Can the Red Carpet Reach the Flathead?

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Huntley Ritter has a lot going on. About his production company, television series and upcoming movie that seems bound to irk several Mormons, the Flathead Valley resident has long answers for short questions.

The lack of brevity helps an interviewer who has seen many movies in which Ritter has acted – “Bring it On,” “We are Marshall,” “The Wedding Planner” – but needed to do a little research to place his name with his face.

Sitting on a patio at a downtown restaurant here, Ritter has a quick smile, twirls his sunglasses and, in cowboy boots and jeans, dresses the part of someone who has lived in the Yaak Valley for almost a decade. He recently bought another home on 5 acres in the Lower Valley. He’s sick of commuting to California and hopes to set up shop in the Flathead and shoot his next film here.

Right now, he’s promoting his current film, “September Dawn,” based on the Mountain Meadows Massacre – one of the most controversial events in Mormon history.

Ritter plays Robert Humphries in the film, which stars Jon Voigt and is scheduled for wide release on August 24. Pundits like Larry King and Bill O’Reilly are already discussing it. And they’re not the only ones.

“Voigt went to the Whitehouse to watch the movie with President Bush and (GOP presidential candidate and Mormon) Mitt Romney,” Ritter said.

How did it go?

“Voigt is a very charming man,” Ritter said. “So I think it went well.”

Many historians consider The Mountain Meadows Massacre on Sept. 11, 1857, when Latter Day Saints (LDS) militiamen killed 120 Arkansas immigrants north of St. George, Utah, the darkest day in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ-of Latter-day Saints. The LDS church has acknowledged the tragedy and built a monument near the site of the massacre in 1999. But many Mormons are leery of how Hollywood will interpret the events and upset that it’s being dredged up at all.

“Some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it,” Scott Duthie, a Helena native and producer of the film, said. “In no way is this film a representation of what the church is today.”

He added that historians have seen the film and deemed it accurate.

“September Dawn” was filmed in Canada, an example Montana-based producers, actors and directors cite as a another missed opportunity. The Big Sky on the Big Screen Act, signed into law by the 2005 Legislature, was aimed at attracting more productions to Montana by offering incentives. Since the bill passed, one full-length movie has been filmed in southwest Montana and another is planned there. Ritter sees potential for many more films – and he wants to bring them to his own backyard: “Often, they’re only bringing movies here if they’re filming Lonesome Dove.”

Instead, Ritter wants to shoot a series in the Flathead and wants to film his next movie, the high school romantic comedy “A Date with Destiny,” in the area. He wants to set up shop in downtown Kalispell and hopes to hire staff and house his production company Stafford Films here. While the movie industry has gained a foothold in parts of Montana, it’s still a small one compared to Montana’s heyday in the 1990s. But those who know Ritter think he can change that.

“If anybody can come to Montana and produce (movies) he’s the guy to do it,” Duthie said.

Ritter has already filmed several episodes of his outdoor TV series, “The Huntley Way,” in the state that Versus, the cable television station that airs the show, asked him to travel outside the region a bit more. He also recently sold a reality series on smoke jumping to HDNet.

An Atlanta native, Ritter became on actor on a whim. He worked on the soap opera “The Bold and Beautiful” and following the success of the high school flick, “Varsity Blues,” a door opened for young actors like Ritter. While only 30, Ritter now has more of a say over the projects he takes. “My goal is to sleep in my house every night,” he said.

Brian Skuletich, a Butte native and vice president of development and productions at Stafford Films, is optimistic about the future of films in Montana. Already, several commercials are shot each year in the state, but he and Duthie stressed more needs to be done to attract major motion pictures.

“You can’t tell me you couldn’t have filmed ‘Lord of the Rings’ in Montana,” Skuletich said.

Canada and other U.S. states offer more incentives to attract film crews. And Duthie said Montana’s downfall is often the cost of airfare and lodging. The Big Sky on the Big Screen Act, many in the film industry say, doesn’t go far enough. Others, however, have criticized the measure for offering Hollywood any discounts at all.

Ritter said he tries to stay above the fray, but did call movie making “one of the most renewable industries we have.” And while he’s not the first to push for more films in Montana, he is confident of the Flathead’s filming prospects.

“I would bet money that our company will do a movie here,” Ritter said.

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