Sundance: Revisiting the Smiths of Montana

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On one level, the outstanding Sundance drama “Walking Out” tells a very simple father-son wilderness survival tale. But just below the surface, roiling emotional complications add meaning and difficulty at every turn.

Similarly, the story of how this film, which premiered Saturday night in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic competition, got made can sound fairly straightforward and direct.

Myriad elements, some deeply personal and several reaching back decades, had to almost magically coalesce. So when Alex Smith, who shared writing and directing with his twin brother, Andrew, calls the whole process “fate” it is nothing but the truth.

The Smiths have been in the Sundance competition before, with 2002’s “The Slaughter Rule,” a key early role for Ryan Gosling, and all three of their features (“Winter In The Blood,” from the James Welch novel, was their second) are set in their home state of Montana.

The brothers’ connection to Sundance is almost as strong as the one to Montana. They volunteered at the festival for 10 years, starting with taking tickets. “This was our first film education,” Andrew says. Between them, the brothers have memories of driving Dennis Hopper and seeing Sam Fuller resplendent on Main Street in a long, fur-lined coat.

It was at the Sundance Lab in 1988 that the Smiths became friends with writer-director Rodrigo Garcia. The plan to make a film out of “Walking Out,” based on a short story by David Quammen, was Garcia’s and, knowing of the Smith’s Montana roots, he asked if they wanted to write the script.

The Smiths had not only heard of the story, William Kittredge, the partner of their mother, Annick Smith, had edited it when it first appeared in the magazine TriQuarterly when the boys were in high school and he’d told them “you guys have got to read this.”

It took more than a decade, but Garcia found producers for the project and started to look for a major film star to play Cal, the story’s father, who takes his young son, David, who he sees only once a year, on a moose hunting trip in Montana’s Crazy Mountains.

But Garcia got more interested in his Jesus Christ story “Last Days In The Desert” and, with the option for the short story about to run out, the Smiths asked if they could take the project over. “We didn’t want it to die on the vine, it was so close to us, so familiar,” Alex says.

For it’s more than hunting that is on the minds of both Cal and David. They don’t know each other very well and, despite unease and awkwardness on both sides, father and son are desperate to connect, to figure each other out — a theme that resonated powerfully with the Smiths, whose father died when they were 6.

“We’ve always had conversations about our father; who was he, what would it have been like to have him around,” Alex says. When Cal says of his son, “You want so badly for him to know who you are you could cry,” it is a line the Smiths know cuts both ways.

For this story to be effectively told, casting was essential, and here, too, fate took a hand. A teaching colleague of Alex’s at the University of Texas, Kat Candler, had directed a the Sundance film called “Hellion,” which had featured a strong performance by young actor Josh Wiggins.

The Smiths sent the script to Wiggins, who loved it, and signed on immediately. “We didn’t do any looking,” says Andrew, “which was the complete opposite of our experience with ‘Slaughter Rule,’ where Ryan was our third choice after Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Foster.”

As far as father Cal, the Smiths were close to casting Christian Bale, but when the actor became a new father he was not eager to spend six weeks in remote locations. And because Wiggins, the boyish actor who turned 17 during filming, could convincingly play 14 for only so long, Bale reluctantly dropped out.

Matt Bomer, best known for FX’s very different “American Horror Story,” as well as the “Magic Mike” films, is completely convincing as the assured, self-reliant, demanding Cal. But the lean, wiry actor was not who the Smiths thought of at first.

“I didn’t see it right off the bat,” Andrew Smith admits, but Bomer’s performance in HBO’s “The Normal Heart” was convincing, as was the actor’s connection to the role.

“His read on Cal was super-deep,” Alex reports. “His father was a hunter, a fisherman, an ex-NFL player, and Matt himself had done fishing and bird-hunting. He really responded to the character.”

Shooting outside of Bozeman, Mont., in the dead of winter was another challenge that had to be faced, with the scarcity of daylight meaning that shooting days were nine hours long instead of the usual twelve. “We were on location literally finding our shots while it was dark,” Andrew reports, “so we’d be ready to go at first light.”

While of late many directors who start at Sundance go on to major studio blockbusters, the Smiths, who do have projects pending at Fox Searchlight and Amazon and have written for Warner Bros. and Disney, have remained true to their independent Montana roots.

Though Andrew jokes “we have failed in our attempts to sell out,” there is something deeper involved here.

“We have no desire to make a big franchise movie; we didn’t get into it for that reason,” Alex explains. “The films I love… I’ll still be thinking about it two days later. Those are the kinds of films I want to make.”

@kennethturan

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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