After the Bollywood music cues up Lester, a foreman at a lumber mill, he grabs his love interest Lana St. Germaine and begins to dance, employing moves both silly and sultry.

Behind them is a row of dancers, men and women in muted blue and tan jumpsuits. Soon two rabbis join in the action.

Director of photography Kier Atherton tracks around them with a camera held steady in a motion stabilizer. Following behind him to watch the action is director Mike Steinberg.

On Friday, Steinberg and his local cast and crew were finishing up the shoot for his 25-minute film, “Lester Leaps In,” in the cavernous warehouse on the Hive community art space on South Third Street West.

Steinberg describes the movie as a campy, funny and weird film that still treats movies as art, and is itself a metaphor for the creative process.

Steinberg is a lifelong member of the film industry. He is executive director of the nonprofit Roxy Theater and former director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and he has taught film at Webster University and the University of Montana.

He has four feature-length documentaries under his belt, but it's been almost 20 years since he made a narrative film.

For "Lester," he was influenced by the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” a 1982 black comedy in which a deranged wannabe enters a fantasy world and eventually kidnaps the host of a talk show so that he can go on TV in his place and deliver a monologue.

In "Lester Leaps In," Lester Smalls (played by Jeff Medley) is middle management at a lumber mill in 1970s Montana.

"He’s tasked with making a safety film for the mill that nobody seems to care about at all. And he’s really struggling with it. He can’t figure out how to do it," Steinberg said.

Lester also wants to impress his boss, Lana St. Germain. She's played by Steinberg's wife, Lulu, a professional dancer and artist.

He goes to see a movie and has "a mystical experience" that is a bit like "The Wizard of Oz" meets "Alice in Wonderland," Steinberg said.

As Lester struggles to make his film, his dream life and reality begin to bleed into one another, and his frustration grows as his safety movie shoot is hijacked by two filmmakers – the aforementioned rabbis, played by Andrew Rizzo and Aaron Roos.

Steinberg developed the script from a portion of a novel he abandoned some 15 years ago. A friend had suggested he make a movie, and he changed the character's gender so the part fit Jeff Medley, a local actor who frequently wins reader polls for best in the city.

A $10,000 Big Sky Film Grant from the Montana Film Office was the catalyst for getting the film made this summer.

"That was basically the green light," Steinberg said.


Steinberg said it's particularly difficult to shoot narrative films in the United States, but Montana is an exception.

To make the film, he drew on the local arts community, including producer Skye Grace Bennett.

She and Atherton wrote and shot their own feature-length film, "Love Like Gold," around western Montana last year and have been working steadily in the film industry here since.

The assistant director is Marshall Granger, a recent University of Montana graduate who has directed short documentaries.

The dance number was choreographed by Joy French, a UM dance instructor and founder of Bare Bait Dance Company, a local contemporary troupe.

Steinberg sent her a YouTube clip of a 1960s Bob Fosse-choreographed piece that mixed Bollywood with rock 'n' roll moves, and she took cues from its irreverent hybrid.

She auditioned dancers from the community, ranging from high-schoolers to college students to professionals.

You have free articles remaining.

Become a Member

Bennett said the collaborative spirit on the shoot was a pleasure.

"Mike is so tremendous as a director," Bennett said, and allows "people's creativity to open up in his project and everybody can bring ideas."


The film was shot during a week in Anaconda, the Holland Lake area and at the Hive.

They built a large set for Lester's apartment in another section of the building, which they carpeted with loud and colorful scraps from the historic Washoe Theater in Anaconda and a wall draped with his stunted ideas for the safety video.

Steinberg described the apartment as Lester's "womb, his soul."

In the corner above his bed, arranged in patterns on the wall, are one-inch cuts of logs.

Art director Tessla Hastings found them after the branch-cracking storm earlier this month. She drove past some men cutting up a tree on the street and offered them a six-pack of beer if they cut it for her.

Hastings, who also was art director on "Subterranea," a local film shot with Hollywood actors, got many of her Michel Gondry-like design elements on loan from thrift shops in Missoula and Anaconda.

Carlo's One Night Stand and Teen Challenge provided many of the costumes.

The scene of Lester's cinematic revelation was shot in the Washoe Theater, which dates to the 1930s.

“It’s gorgeous. It’s an art deco theater, completely intact," Steinberg said.

Another dream sequence was shot at Rainy Lake, near Holland Lake.

Lester rows a canoe with Lana, who's wearing a Carmen Miranda-style fruit basket hat.

On the shore, Missoula country singer Chris Sand yodels, and nearby a scuba diver contemplates entering the water. There's also a tribal fancy dancer.

It all culminates with the dance number, which happened to be the last moment of the film and the last one they shot.

While the film is funny, Bennett said Lester's story is stocked with moments of tenderness.

"He’s created this idea of what he wants from his life to an extent where in this he’s actually manifesting it," Bennett said.

The dance set piece, set to a tune from the 1949 Hindi film, "Barsaat," is pure high-art absurdity.

Lester is wearing cowboy boots, a shiny gold jacket and polyester pants with a blue elephant pattern. Lana dons a matching gold dress and heels. Medley kept his face trained to the camera, raising his eyebrows with glee.

After three run-throughs, Rizzo said he thought he'd gotten his moves down.

During a break, Steinberg got out a ladder and talked with Atherton about ways to shoot the scene from above.

It's "one of the most creative projects I've ever been involved in," Steinberg said. "And the energy on it is heightened."

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.