The growing crew of Warm Springs Productions will watch from a Rattlesnake Valley garage filled with burgers and beer Sunday when the History Channel debuts the second season of its hit reality series “Mountain Men.”
Millions of people tuned in last season when the show debuted, introducing the world to a set of appropriately grizzled self-proclaimed mountain men who live off the land, shooting arrows, hunting and skinning rattlesnakes or working their fields with horse-drawn plows.
Portions of the show put on display the marvels of the living off the grid in Big Sky country. One of the show’s stars is bull-rider-turned-hide-tanner Tom Oar of the Yaak Valley.
Season two will introduce Rich Lewis, a mountain lion hunter from the Ruby Valley who “always lived in the mountains and always had a gun in my hand.”
Behind the scenes of “Mountain Men” is a Montana-made production staff of Warms Springs.
The show is a breakout hit for Missoula-based company that was founded six years ago.
“This was a huge opportunity for us to prove ourselves,” said Chris Richardson, co-founder of Warm Springs, which also produces a host of outdoors and hunting shows and “Making Monsters” on the Travel Channel.
Warm Springs is bursting at the seams in its North First Street headquarters, where editors and producers work shoulder to shoulder wading through thousands of hours of footage and turning it into episodes of “Mountain Men.”
Warm Springs has roughly 70 employees now and is set to move into a larger building next month on Toole Avenue thanks to the growth spurred by the success of “Mountain Men.”
Warm Springs cut its teeth doing hunting and outdoors shows, many of which it still produces.
“We’ll always have that base,” said Bridger Pierce, Warm Springs director of operations.
The company started in 2007 with four employees, including Richardson and co-founder Marc Pierce, who were veterans of shooting shows in the outdoors genre.
As the company sold more shows to bigger networks, Richardson and Pierce put a focus on development and expanded Warm Springs’ focus.
That led to “Making Monsters,” about a company that creates monsters for the horror industry, and more opportunities with bigger networks.
Then “Mountain Men” debuted on History Channel in June 2012.
“That took the company to another level,” Pierce said.
To make a production company viable outside L.A. or New York, Warm Springs had to adopt certain industry norms. Instead of hiring freelancers, Warms Springs hires employees.
“We had to say, ‘OK, if we need somebody new on the spot, there aren’t 100 editors sitting around Missoula.’ Instead, we bring in people who are really talented and smart. They can grow with us and we can grow with them,” Pierce said.
Warms Springs puts an emphasis on making sure the company culture cultivates creativity – and takes care of its employees. Perks at Warms Springs include reimbursements for riding a bike to work and a beer a day at nearby Kettlehouse Brewing Co.’s Northside Taproom.
“There are so many creative people here,” Richardson said. And competing as underdogs from Missoula, Montana, “is what we all like.”
Many of Warms Springs’ employees come out of the state universities’ film and production programs.
The team conceptualized “Mountain Men” and used connections around the country to find the characters.
The odds that a show gets picked up past a pilot are somewhere around 1 out of 2,500, Richardson said.
Nearly 4 million people tuned in each week to watch how the “Mountain Men” stars live off the land. It was the No. 1 new series on the History Channel when it debuted, Richardson said.
The History Channel has ordered 16 episodes of Mountain Men for its second season.
The show has produced a different kind of reality star than the “Jersey Shores” of the reality TV world.
“Mountain Men” don’t have Facebook pages, they don’t get recognized because they don’t live near many people, Pierce said.
Along with Oar and Lewis, Eustace Conway of North Carolina and Marty Meierotto of Alaska are also featured mountain men.
The show highlights the “indelible spirit” of someone who has chosen to “go to all ends to do what makes them happy,” said Christopher St. George, a senior editor at Warm Springs who supervises the production for “Mountain Men.”
“The show is big in big cities. It’s the classic story of people trapped in an urban area needing a connection to the outside. Our show does that,” St. George said.
The mountain men are paid for participating in the show. But part of the beauty, St. George said, is that “whether we’re there or not, they’ll be doing what they’re doing.”
Rich Lewis claims in a clip he wouldn’t trade his life for a $1 million.
Tom Oar says he’ll be a mountain man until the day he dies.
Another element that makes the show so popular is the fact that “we bring a piece of us” to the outside world, Pierce said.
Warm Springs’ cameramen have plenty of experience braving the extreme elements to get the shot. St. George called the crews that haul 80 pounds of gear up mountains in dead winter “extreme athletes.”
“They’re not intimidated to be on a moose hunt in negative 40-degree weather,” Richardson said.
Thanks to their connection to Montana’s rural landscapers and experience in the outdoors, the teams have a profound respect for just how captivating the scenery that surrounds the mountain men is for audience members sitting inside an apartment in New York City, Richardson said.
“These guys live in insanely beautiful areas” that take the viewers’ breath away, he said.
The second season of “Mountain Men” debuts on Sunday, the same night of an NBA finals game and the season finale of HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones.”
Whether millions of people tune in again to see Oar and Lewis battle the elements is out of Warm Springs’ hands, Richardson said.
Whatever happens, Warm Springs is confident its team put its best effort forward to tell the mountain men’s stories.
“We’ve been able to build a killer show. It shows we’ve got the credentials to build another one,” Pierce said.
The company is working on another series for the History Channel and will debut another for Animal Planet in early 2014. The staff will also likely keep expanding, Pierce said.
As for the premiere at Richardson’s garage on Sunday, there’s no need for a red carpet.
“What better way to celebrate,” Richardson said, “than on a beautiful Missoula Sunday evening with a few kegs of beer.”