Filmmaker Alana Waksman has been working on her feature film debut “We Burn Like This” for well over four years, even moving from Los Angeles to Montana to inform her work on the script, which originally was about a Native American woman.
“I wanted to better understand everything that was going on here,” Waksman said. “Gradually, I wanted to rewrite it to be a little more personal.”
That turned the story into a profile of a Jewish woman living in Billings, who deals with identity, healing and bigotry. Waksman was inspired to tell the story in part because of her grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors.
“It’s something that has a history in Montana and continues to have a presence in Montana,” Waksman said.
Waksman wrote the script — based on a short story she wrote in college — and will direct the film. Missoula artist and musician Marshall Granger will produce, along with Jeri Rafter (who worked on the Anaconda-set "Mickey and the Bear," shot in 2018).
The film crew are hosting a fundraiser at The Roxy Theater on Thursday, April 4, which will feature a presentation on the film, along with screenings of two shorts, both directed by Waksman.
All proceeds from tickets (and an art auction) will go toward covering the last third of the film’s budget. The rest has come from private backing and a Big Sky Film Grant from the Montana Film Office.
Filming will start in summer 2019 in Billings, with additional scenes shot in Butte.
A fundraiser will be held in Billings as well on April 8.
Waksman sees similarities between herself and the main character; Waksman grew up in Iowa, where there also weren’t many Jewish people. But Montana informs a historical trauma aspect to the film, which Waksman saw reflected through Native American tribes.
It was Granger, who grew up in Billings, who suggested setting the movie there.
Just after he was born in 1993, Granger recounted, there was a series of vandalism aimed at Jewish people, which culminated with a cinderblock thrown through a child’s bedroom window. It became a flashpoint in the community, with local businesses and the Billings Gazette printing full-page menorahs for people to tape up in their windows.
“That sort of hung over that for me, and there have been re-occurrences of (bigotry) through the years,” Granger said.
The two were drawn to Billings as well because of its under-representation in film. Aside from the 2013 Alexander Payne film “Nebraska,” almost every Montana movie features Bozeman or Livingston or Anaconda, Granger said.
“There’s a lot of Montana that hasn’t been shot or done in film,” he said, calling Billings an “untapped resource.”
Waksman said she was excited to be moving forward on the long-gestating project and hoped Missoula and Billings would be supportive, given recent high-profile events (like, say, anti-Semitic graffiti for one).
“The Holocaust wasn’t that long ago — it was my grandparents,” Waksman said. “It’s important to keep talking about it. … I hope that this film will continue to be a part of that.”