PRAY — It's the Hollywood of Montana in Pray at the Yellowstone Film Ranch, where Big Sky Country meets the big screen and brings new opportunities to southwestern Montana.
It's like taking a trip back in time to the days of gun-slinging cowboys and the Wild Wild West. But it's actually a film set. It was founded in 2020 by Carter Boehm and Richie Gray—plus Colin Davis, who owns Chico Hot Springs right next door.
“Richie got on a plane from LA and he came here. He was talking about wanting to do a movie. So, somebody introduced me to him, and for whatever reason, we hit it off," Boehm told MTN News on March 20. “We’re real proud to have built this. When we originally did it, people came out and said, ‘That will never work,’ and so that got us more determined. And we just kept working."
The pair started their filmmaking journey together after Gray traveled to Livingston searching for a set.
“I saw an Anthony Bourdain episode when I was scouting for a film on the East Coast. And I saw him in Livingston, and I thought that that might be a place I would like to check out,” Gray told MTN. "And that’s where I met Carter, my partner. He had a fascination with movies. His parents actually ran the drive-in theater in Livingston. So we hit it off right away. We took our first little film that was meant to be shooting on the East Coast, and we moved it to Montana. That was a long time ago, like seven or eight years ago. But then my family and I moved here about four years ago to build the ranch.”
The two created the 2017 thriller "Broken Ghost" in Livingston. But Gray had a long history with film before moving to the states from Australia.
“My mum worked in television. So I was always hanging out on the set as a kid. It was an Australian soapie, similar to 'Days of Our Lives' in Australia, called 'Neighbours’," Gray said. "My mum worked on that for ten years. And a lot of Aussie actors, like Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, kind of all the Aussie actors started off in that soapie. And so I kind of grew up on that set.”
The two film enthusiasts got together and decided to build their own set in Montana.
"Carter and I needed a Western town (for 'Broken Ghost'). But the only Western towns that really work and exist in North America are in New Mexico and in Calgary. There’s one in Vancouver as well," Gray said. "But Carter was like, if there’s a place to have a Western town, it’s in Montana."
So they got to work building.
“(Colin Davis) owns Chico (Hot Springs). And so we were able to get the land from him, and he still has an interest,” Boehm said. "Our building crew was out of Emigrant, Montana. And they built the whole thing. Everybody was from Montana that built this. I’m real big on that, being a hometown kind of guy.”
Boehm grew up in Livingston and said he includes his hometown as much as he can in his projects.
“I have a rule that anybody doing a movie here has to try and get Park County talent or Livingston talent. And if for any reason they don’t have the talent, which we do, they can go outside into Montana. If they can’t find somebody then, then they can come in from out of state. We’re real big on it,” Boehm said. “Our movie, 'Murder at Yellowstone City', we had 70% of the cast and crew from Livingston or Montana.”
The set features 30 buildings and has off-set locations. Many of the details of the buildings can be changed so it looks like a different set for each project, such as the church.
“The cross is removable, the steeple is removable. So it’s not going to be the same church in every movie, which I think is important,” Boehm said. “In a lot of Westerns, they want to burn the church. Don’t ask me why, but they burn the church. So we built the church out of steel. Then we can burn the church, so it’s kind of cool.”
And the space goes beyond what you see at the ranch.
“We have two cabins a mile from here. Then in Livingston, we have a prop house and a costume design. We have 17,000 square feet in Livingston and it’s filling up and getting used,” Boehm said. “For this movie yesterday, we rented all the costumes. I think they needed 100 costumes. So we like to do everything from here, as opposed to shipping costumes in from LA. So we have a crew of girls that are busy sewing. Vikki is our costume designer and we love her."
And the founders wanted to keep everything authentic.
“In 1859, Jessie James and his gang robbed this particular bank right here,” Boehm said in front of a bank teller desk. “Everything we did was very authentic."
“It’s hard, because when people come here they’re like, ‘Oh, it looks new,’ and then they have the misconception that an 1880s town should look old," Gray said. "But in reality, it couldn’t have been more than five or ten years old. So that’s an education thing. We have people aging things down to make them look decrepit, but it was new. It’s a constant battle to keep this place looking like it does. But people are starting to get a hang of the fact that it should be new."
You might have already seen the set in some major projects.
“We did ‘The Old Way’ with Nicholas Cage, ‘The Redeemer,' 'Death on the Dearborn.' We’ve done eight movies,” Boehm said. “We’ve done two commercials here. We did a Rolls Royce commercial and it was really cool because it was the Rolls Royce with the stagecoach coming in. We also did Carhartt. Brought in 200 people and it was a great shoot."
One reason he and Gray lobbied the Montana Legislature in 2019 to pass the Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement (MEDIA) Act.
“We were actually there for the signing. And now they’re going to vote on it again. We’re trying to raise it. It’s 12 million right now. We’re hoping it goes to 30 million," Boehm said. "What that does, that brings in movies that would never come here because of the tax credit. Take a look at what 'Yellowstone' has done, what we have done, what other movie makers have done. Before the tax credit, there was very little movies being made here. So that opened it up."
According to a recent study by the University of Montana, the combination of visitor spending and film production spending associated with the production of Paramount's hit TV show "Yellowstone" resulted in $730.1 million in spending for the state's economy. The show has also created 10,200-plus jobs and brought in $376 million in income to Montana households.
The MEDIA Act creates tax incentives for certain expenditures related to media production and currently offers a 20-35% tax credit for using local cast and crew.
Gray agreed the MEDIA Act is a great incentive to open up the Montana film industry—and benefits both production crew and locals.
“The great thing about our tax credit is you get benefits from hiring locals. And so the more locals you can hire, the better. So what we’ve tried to do over the last eight films is hire as many locals as possible. And then they gain the skill set that they didn’t have and they work their way up," Gray said. "So at the start, we could only hire like 30-40% local. Now we’re up to like 70-80% local."
And hiring locals means an economic boost to the communities.
“So with this new movie coming in, April is a slow period in Park County. So to have, like, 200 people working, hotel rooms, catering," Gray said. "People confuse Hollywood as being movie stars. But actually, 90% of the workers are like you and I. You know, builders, construction, catering, hospitality. And so it creates a lot of income in times when there’s not a lot going on here."
That new movie has been a large talk of the town.
“’Rust’ is coming here with Alec Baldwin. That’ll start filming in less than a month. And they’re going to be shooting for a couple of months. We originally said no, but then the producer who I’m friends with got on a plane, came here, and he said, ‘What we’re doing, we settled with the widower, Matthew. And part of his requirement is that they finish the movie in her honor,’ as soon as I heard that, I said, ‘We’re in,’" Boehm said. "So that’s what this movie is going to be based on, is her memory."
That's right—"Rust" starring Alec Baldwin is moving its production from New Mexico to Montana. In October 2021, Baldwin shot and killed Halyna Hutchins, a cinematographer, while rehearsing a scene with a pistol. He is currently facing a criminal charge in the matter. Hutchins' husband, Matthew, is finishing out the movie in her honor. So this movie is now in dedication to her memory and love of film.
“We are doing auditions right now and I think we’re getting a ton of people that are going to be placed for parts in the movie," Boehm said. "They’ve already been awarded parts. We’re also looking for extras. And everything we want to be local."
Keeping everything local—and community members are thrilled to have the Western set in their neighborhood.
“Locals love it. A good friend of ours, Brian Wells, lives around the corner where we have some other sets. We came to him when we were first building, because he looks down on the ranch, to say, ‘Is it okay?’ and he’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’" Gray said. "You know, his cemetery where half his family’s buried is around the corner. So for him to see this, reminds him of what it was like in the 1880s, and reminds him of his family.”
To learn more about the Yellowstone Film Ranch, click here.
“We’re just so excited to be a part of the community. When Carter and I had this dream to build something, we really had no idea about how many people it would activate. We didn’t know every different crew position. Because when you’re directing a movie, like, you’re kind of just in your own lane. But here we get to meet the wranglers and the stunt guys and the caterers and the builders," Gray said. "And it’s just, it’s a dream. And if all we do is create work to get to make westerns for a living, we’re pretty happy."