Building a ‘Legacy’ Film School in the Flathead

Montana Institute for the Arts, powered by big-screen luminaries Kate Bosworth and Michael Polish, wraps up successful debut at FVCC

By Myers Reece
Actress Kate Bosworth helps Montana Institute for the Arts students make a short film in Kalispell on July 18. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Hollywood actress Kate Bosworth and three others huddled around a table at Kalispell’s Dairy Queen on a recent Wednesday morning watching Lacey Cratsenberg eat yet another maraschino cherry in silence. A man in a suit sitting across from Cratsenberg offered her a spoon. Glances were exchanged, but no words were spoken. A video camera zeroed in on the speechless spoon-wielders.

Minutes later, the director behind the camera announced, “That’s a wrap!”

Raucous applause broke out, accompanied by hugs and high fives.

“Great job!” Bosworth said. “I’m so proud of you guys.”

Without context, it would have been an inexplicable scene on Idaho Street. But at the newly established Montana Institute for the Arts (M.I.A.), an immersive filmmaking school that made its debut July 9-20 at Flathead Valley Community College, it was a perfect distillation of the academy’s ambitions coming to fruition: students discovering firsthand the hard-earned joy and magic of filmmaking, from the most mundane behind-the-scenes procedural tasks to the crowning moment when filming is complete.

The celebration, however, quickly turned to collaborative brainstorming. There was still editing to do. The film’s premiere was the next day, alongside three other movies produced by the students in a whirlwind two weeks, guided by the professional expertise of big-screen luminaries like Bosworth and her husband, the director, writer and actor Michael Polish.

Bosworth and Polish teamed up with Travis Bruyer, a Flathead County sheriff’s deputy who also works in the film industry, to launch the M.I.A. The three founders wanted their school to be utterly unique, both in its Flathead Valley location and its methodology. Students would learn every nuance of the filmmaking process as possible in two weeks, and they would do it through hands-on application.

Speaking after the course’s culmination, Polish felt the mission had been accomplished.

“It superseded any expectations we had,” Polish said. “I’m very, very pleased.”

Toward the beginning of class, all 19 students, including Montanans and aspiring filmmakers from all corners of the country, were instructed to write a script for a short film. Then the students voted on their four favorite scripts and were split into groups to film the storylines.

Leading the four groups were Polish; Bosworth and local filmmaker Josiah Burdick; Whitefish filmmaker Adam Pitman; and Bruyer and Jesy McKinney, who has collaborated on films with Polish. Guest instructors were Scott Remick, an assistant director and Kalispell native who grew up with Bruyer, and Michael Hausman, a producer and assistant director whose resume includes “Gangs of New York,” “Amadeus” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

Bosworth’s group worked on a script written by Cratsenberg, of Washington state, who also played the lead character. Rounding out the crew were Angela Martino of New York and Tara Walker Lyons of Missoula. Local stage actor Scotty MacLaren filled in as an actor.

Bosworth rose to acting fame with her breakout leading role in the 2002 surfing movie “Blue Crush,” and has more than 30 movies to her name, including high-profile roles such as Lois Lane in “Superman Returns” (2006) and more intimate independent productions. Her cachet wasn’t lost on her students.

“There’s something to be said about the fact that we’ve all just been mentored by Kate fricking Bosworth,” Lyons said during a group discussion at the end of filming. “The first day, we were all like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Kate Bosworth.’”

Actress Kate Bosworth hugs director Tara Walker Lyons at the end of filming a scene for the Montana Institute for the Arts on July 18. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Yet, Bosworth played the role of collaborative mentor rather than domineering instructor, allowing the students to pursue and work out their own creative processes. Of course, she provided insight and directives, which the students craved, but her laid-back demeanor was innately encouraging, when it could have been intimidating, given her resume. She pulled her hair back, threw on a gray Montana Institute for the Arts T-shirt and showed up for work each day with a wealth of enthusiasm, just as the students did.

Bosworth was impressed by the students’ development in two weeks, propelled by their collective fervor. They learned every aspect of the process: writing scripts, acting, camera work, directing and producing, securing film locations, editing, and myriad details that are integral to the process but unseen by the uninitiated. Students might have been nervous the first couple days, but Bosworth said they quickly hit their stride, in part due to the coursework’s structure of empowerment.

“Their eagerness to learn is palpable,” she said. “They’ve evolved and blossomed both artistically and as people. It’s extraordinary to see.”

Polish concurred.

“It was neat,” he said. “I don’t know if they even knew they were capable of doing it in two weeks.”

Bruyer said the most poignant moment for him was seeing a packed-house crowd at the FVCC theater on July 20 to watch the premieres of each short film, which ran eight to 15 minutes.

“I remembered it was almost a year-and-a-half ago when I came up and pitched this idea to Mike and Kate, and here we were after going through all the paperwork and all the stuff that goes along with building a company or a business — to see it all play out was really remarkable and emotional,” Bruyer said, adding that he’s received rave reviews from students and parents.

“That just tells me we did something really good here,” he continued. “This is something that Montana has been needing, that the Flathead Valley has been needing. I know in my heart that this is going to be a big deal for the Flathead Valley. Hopefully it will be a legacy.”

Polish and Bosworth, who have a home in the Flathead, were married in Philipsburg in 2013, and Polish’s Montana roots go back generations. His grandfather worked on the Hungry Horse Dam and his father spent part of his childhood living in a neighborhood near the Flathead County courthouse. Polish himself is a connoisseur of Norm’s News burgers.

Polish’s decorated filmmaking resume includes “Northfork,” a 2003 movie he made with his twin brother. With a cast that included James Woods, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah, the movie was shot in Montana, along the Rocky Mountain Front, and hailed by Roger Ebert as “a masterpiece.”

Polish and Bosworth want the school to persist in perpetuity and grow into a cornerstone of Montana’s arts scene. Polish is excited to collaborate with FVCC again for next year’s course, and both he and Bruyer praised the school as a partner.

“I’m honored that Flathead Valley (Community College) hosted it,” Polish said. “To be associated with that school is really phenomenal.”

Ultimately, Polish hopes to tap into and nurture Montana’s homegrown talent. He’s not content with the state serving as a pretty location for out-of-state filmmakers.

“Everyone wants to bring films to Montana, but there’s plenty here to do it from within,” he said. “Our big plan is to grow it from the inside out, not the outside in. We have enough here to do it. We just haven’t connected the dots. I think the students taught me how much talent is in the state.”

Bosworth repeated a phrase Bruyer used: “This is a legacy.”

“This is something that’s beyond my movies, Michael’s movies,” she said. “This is something we really hope lives on far past us and allows creatives to make their own art and put it into the world and have a voice.”

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