Kimberly Reed initially set out to make a very different documentary.
The Helena native was following the state of Montana's defense of its ban on corporate spending in election campaigns in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
She thought it would be a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" story, centered on then-Attorney General Steve Bullock.
After the justices struck down Montana's law and opened the elections to so-called "dark money," she kept returning to her home state from New York City for six years.
Her feature-length movie, "Dark Money," delves into Montana history with the passage of the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act; then moves to Citizens United and ends with the passage of a stronger state law and a civil case against a state senator for coordinating with those groups.
In a phone interview, Reed said she hopes the film can help "build a playbook for other states to follow."
"What we show is that, reaching across the aisle on a bipartisan basis, Montana identified a problem and changed our laws to crack down on something that was seen as a threat to our democracy."
The film screened in the U.S. documentary film competition at Sundance Film Festival last month. It makes its home-state premiere on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, with two more screenings scheduled. Reed said it was an honor to be accepted at Sundance. Plans are in the works for nationwide theatrical release and more announcements could come this weekend.
Her previous documentary, "Prodigal Sons," about returning to Montana after transitioning genders to attend her high school reunion and reconcile with her adopted brother, won awards on the national festival circuit and was featured on the Sundance Channel and "Oprah."
After that Supreme Court decision, Reed saw a "dramatic clash" occurring that could be the basis for a film. She interviews numerous state lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, who were the subject of attack ads. Not only were the attacks anonymous, but they could come in the final days of the election, when citizen legislators didn't have the time or money to respond in kind.
While opinions are heated, campaign finance law isn't an inherently visual subject.
"That's really the challenge, always, with documentaries," she said. In 2013, she met reporter John S. Adams, who was then covering Helena politics for the Great Falls Tribune, and began filming his efforts to cover the dark-money groups.
"If I make a documentary that's wagging my finger and telling you about how this 501(c)4 kind of cloaked some of their spending, you would pay attention for about 10 or 15 seconds. But if I can show the story of someone else stepping through that and discovering it and becoming our envoy through this world, then you have a sense of discovery and you have a more compelling narrative structure for the film," she said.
The film became more "longitudinal," as she returned to Montana over the course of several years to monitor how the issue unfolded, shooting hundreds of hours of footage.
"You really need to follow these groups over multiple election cycles, to watch them pop up and disappear, and pop up again and change their name," she said.
Things take a bizarre turn in Colorado, where a "dark money" staff member leaves campaign strategy materials in a car. The papers are recovered during a police raid of a meth house, and the papers make their way to a state senator who mails them to the office of Jonathan Motl, then Montana's commissioner of political practices. Adams and Reed spend a week combing through the materials, whose revelations culminate in a civil case against then state-Rep. Art Wittich.
The Montana landscape figures throughout the movie. Not only would it indicate Montanans' connection to the outdoors, but it works as a "visual representation of what is at stake," Reed said. For out-of-staters, she has history of the Berkeley Pit to show "what the repercussions are."
Reed said she's proud that "Republicans are going to probably outnumber Democrats on the panel discussions" after some screenings.
After the first showings, she said many people view "Montana as a microcosm" for other states and hopes it inspires change elsewhere.
"If you can fix stuff here, you can fix it in pretty much every state," she said.