DARBY — When Taylor Sheridan began writing a new television series, he knew he didn't want to shoot in California. The writer-director, who's called Texas and Wyoming home, asked himself where he wanted to work.
"I want to be in Montana," he said.
Sheridan was standing in a historic lodge at the Chief Joseph Ranch in Darby, where they'd just completed principal shooting for the first season of his contemporary drama "Yellowstone," with Kevin Costner as lead.
On Thursday, they played host to Gov. Steve Bullock and other state officials, who asked questions about shooting in Montana and the production's economic impact.
Sheridan said Montana's scenery can't be faked, a conviction strong enough that he made a financial sacrifice to film here. Montana's incentives expired in 2015 and an effort to revive them in the 2017 Legislature failed. Much of the series has been shot in Utah, which has aggressive perks for movies and TV.
The "Yellowstone" team convinced the studio that some scenes, particularly the panoramic views like the ones in the Bitterroot, were worth it.
"The production value can't be matched," Sheridan said. There are incentives to shooting in New Mexico and Utah, but "they don't look the same. There's nothing like it."
Costner told Bullock that the series would be "a postcard for Montana" and described how the "poetry" of a production can "change the face of a state." He compared it to the effect of his 1989 mystical baseball drama "Field of Dreams" on Iowa, or his 1990 Western epic "Dances with Wolves" on South Dakota.
He said the right project and writing can introduce the wider audience to a place. He recounted a line from the series in which someone ponders whether a deal is good enough:
"Leverage is knowing if somebody had all the money in the world, this is what they'd buy," Costner said.
If a movie in a rural state is done right, "even citified people go, 'I need to go there,' because it's rife with history, it's still held onto its identity, and you've not allowed it to be tread on," he said.
Sheridan began writing the series in Livingston in 2013. The actor, who had a small part on the show "Sons of Anarchy," had tired of acting and began writing screenplays. He quickly found success with gritty, dark stories set in the West, like the drug-war drama "Sicario" and the Jeff Bridges contemporary Western "Hell or High Water," which was nominated for an Oscar. Sheridan wrote and directed for 2017's "Wind River," a crime drama set on the Wyoming reservation.
For "Yellowstone," he again sought out issues relevant to the West, such as water rights and eminent domain. Only minimal details of the plot have been released so far: Costner plays John Dutton, a family patriarch who "controls the largest contiguous cattle ranch in the United States," according to the studio's capsule description.
"Amid shifting alliances, open wounds, and hard-earned respect — the ranch is in constant conflict with those it borders — an expanding town, an Indian reservation, and America’s first national park. Far from media scrutiny, it is a violent world of poisoned drinking water and unsolved murders. Yellowstone is an intense study of the modern West rife with land developers, energy speculators, assorted politicians, estranged family, and tribal players. Within this pentagon of interests, land lust is insatiable and love is weaponized."
The show could premiere as early as next summer on the Paramount Network, a rebranding of Spike TV as a prestige television channel.
While Sheridan was determined to film parts of the show here, the production landed in the Bitterroot in part because of production designer Ruth De Jong. She was searching "high and low" in the Paradise Valley, the series' actual setting, when she came across the Darby ranch on the list of properties sent by the Montana Film Office.
Its historic lodge had the right look. The fact that it was a single, private owner and not a corporation was ideal.
"I had to tell Taylor, 'I'm not in the Paradise Valley, I'm in the Bitterroot Valley," she said.
The ranch, built in 1917 by William Ford and Judge Hollister of Ohio, has been pared down from thousands of acres to about 150, according to the Missoulian archives. The reason it was named after Chief Joseph isn't clear. The grand lodge, though, is intact, with a great room of 4,000 square feet with a 38-foot ceiling.
The production team built new corrals with help from local vendors, according to Perri Eppie, the series' publicity coordinator. They outfitted the historic barn with brands for the fictional Yellowstone Ranch and constructed new corrals for the horses. They made additions to the lodge, such as a new deck. They constructed an entire new, historic-looking trapper cabin on the property.
Much of the interior scenes, and many exterior ones, have been shot in Park City, Utah, on large sound stages totaling 45,000 square feet, where they built 360-degree sets and can more easily control the lighting and have less concern about weather. They brought logs from Montana to replicate the interior of the lodge.
The crew experienced three seasons' worth of weather in Darby in August, October and December.
The thick wildfire smoke in August didn't affect the visuals. The scenes "had a thick haze in the air that just gives it a lot of texture and beauty, versus looking like smog," De Jong said. Sheridan said they often use machines to generate that haze on purpose.
Special effects and creative framing will help them match scenes as the seasons have changed. In other cases, they used more analog techniques like snowblowers and heaters to clear a hillside of snow.
Besides Darby, the crew shot footage in the Hamilton area, Livingston, Bozeman, Dillon, the state Capitol in Helena, and the Crow Reservation. Sheridan hired Daryl Begay, his Native American consultant from "Wind River." The Dutton ranch is set next to a fictional reservation and Begay and another consultant are doing tribal outreach to "make sure he's telling a respectful story," Begay said.
Eppie said their estimated spending in the state is $1.5 million, with $500,000 on hotels and car rentals and about $250,000 locally on supplies. They had 26 days shooting with the main unit, including principal cast, and 21 with the second unit, which typically films establishing shots.
The casting call for extras in August drew far above their expectations with more than a thousand people. Several hundred were used, including ranch-hands for the Dutton family.
Off screen, they hired about 63 locals for transportation, production assistants and other crew jobs.
"It might not be a full-time position, but it certainly provides a full-time income," Eppie said.
They enlisted local businesses, like Rocky Mountain Log Homes, for some work. They hired a swiftwater rescue team for a scene on the Bitterroot River.
There were other immediate impacts on the Bitterroot economy. "The bars love us," Sheridan said. "The crew's definitely helped the Hamilton, Montana, nightlife scene. I think we've gotten out of there without causing too much trouble."
During the set visit, Bullock inquired about the benefits and challenges of shooting in Montana, a scenic state with no film incentives, in a region thick with competitors, like Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Canada.
Sheridan said the location is both the greatest challenge and advantage of shooting here. While there's no large urban center to draw resources from, the rural vistas were worth it to them. There was a "fair amount" of local crew with experience on commercial and feature films. The state government was accommodating, including that shoot in the state Capitol.
Another advantage is that the filmmakers have easy access to the scenery — Darby isn't a very long drive to housing and resources in Hamilton or Missoula. Similarly, Bozeman is a gateway to Livingston and Three Forks and a variety of other terrain. He said finding accessible terrain in New Mexico wouldn't be as simple.
That state and Utah are more competitive with infrastructure: both have large sound-stages for productions, something Montana lacks.
They didn't gloss over the importance of incentives and tax credits. He said travel to Montana was a large expense, and an incentive for that would help. He's told the Utah governor's office that if there were no incentives, he wouldn't have shot "Wind River" there. It wouldn't be "out of spite," only that films are expensive and incentives are part of the economic model for movies. Costner went to Calgary to make "Open Range," his 2003 Western set in Montana, for similar reasons.
Costner noted that the novelty of the landscape can be overused. He said it's getting more difficult to shoot in New Mexico because of the volume of films made there. After directors rely too heavily on the view, "the story has to take over."
Sheridan said Montana could attract studios' attention with an incentive that was only two-thirds as much as the highest ones running. The fact that the state has no sales tax makes a large difference on the bottom line. He speculated that a winter rebate "enhancement" of some sort could attract snow-chasing productions like "Wind River," "The Revenant" and "The Hateful Eight," and employ crew during a traditional off-season.
Looking to the future, Sheridan said "you're stuck with me" since he's already started shooting. Bullock said they'd like the production team's help in pushing for incentives in Helena.
State Commerce Director Pam Haxby-Cote expressed interest in finding ways that apprenticeship programs and workforce development grants could be used for the show, which is planning on returning in the spring to continue shooting.
If everything works out, there will be a second season.