For all of Montana’s exquisite colors and variegated beauty, in the right light, with the right eyes, it can be seen as a vast blank canvas.
That’s how director and screenwriter Michael Polish and his actress wife Kate Bosworth see the Treasure State through the lens of filmmaking potential, not just as a pretty backdrop, but as a place to cultivate, nurture and proliferate its own movie industry: a home, a headquarters, a destination, not a way station.
Polish and Bosworth want to start at ground zero: launch an arts school that offers tools for every aspect of filmmaking with assistance from their extensive Hollywood connections, thus building a framework of possibilities, and then watch as the framework fills out, morphs, expands, takes on a life of its own.
And it just so happens that ground zero is the Flathead Valley.
Polish and Bosworth founded the new Montana Institute for the Arts (M.I.A.) with Travis Bruyer, a Flathead County sheriff’s deputy who moonlights as an actor, producer and law enforcement consultant on movie sets. The institute kicks off with a two-week immersive course in filmmaking at Flathead Valley Community College in July, with the goal of teaching every nuance of the process and industry as possible.
The school, which will promote real-world, hands-on experience and showcase Hollywood industry professionals as guest teachers, is currently taking applications. Class size will be limited, so early applications are highly encouraged, and scholarship opportunities are available. The course will be held July 9-20.
“It will be a course from script to screen,” Polish said in a May 16 interview. “How you start with a story, the birth of an idea, all the way through how many steps it actually takes to film something. You would say it’s a crash course because of its two-week period.”
“It’s going to be interesting and a lot fun,” he added. “We don’t want to take the fun out of it.”
Polish has Montana roots that include Kalispell and date back generations. His grandfather worked on construction of the Hungry Horse Dam, while his father spent part of his childhood living in a neighborhood near the Flathead County courthouse and sold newspapers as a boy in front of Norm’s News. Polish has fond childhood memories of his family’s cattle ranch near Dillon and gravitated to the Flathead as an adult. Today, he has a home in the Flathead Valley and splits his time between here and Los Angeles.
Polish and Bosworth were married in 2013 in Philipsburg, and though Bosworth, a horse aficionado, doesn’t have the same generational ties as her husband, she has fallen in love with Big Sky country.
“Now I can’t get her out of the state,” Polish said.
Bosworth has acted in more than 30 films, including her breakout starring role as a teenage surfer in the 2002 movie “Blue Crush,” as well as playing Lois Lane in “Superman Returns,” released in 2006. Polish has his own formidable Hollywood resume, primarily highlighted by writing and directing credits, although he acts as well.
In 2003, Polish and his brother released “Northfork,” with a cast that includes James Woods, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah. It was shot in Montana, along the Rocky Mountain Front, and hailed by Roger Ebert as “a masterpiece” and “more evidence that the Polish twins are the real thing.” The movie’s name was inspired by the North Fork Flathead River, Polish’s favorite rafting destination.
Most recently, Polish wrote and directed, and Bosworth starred in, a film released last year about sex trafficking called “Nona.”
Bruyer and Polish both speak enthusiastically about what they see as an immense amount of untapped potential for Montana’s film industry, with the talent and setting in place, but not the infrastructure. While the University of Montana and Montana State University offer quality film and arts programs, and the Montana Film Office provides financial incentives and resources, the channels connecting aspiring filmmakers to the resources necessary for achieving their potential are still filled with gaps.
“It’s amazing that Montana is so rich in culture and yet doesn’t have a lot of programs where kids can express themselves artistically, mainly in film,” Polish said.
“It’s important to support the local artists as well as to bring people to understand the state,” he continued. “Montana is my favorite state. I’m going to be really biased when I speak about it. There’s nothing like it. You cross over from Idaho or any of those states that butt up against it, and you really feel the difference.”
Bruyer, who notes that numerous movies and commercials have been filmed in the state in recent years, approached Polish and Bosworth about the possibility of launching a fundraising-driven grant program to help filmmakers get projects off the ground: “made in Montana, by Montanans, for Montana.” The idea grew to include a school.
“For me, it’s definitely a unique opportunity being lucky enough to know them and being able to pitch this idea,” Bruyer said, adding how fortunate Montana as a whole is to have access to resources like Polish and Bosworth: “I don’t know a lot of schools of this type that are active with people in the industry teaching.”
Fundraising is ongoing for the grant program, with the hopes of building it up over time, but the July course at FVCC is the institute’s priority right now. With their deep and varied experience, Polish and Bosworth can speak to every phase of the film process: writing, producing, acting, directing, camera work, preparing for a role, editing a script, you name it.
“Between the two of us, Michael and I have accumulated over 40 years’ experience in filmmaking,” Bosworth said. “We look forward to bringing our knowledge of the arts to a place that is so special to us.”
Their guest teachers, working professionals with similarly extensive backgrounds in the industry, will add to that already robust wealth of knowledge. The course will also feature a range of top-of-the-line equipment.
“Other schools I’ve been to and taught at, there’s not a lot of hands-on work,” Polish said. “When you’re a professional football player, you know what it’s like to get hit. You’re not just coaching.”
The school is beginning modestly, but the founders hope to one day build a brick-and-mortar campus. Polish praised FVCC as a partner in getting the initial summer course up and running.
“They’ve been amazing,” he said.
The school has received interest from students in places such as New York, Texas and Europe, but Polish wants to have as “many Montanans as possible,” and the grant program will provide funds exclusively for Montana filmmakers or perhaps others who want to make their films here.
“Our goal is to help Montana arts,” Polish said. “We want to explore something new in a state that has so much to offer.”
Bruyer notes that filmmaking has ripple effects across the economy, with large crews spending long periods of time here, pumping money into hotels, eateries, retail shops and more, while also showcasing the state to broader audiences, bringing ancillary benefits. He hopes the state Legislature will decide to offer more robust tax incentives for the industry in Montana.
In any case, Bruyer is excited to kick off this ambitious project in his own backyard.
“Once we’re established here,” he said, “I think this is going to be pretty special.”
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