Cut Bank – Stunning in its setting as a rugged eastern gateway to Glacier National Park, the town of Cut Bank underlines the hardiest of elements.
In this terrain where wheat fields fuse with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, outdoor scenery is big, broad and brash.
But it’s the softer fundamentals that keep this community of fewer than 3,000 grounded.
Pumpkin cookie recipes and the Cut Bank High School Wolves and Lady Wolves receive priority placement in the weekly newspaper. Conversations touch on retirement teas, church schedules, fishing holes and the plans of the Class of 2014, which graduated 50. Nearby Hutterite colonies plant and pick their produce in scenic quietude.
The people of Cut Bank – which traces its history back to the Great Northern Railroad in the early 1890s – believe they represent the very best of Montana.
On June 16, Hollywood officially serves up “Cut Bank” to the rest of the world – and the suspense is suitably nerve-racking.
“We are nervously awaiting the portrayal,” said Amy Overstreet, executive director of the Cut Bank Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve heard that some of the film’s tag lines are things like, ‘Cut Bank, where dreams go to die,’ and ‘Cut Bank, where luck doesn’t exist.’ “
To better prepare Cut Bank for what could be an outrageous ride from small-town persona to big-screen star, Overstreet talked with the Fargo Chamber of Commerce. Since 1996, the North Dakota city has lived in the homicidal, wood-chipper shadows of the Coen brothers’ sixth film, similarly titled after the town.
“A lot like the city of Fargo,” said Overstreet, “we didn’t seek it out – the attention. It’s something that is happening to us, and we’d like to turn it into something positive.”
Indeed, Fargo may be the sensible paradigm.
“We obviously don’t embrace or agree with all of the characters in the ‘Fargo’ movie or series,” said Danielle Teigen, communications and marketing manager of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce. “We still see it as something positive, though. Hopefully, it motivates or inspires people to come to Fargo and get their own perspective.”
Cut Bank’s story is one of inclusion, not isolation. People come to Cut Bank because it is family-friendly, off the beaten path and affordable; indeed, an ad taken out by Royal Real Estate in the Cut Bank Pioneer Press splits home listings into two categories: $75,000 or less and $75,000 or more.
Overstreet was born and raised in Great Falls, and hadn’t been to Cut Bank until the day she moved there with her husband, Matt.
“We had lived in Alaska,” said Overstreet. “After moving around and out of Montana for several years, we came to Cut Bank, and we only intended to stay for 18 months. But after 18 months, we were hooked, and we never left.”
When Overstreet first heard rumors of a film project with the name “Cut Bank,” she was incredulous.
“I had received emails in June 2013,” Overstreet said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Is this a joke? Is this for real?’”
“I do feel protective of the town and individuals that live here,” she continued. “This town is an amazing group of people. Like most small towns, you know every one’s successes and struggles and develop a lot of empathy.”
Cut Bank’s most famous inhabitant has been transfixing tourists on Main Street since 1989. Constructed of 10,000 pounds of concrete and approximately 27 feet tall, the penguin statue outside the Glacier Gateway Inn declares Cut Bank to be “the coldest spot in the nation.”
“It will be here forever,” said Jeff Billman, president of the Cut Bank Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of Billman True Value, a third-generation hardware store. “I believe the hotel owner built it, and it once talked – it had a microphone. There was an ice cream shop across the street, and it was a good ploy – ‘Come stop to check out the penguin.’”
Billman said the roadside attraction is an influential conversation piece.
“It’s one of those things that people always talk about,” said Billman, who was born and raised in Cut Bank. “It could turn into our claim to fame. It’s very rarely that someone doesn’t stop and take a picture with it.”
“Our penguin is iconic,” he said. “It’s funny, but one time I was in a Florida Cracker Barrel, and every table had a piece of paper, with a penguin, which read, ‘Want to complain about the heat? Imagine living in Cut Bank.’ That was real random – Cut Bank statistics in a Florida Cracker Barrel. But it’s iconic.”
While information is scarce as to the details of the “Cut Bank” script, Overstreet said “the movie seems kind of dark.”
“It has a darkish plot, and it springs out of control,” said Overstreet. “It is possible that the plot it is based on an actual case in a different community, but it is not based on actual events that took place in Cut Bank.”
The cast of “Cut Bank” includes Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern and John Malkovich.
At least one cast member – Malkovich – visited the real Cut Bank, posing for photos and eating lunch at the Big Sky Café.
“John Malkovich was in Cut Bank a few months ago,” said Overstreet. “It was front-page news. Had anyone else been here, I am sure it would have been known. Malkovich chose to see what Cut Bank is like.”
A visit from an award-winning actor like Malkovich certainly provokes a battery of questions – and speculation.
“It’s pretty exciting and, of course, a little scary,” said Billman. “I’ve been reading the description, and it’s a little scary. It’s such a big film. I’ve heard all of the names. It’s actually going to be a big deal. But any publicity is good publicity. It should be good for our town. As a chamber, we are preparing for it. Let’s capitalize off of it and turn it into a positive. I can’t see how it could not be good for tourism.”
The movie wasn’t filmed in Montana, but near Edmonton, Alberta. Billman said that he is impressed with the visual similarities.
“I saw a few publicity photos online,” said Billman. “I’ve got to admit that the area where it was filmed is quite beautiful. It looks like a pretty good representation of our landscape.”
Overstreet and fellow chamber member Amie Allison will attend the world premiere of “Cut Bank” at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 16.
Allison, who also serves as chief of Cut Bank’s Emergency Medical Service, was raised in the town – her father ran a radio station – and she returned in 2009 after years of living in other places, including Texas and Arizona.
“In Cut Bank,” said Allison, “whether people know you or not, they will be waving to say hi. There is a sense of family, whether at work or home or when you are checking the mail. It’s a place that has molded who we are.”
Both Allison and Overstreet said that they will be traveling to California in a few weeks with an open mind.
“Maybe we will wear our penguin shirts,” said Overstreet. “I know that it’s kind of tacky. But why not have fun with it, right?”