Former Montana Film Commissioner Gary Wunderwald was adept at finding what directors and producers needed, including dated cars, railroad beds, carnivals and waterfalls.
One August afternoon in 1986, he fielded an especially challenging request. He was asked to find a 1930-period bridge—but it couldn’t be just any 1930-period bridge. On this bridge, Prohibition-era whiskey runners would clash with lawmen as part of Paramount Production’s “The Untouchables.”
“The movie was being filmed in Chicago and they called and said that they needed to do a scene and they’d be out in two days,” recalled Wunderwald, who served for more than 10 years as Montana film commissioner, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.
What the filmmakers needed was a bridge that connected two distinctly different geological formations, a setting that would suggest a border crossing between Canada and the United States. It had to be low enough that a man could fall from it and survive, and it had to look like Canada on the far side.
Wunderwald found several bridges that didn’t quite fit the bill before scouting out the Hardy Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River about 50 miles north of Helena.
“Most of the bridges the company looked at in the Midwest were too close to Chicago in an area where modern bridges were within view,” Wunderwald said. “So they came to the Northwest and looked in four states as well as Canada. Actually, we looked at three bridges in the state before settling on the Hardy Bridge over the Missouri.
“One, at Thompson Falls, was beyond repair, making it unsafe for equipment. The Dearborn Bridge, on the back road to Augusta, also was considered for possible use, but lost out because of lack of water in the Dearborn River. One of the bridges was too narrow. I had another bridge in mind between Red Lodge and Billings, but it had way too much traffic on it. We were on the last bridge that they had time to scout in Montana before they were heading to Washington.”
The Hardy Bridge, built in 1930, was closed to traffic during filming, from Oct. 6 to Oct. 20, 1986. The scene involved a shootout between Al Capone’s gangsters and Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) and his Untouchables, played by Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith. Like the early television series of the same name, “The Untouchables” portrayed the criminal activities of bootleggers under mobster Capone.
Paramount sent a crew of nearly 100 people to shoot the bridge segment. About 25 area residents were cast to ride horseback as red-coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police during the scene in which the lawmen try to capture Capone’s bootleggers. The extras playing Mounties didn’t need their own horses. Paramount, with a strict eye for detail, wanted all the horses to look similar, in keeping with the custom of the Mounties.
There was another major detail: sometimes filming isn’t a case of locating things but of concealing them.
When the crew of the “Untouchables” decided to use the Hardy Bridge, they had to make cabins and summer homes along the river temporarily vanish. They did so by using 50,000 square feet of olive-drab canvas and camouflage netting, plus 600 trees that were all planted in a day and a half.
“I called every company in Montana that could conceivably provide this canvas and netting, but no one had such large amounts in stock,” Wunderwald said, so a firm in Chicago provided the material.
The trees, however, were state-raised, brought in from the Lincoln and Kalispell areas. The movie company paid about $25,000 for the additional greenery.
“It was a wild thing to see these Christmas trees out there,” Wunderwald recalled.
Wunderwald helped obtain several 1920s and 1930s-era Fords and Ford Model-Ts from a group of ranchers from Conrad who restored old Ford bodies as a hobby. Several Great Falls area folks who provided period autos were paid $300 a day. The person hired to maintain the vehicles received $50 a day.
“The film crew marked them up to appear as if they were all shot up—Hollywood-style,” Wunderwald said. “We figure close to $1 million was spent in Great Falls in the two weeks they took to shoot the film. And of course there was the prep work, too. One carpenter said he made $4,500 in that time.”
Actual filming in Montana took approximately 10 days, but the production staff reserved the bridge for enough time to allow for production delays.
“Everything went smoothly,” Wunderwald said. “The train master in Helena even agreed not to run trains through at the time of the shooting.”
Robert DeNiro, who played Al Capone, did not appear in the Montana-filmed sequence. Costner played the lead role as Eliot Ness, organizer of the group of U.S. government agents known as the Untouchables. Connery played Jim Malone, an Irish beat cop from Chicago who is Ness’s first recruit as a Prohibition agent.
The production crew allowed people to watch the filming from a nearby field, and to use cameras. Hundreds of people showed up during the first weekend of filming. Connery treated well-wishers and fans “openly and cordially,” Wunderwald said.
As happened in the case of “The Untouchables,” Wunderwald said, he generally had little advance notice from scouts. In more than 10 years of pitching and promoting, his preparedness and quick-thinking led to the use of many production sites in Montana. He “lost a few along the way,” he said, but rejection and competition were part and parcel of the Hollywood hunt.
“If the scouts or companies don’t find what they need in 24 hours they politely exit,” he said. “You have to be cool and levelheaded and patient. You can’t let it get to you.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of “Shot in Montana: A History of Big Sky Cinema,” available in the summer of 2016 (Riverbend Publishing).