Montana writer and academic who taught creative writing at the University of Montana, and who co-edited with Mrs. Smith the collection of Western tales called The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology.
“There were a lot of parties at the ranch and lots of writers in Missoula who were our parents’ friends [and] became our friends, like James Welch and Richard Hugo,” Alex remembers. “Then, with the film work, which included my mother on the board of the initial Sundance Institute, we got to go to the Sundance Lab in Utah and met Robert Redford and filmmakers who worked in different capacities in the industry.”
Indeed, while writers are often told to write what they know, the twins were in the fortunate position to write whom they know. The brothers chose Welch, the Native American author, for their second feature film. They adapted the writer’s seminal coming-of-age novel of tribal and reservation life, Winter in the Blood, and filmed along Montana’s Hi-Line and on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Following that project, the brothers again stayed close to their roots with David Quammen’s short story, Walking Out, the first version of which Kittredge edited in the early ’80s. Alex and Andrew read it as kids, and the father-son relationship at the center of the story made an instant impact on the boys.
As they got older the subtext of the 26-page narrative kept drawing them back. “It’s a very linear story—almost archetypal,” Andrew notes. “It’s about going up a mountain and coming down transformed. This story haunted us, so we chased it down.”
"We get so much in-kind support from locals excited about us making a film in their backyard … There is just such goodwill when we shoot here you can’t put a value on it."
Quammen, for his part, took it as a sign of respect when the brothers came calling. “I remember meeting them as boys and, having known of their work with Winter in the Blood, I knew they’d become fine filmmakers,” he says. “It was my story but it’s their film, so I just told them if you think you can do it, go for it.”
And with Quammen’s blessing Alex and Andrew didn’t have to go far to shoot it: The twins remain commited to filming their Montana stories in Montana. Shooting where Quammen originally set the tale also struck the author as a smart move. “Given that the story deals a lot with wild nature, the landscape adds a lot to the story,” Quammen said.
Filming at the actual location where a movie is set may sound inconsequential, but it is almost unheard of in the film industry. “The history of Hollywood is movies not made where they take place, from Brokeback Mountain, backward,” Alex says referring to the 2005 Western set in Wyoming but filmed mostly in Canada.
On their first film, The Slaughter Rule, which starred Ryan Gosling and David Morse, the Smiths were pressured by a producer to change the Montana location and shoot in Texas. Instead of giving over control of their script, they decided to make it themselves in and around the Great Falls area. When it came time to shoot Winter in the Blood, the brothers were told to bring the production to Canada where the tax breaks far exceed those offered in Montana. But telling a Montana story outside of Montana didn’t make sense to them.
“We get so much in-kind support from locals excited about us making a film in their backyard … There is just such goodwill when we shoot here you can’t put a value on it.”
Alex adds it doesn’t hurt that “they know this place and it’s so fucking gorgeous and the light is so amazing.” The truth of his words comes across in the work and can be seen in Walking Out, which hits film festivals this winter and U.S. theaters next fall. In the movie, the majesty of Paradise Valley, Livingston and Bozeman are on full display along with Montana’s formidable wildlife, imposing weather and challenging backcountry.
But there is something more important to the brothers than money and even home-state pride—and that’s authenticity. “Seeing how the West is depicted by outsiders, we often think, ‘That’s not right, that’s not accurate.’” Alex says. “We tell stories about folks who live in the true West and that zero in on people you don’t really see in your everyday Western.”
Walking Out is the third installment of what the twins hope will be a quintet of tales from The Treasure State. “We’ve envisioned a long omnibus of Montana stories,” Andrew says. “We hope to shoot each in a different part of the state and have them take place in different eras.”
To that end, Alex and Andrew are putting the finishing touches on a script for a jazz-era Western that takes place in eastern Montana about a sheriff who also happened to be an outlaw. Though they don’t dive into details, you can bet on two things: The film will be shot in Montana, and it won’t be your typical white-hat-black-hat Western where someone rides off into the sunset.
Instead, it will be as “real” the brothers can possibly make it. They seek the truth, and expect to find it time and again in Montana.
A former editor at In Style magazine, Stephen Camelio is a copywriter and freelance writer whose work has appeared in Men’s Journal, ESPN The Magazine, Field & Stream and Fly Rod & Reel. An aspiring screenwriter, he’s currently working with a Montana producer to bring his own script, Mending the Line, to the big screen.