Finding the West’s ‘Best Bar’

By Beacon Staff

Damon and Eric Ristau were college students living in Missoula when they met an old, homeless man named Northway late one night at the Oxford Bar. The brothers invited him home, and for the next month Northway lived on their couch.

“He was this old codger who just had this energy about him – one of those people with crazy charisma and magnetism,” Damon Ristau said.

Northway had recently lost his wife, and was living in a van until it was stolen, along with most of his possessions. The old man would come and go, sometimes leaving the brothers for days at a time. On one such occasion, he left and never returned.

But Northway’s mail kept coming to the brothers’ home, and they worked to track him down. Nearly a year later, they finally learned that Northway had died.

“We found out his days with us in Missoula were his last,” Damon Ristau said. “It was a pretty powerful experience for both of us. He was this amazing and wise guy, a grandfatherly figure.”

Now, Northway is also the inspiration for a main character in the brothers’ first film, “The Best Bar in America.” The fictional adventure-comedy follows two men as they travel through the West’s bars, taverns and saloons, especially those here in Montana, on a beat-up motorcycle and sidecar.

“In a nutshell, it’s about self-discovery,” Damon Ristau said. “It’s a man who’s on the road, and who through him meeting a variety of different people and characters along the way, opens his eyes to the world and gets a better sense of himself.”

The film’s main character, Sanders, played by Missoula actor Andrew Rizzo, has set out to write a bar guidebook, but along the way loses his job and his wife. He meets Northway, a wild, old sage who helps him put his life back together.

Though vastly different, the men share an appreciation of local watering holes and take a chaotic tour of the region’s finest.To make the movie, the Ristau brothers and their small crew visited at least 65 bars in the West, many of them here in Montana. Fifty or so made it into the film.

Flathead area residents will recognize several, including Moose’s Saloon in Kalispell and Columbia Falls’ Blue Moon and The Bandit. Other scenes were shot on the streets of Whitefish and Columbia Falls, on Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road and U.S. Highway 93 between Whitefish and Eureka.

With “virtually no budget,” the brothers relied on the digital equipment they already had via their production company, Firewater Film Company, and paid its actors in travel expenses and bar tabs. They found many of their extras – and some of the more interesting side characters in the movie – sitting on Montana bar stools.

“There were people we met who it didn’t matter if it wasn’t in the script, they had to go in,” Damon Ristau said.

The brothers plan to put a rough cut in front of a hometown audience on Friday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m. at Missoula’s Wilma Theater. Tickets will be sold at the Wilma Theatre Box Office before the show. A $5 donation is requested.

In addition to some favorite watering holes, locals will also recognize the actor playing Northway: Whitefish’s David Ackroyd is an accomplished actor whose accolades include everything from Broadway’s “Children of a Lesser God” to daytime-television leading roles in “The Secret Storm” and “Another World.” Ackroyd is also one of the founders of and a frequent performer at Whitefish’s Alpine Theatre Project, a nonprofit professional theater company.

On the recommendation of film professionals in Missoula, Damon Ristau cold-called Ackroyd last year to ask him to take the part. To his surprise, Ackroyd told him to send him the script.

“He’s amazingly talented, and just completely embodied the character,” Damon Ristau said. “It wouldn’t have been the movie it is without him.”

In fact, Ackroyd was so convincing as the brothers’ infamous Northway, it’s hard to separate the two. “It’s a funny thing,” Damon Ristau said. “When I’m thinking of Northway now, in my brain I see Ackroyd.”

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