Julian Higgins couldn't imagine shooting his 30-minute film "Winter Light" anywhere but its place of origin.
"James Lee Burke lives in the Missoula area. The story is clearly written for the Missoula area. I didn't see any reason to look anywhere else," he said in a telephone interview.
Higgins, a young Hollywood director, adapted Burke's short story about a college professor named Roger who confronts two trespassers who want to cross his land to hunt in the national forest.
When Roger refuses, he initiates a cycle of violence and retaliation.
Burke said "Winter Light" is an existential story about a man of honor, decency, kindness and integrity pitted against "virtually feral" men.
He notes that they're not evil because they want to hunt – they're simply men who want to kill.
Higgins brought his Hollywood crew to the Missoula area in late February and early March 2014 to shoot the film, which will screen in Missoula next week.
The cast includes Raymond J. Barry ("Justified," "Born on the Fourth of July") as Roger.
The trespassers are played by Vincent Kartheiser, (Pete Campbell on "Mad Men") and Josh Pence (a body double for a Winklevoss twin in "The Social Network"). Pence co-produced, along with Higgins and Abigail Spencer ("Mad Men," "True Detective" season 2).
The shoot primarily took place in Jocko Canyon, where they found the right look for the eccentric, stubborn professor's remote property.
They shot a few scenes at the instantly recognizable Harold's Bar in Milltown and Accu-Arms, a gun dealership on South Third Street West. (Owner Kris Bonner played himself, which Higgins hopes local audiences will spot.)
Higgins flew to Montana in January 2014 to scout locations, which initially proved worrisome.
"It felt like spring," he said. Not appropriate for a film called "Winter Light."
When they returned at the end of February, 3 feet of snow had accumulated.
While that rendered some locations impossible to reach, it did provide the appropriate settings for the story, in which the landscape acts as a character.
The snow is also crucial to the finale, which takes place in the darkened woods.
"That blizzard is absolutely priceless. You can't create that kind of effect. You can't fake it. It's just a blessing that we could use that blizzard in the finale of the movie," he said.
Despite the extreme weather, Higgins' memories of the shoot were "positive and joyous."
The assistant director in charge of getting all the trucks up the canyon felt differently.
"Afterward, he said, 'That was the most difficult shoot I've ever worked on,'" Higgins said.
Higgins first read Burke's story four years ago in a snowed-in cabin in his home state of New Hampshire, where he grew up, and was struck by its themes and characters.
He sees connections between the film and the revisionist Western genre dating back to the 1970s, when filmmakers began adding moral complexity to a genre that previously operated in simple black-and-white oppositions: cowboys vs. Indians, sheriffs vs. bandits.
He sees the Western as "very philosophical genre" where directors can explore the "a conflict of ideologies."
He was influenced by "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Jeremiah Johnson" and the relatively newer film "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" was on his mind during the making of the movie as well.
"Frankly that would be a good title for this film," he said.
Before shooting it, though, they needed permission from its author.
"Initially, I wasn't sure we'd be able to convince him to give us the rights to the film," Higgins said.
Higgins spent a week "crafting a very passionate one-page letter" explaining his take on the movie, and why it was a very personal story to him.
He and Pence traveled to Missoula to meet with Burke and ensure him they weren't "charlatans trying to steal his work."
In a phone interview, Burke said he watched Higgins' short film "Thief," which won a 2011 Student Academy Award, and was impressed by the movie and both Higgins and Pence's vision and talent.
Burke said he'd like to work with this particular production-direction team in the future on a feature-length film.
"They belong to a generation that is going to reclaim Hollywood as an artistic environment," he said.
"Hollywood is going through enormous changes," he said. The shift has been to blockbuster films directed toward teenagers.
"It's great that kids go see video games on a big screen, but that's what they are," he said.
Burke, whose had three feature adaptions from his books, said everyone denigrates Hollywood, but often they forget that "film is the most creative medium in the world because it is collective in nature."
The conflagration of so many neurotic, artistic types on a single set can result in masterpieces like "The Godfather" and "Gone with the Wind," he said.
"It's like going to Devil's Island and building the Sistine Chapel," he said.
After signing away his story, though, he wasn't involved in the production.
He said that unless a writer is doing the screenplay themselves, they'll never influence the production of a Hollywood movie.
"This is what it usually comes down to. You make a conscious choice at that point. You entrust it to someone else, and you give it to someone whom you respect as an artist and then you step back," he said.
Higgins said "Winter Light" has been optioned before for a feature film.
However, he wanted to keep it as a short film, which wouldn't require extensive changes to the story.
They did make some changes, including new scenes by screenwriter Wei-Ning Yu that create dramatic through-lines.
They also made the character of a student named Gretchen a Native American, played by Q'orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas in "The New World"). Her screen time is limited, but Higgins said her interactions with Roger provide the "emotional heart of the film."
Yu also added a subplot revolving around the professor's purchase of a gun, which adds layers of tension as the conflict escalates.
The film is relatively light on dialogue, relying on Andrew Wheeler's cinematography and the cast, in particular Barry in the lead role.
"Raymond has an all-time great face," Higgins said. "He's an old-school actor. He's a real pro. He understands he doesn't have to do a whole lot. He has everything going on, but doesn't feel he has to show it all the time."
Higgins and Pence worked together on "Here and Now," and Higgins wanted to see him do something different, playing "a crusty backwoods type of character."
The same applied to Kartheiser, best known for his sharply dressed, preppy ad man on "Mad Men." For "Winter Light," he grew a scraggly beard that leaves him almost unrecognizable.
Higgins said the cast and crew all added to a "family-like experience" in Montana.
Locally, the film was supported by the Montana Film Office and received a Big Sky Film Grant, both of which Higgins said made the shoot possible.
"It was really a pleasure working in Missoula," Higgins said. "Coming from a small town myself, I really love the feeling of a community getting together to support an artistic project, and Missoula is really an artistic town."