MISSOULA -- An HBO miniseries about the epic American journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark will apparently be filmed in Canada.
The company is still mum about such details two weeks after Michael Lombardo, president of HBO Programs, announced that production of the six-hour miniseries based on the Stephen Ambrose book “Undaunted Courage” has received the green light.
“Lewis and Clark,” set to air in 2016, will star Casey Affleck -- Ben’s little brother -- as Lewis and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Clark.
A Calgary Herald report in January quoted a source close to the production who said the project will be primarily shot in southern Alberta, with pre-production beginning in mid-February and production set to start this summer.
“Thanks for checking in. We have no new information to share at this time,” an HBO spokeswoman said by email Friday.
“We’ve been dealing with this for seven years,” said Deny Staggs, film commissioner for the Montana Film Office in Helena. “They’ve been talking about Oregon, Michigan, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia, Atlanta …
“At this point we don’t know where exactly the primary principal photography will take place. What we do know is that they’ll be shooting a significant amount of second-unit and plate shots in the state of Montana, so Montana will be on the screen in the miniseries.”
It would be difficult to replicate elsewhere the spectacular White Cliffs of the Missouri, the Gates of the Mountains or the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana, Staggs pointed out.
“Even if they don't film here, the fact that many of the most exciting episodes of the expedition happened in Montana has tremendous implications for our tourism industry, as well as for the awareness and protection of the trail in general,” noted Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs of Helena, whose father wrote the book the miniseries is built around.
Staggs said his office is discussing with the state’s Office of Tourism ways to capitalize on “Lewis and Clark,” no matter where it’s shot.
“Nobody’s going to Canada to see the Lewis and Clark trail,” he said. “We feel real strongly that with our knowledge and with the growth of marketing through digital and social platforms that we’ll be able to leverage the Lewis and Clark trail whether it’s shot in Montana or in Canada.”
Last fall, HBO staged 19 open casting calls in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Montana and Alberta seeking to fill the role of Sacagawea. The final three in November were in Missoula, Polson and Browning. Great Falls native Rene Haynes, described by Staggs as “the pre-eminent Native American casting director in the industry,” led the team.
The filmmakers were also seeking American Indians who could accurately represent the people along the route during the early 19th century.
Staggs has spoken with Haynes about the casting calls, but said nothing definite has been announced.
“She was saying there were a couple of Montanans who were definitely in the running for significant roles, so that’s good,” he said.
The miniseries has some big names attached to it. Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are among the executive producers, as is Emmy Award winner Gary Goetzman. Norton, who has spent time in Fort Benton scouting out shooting locations on the Missouri River, co-wrote the screenplay with director John Curran and Michelle Ashford.
Casey Affleck, aka Capt. Meriwether Lewis, was an Oscar nominee for best supporting actor in the 2007 film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” He played Robert Ford; Pitt was Jesse James.
The casting of Schoenaerts as Capt. William Clark wasn’t known until HBO’s green-light announcement on Jan. 30. The 37-year-old from Antwerp played a cattle farmer addicted to steroids in “Bullhead” in 2011, an impulsive and promiscuous kickboxer in “Rust and Bone” in 2012 and an intimidating Brooklyn bum last year in “The Drop.”
The scheduled airing date of 2016 for "Lewis and Clark" is 10 years after the four-year bicentennial celebration ended.
HBO’s plans to turn “Undaunted Courage” into a television series started surfacing as early as 2005. Hollywood-oriented magazines reported back then that HBO was teaming with National Geographic, Norton and Pitt for a 10-part miniseries.
“Lewis and Clark’s expedition is as great a story as you could ever hope to tell, and like so many people, Brad and I have both been drawn to it for years,” Norton told Variety Magazine at the time. “We both always agreed that compressing that story into a feature-length film ruined the spirit of it … so we sat down and said, ‘How can we really do this justice?’ ”
HBO, said Norton, was the only company committed to “this kind of long-form storytelling, and so we’re ecstatic that they wanted to take it on with us.”
“This series has been a long time in the making and I greatly appreciate HBO's commitment to producing a quality miniseries,” Ambrose Tubbs said Friday. “I have no reason to believe this will not be as big if not bigger than the John Adams miniseries.”
That seven-part series, televised by HBO in 2008 and co-produced by Hanks and Goetzman, garnered 13 Emmy Awards, more than any miniseries in history. It also proved a boon for business in Virginia, where it was filmed. An estimated $80 million was spent in the Commonwealth that was directly attributed to “John Adams” even before it hit the screen.
Stephen Ambrose, who died in 2002, published “Undaunted Courage” six years earlier. He and his family had ties to Montana long before that, and daughter Stephenie continues to champion the Lewis and Clark story.
Hanks produced the successful HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” based on another Stephen Ambrose book.
“My father would be thrilled Tom Hanks is at the helm,” Ambrose Tubbs said.