MSU prof, students experienced Hollywood in Montana


Sony Pictures

Actors Brad Pitt, from left, Craig Sheffer, and Tom Skeritt fish in a scene from “A River Runs Through It.”

BOZEMAN – Dennis Aig had just been hired as a film professor at Montana State University when a friend of his from graduate school called in 1991 to ask if Aig and his students might be interested in making an electronic press kit for a tightly budgeted film that would be made the next summer in Montana.

The film was “A River Runs Through It,” and because of Aig’s involvement, the film’s fans got a front-row seat to the making of the film, which caught America’s imagination and boosted fly fishing as a sport.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Aig’s “Shadow Casting: The Making of ‘A River Runs Through It.’” Aig still clearly remembers the call from graduate school friend Patrick Markey, a producer of  “A River Runs Through It,” the Robert Redford film based on Norman Maclean’s novella.

“We met at the Holiday Inn, and as Patrick told me the actors who were in the film, it was a bunch of people I hadn’t heard of before except Tom Skerritt,” Aig recalled. One of those no-name actors was Brad Pitt, whose career skyrocketed after his role in “A River Runs Through It.”

Now the director of the MSU College of Arts and Architecture’s MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking, Aig said that special circumstances in the filmmaking industry also contributed to MSU’s unusual involvement in a feature film. Hollywood was undergoing technological changes, and the industry was then in an era of financial recession.

“A River Runs Through It” was an independent film that had no studio support at the time, so Markey and Redford, the moving forces behind the film, were looking for ways to keep within a tight budget. They asked if Aig and MSU could shoot some video for an electronic press kit, which was a new approach to publicity in those days.


Kelly Gorham/MSU

MSU Professor Dennis Aig and his students had ringside seats for the making of “A River Runs Through It” 25 years ago.

Because all MSU film and television professors then also had an appointment to produce content at KUSM, Montana’s public television station, Aig asked if the MSU team could expand the idea into a documentary for MontanaPBS, and the producers agreed.

“It soon occurred to me that I had just made a ‘Hollywood deal’ to make the documentary,” Aig said. He called the documentary “Shadow Casting: The Making of ‘A River Runs Through It,’” after a fly fishing term in the original novella and the film.

A few months later, in the summer of 1991, Aig and students Andy Froemke and Robert Wilder were on set with full access to Redford, Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Oscar-nominated screen-writer Richard Friedenberg, Pitt, Skerritt and actors Craig Sheffer, Emily Lloyd and Brenda Blethyn, among others.

Other MSU film students jumped in and out of the “Shadow Casting” project, including Collin Phillips and Froemke’s brother, David, who was not a student. While the novella “A River Runs Through It” was set in Maclean’s hometown of Missoula and on the Blackfoot River, much of the movie of the same name was shot in Park and Gallatin counties.

Aig said that 1991 was a busy summer for MSU film students wanting experience on films. Not only was Redford shooting “A River Runs Through It,” but Ron Howard was shooting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Far and Away” near Billings. Both movies provided opportunities for MSU film and television students, resulting in a local run on film equipment, Aig said.

Aig said one of the early decisions that paid off was his decision to make a “real” documentary (which was Redford’s term) about the film rather than a public relations film, even including interviews of Maclean’s surviving relatives. While Aig has scores of stories about the filming and the collaboration of local outfitters, suppliers and crew, the memory that resonates the most for him was his interview with Redford.

Aig said several previous attempts to interview the star had been canceled, and the documentary crew knew Redford would be leaving town as soon as filming wrapped. On the final day of filming “A River Runs Through It,” Aig and the MSU crew were on the set near Big Sky shooting the scene with the actor playing the older Norman fly fishing in the Gallatin River “when, literally, in the last hour of the shoot, with the sun going down, out of the forest comes Bob down to the river in his waders, saying, ‘I’m ready for my interview.’”

Aig recalled that the borrowed equipment his crew was using that day was primitive, and Aig had no headset. Because of the noise from the river, Aig couldn’t hear Redford’s answers to his questions.

“I smiled and nodded and kept asking questions, hoping that my questions were coherent and there would be something we could use because we would have no chance to reshoot.” Aig said. The crew raced back to KUSM, put the tape in to see if there was anything they could use.

“Fortunately, it was a great interview,” Aig said of what he still calls “the most important interview of my career up to that point.”

“In fact, (Redford’s) publicist, Lois Smith, who was one of the grand doyennes of Hollywood publicists, said it was the best interview (Redford) had given up to that point.”

The hurdles didn’t end there. Aig enlisted Andy and David Froemke along with Phillips to edit the film. Because at the time KUSM didn’t have the necessary equipment to put the film online, which was the final stage of the film, Aig solicited other PBS stations across the country for help. KBYU in Provo, Utah, responded. Redford put up the MSU crew in his nearby Sundance Resort.

Finances were another problem. “Shadow Casting” had been made on a shoestring — national PBS rules allowed the production to accept no more than $8,000 from the “A River Runs Through It” production as a licensing fee in exchange for the footage that would be used for publicity purposes. Any larger payment would have been considered an unfair influencing of PBS content, Aig said.

“The rest we had to finance ourselves on credit cards,” Aig said. He said it wasn’t until “Shadow Casting” was nearly done with post-production and the buzz from “A River Runs Through It,” began to build that underwriting came in from the Grand Marnier Foundation, Eddie Bauer, Field and Stream, and other companies that enabled them to finish the production, Aig said.

“A River Runs Through It,” which came out in 1992, was a hit, winning an Academy Award for cinematography. The film launched Bozeman as a popular tourist destination and contributed to 25 years of population growth. Aig said he doubts that anyone involved in the production had any idea of the impact the film would have on the sport of fly fishing or the state of Montana.

“Shadow Casting” came out in January 1993, winning several national awards, including best documentary at the Chicago Film Festival. The most important affirmation of Aig’s work came from Redford, who asked Aig to make “Visions of Grace: Robert Redford and ‘The Horse Whisperer,’” a behind-the-scenes documentary for the Lifetime Channel, when the actor and Markey returned to Montana in 1997 to make that movie, which also starred a 12-year-old Scarlett Johansson.

Aig said “Shadow Casting” was resurrected this fall for a few “A River Runs Through It” anniversary celebrations, including a Norman Maclean Festival in Missoula.

“Shadow Casting” set a very high standard for using students on films,” Aig said. “It was a great experience for everyone involved.”

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