Spielberg Comes to Libby

The famed director spent the summer of 1989 filming the romantic comedy-drama "Always" in Northwest Montana, utilizing both the scenery and the local residents

By Brian D’Ambrosio
Former Montana Gov. Stan Stephens listens to Always director Steven Spielberg. Courtesy of Garry Wunderwald

Montana Film Commissioner Garry Wunderwald remembers the morning in April 1989 when he received a phone call at his office from perhaps the most powerful and successful person in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg told Wunderwald that he needed a mountain airport as the primary backdrop for his new film Always. The 41-year-old director-producer had been scouting cities across the Northwest U.S., including Sandpoint, McCall and Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. Wunderwald said he would provide a list of possible Montana locations within 48 hours, or sooner, as Spielberg continued his search across the West.

Ultimately, Spielberg was convinced that Libby’s nearly 2,100-foot elevation, spacious 5,000-foot airport runway and scenic background surrounded by the Cabinet Mountains would best fit the movie’s needs. He was also impressed with Bull Lake, west of Libby, where other scenes would be filmed.

Libby was selected over two other Montana candidates, Lincoln and Benchmark, a ranger station on the east side of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, because of its altitude, scenery and logistics, according to Wunderwald, who served as Montana’s first film commissioner, beginning in the mid-1970s and retiring in the late 1980s.

Always required a paved runway surrounded by trees. All three places fit the billing, “but continual landings and take-offs in summer conditions would be safest in Libby,” Wunderwald recalls. It also helped that Libby didn’t have much commercial flight service available.

“That was another key factor in their decision,” Wunderwald says. “It was an airport that didn’t give them schedule problems to work around, or have too many scheduled flights. So, out of the 300 airports, Spielberg picked a Montana one.”

Work Begins on Always

Spielberg, best known for iconic films such as E.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist and the Indiana Jones franchise, launched production on Always in Libby in late May 1989. The film is a story about forest fires, a deceased pilot and his former girlfriend. It’s a heavily retooled version of a World War II movie entitled A Guy Named Joe, with the plot reshaped to emphasize aerial firefighting jet pilots instead of bomber pilots. The 1943 Victor Fleming film starred Van Johnson, Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunn, and was one of Spielberg’s favorite movies since he was a child — “one from the heart,” as the director later remarked. He would also later say A Guy Named Joe was one of only two films that had reduced him to tears (the other, he said, was Bambi).

Spielberg had flirted with the idea of a remake for years. Indeed, he exhausted 10 years getting it written and cast, and, later, $30 million filming it.

In Spielberg’s rendition, Richard Dreyfuss stars as Pete Sandich, a daredevil aerial firefighter pilot who crashes but returns as a caring ghost, helping the girl he left behind, played by Holly Hunter, overcome her grief and find a new lover.

From the onset, however, Spielberg didn’t frame Always as a remake.

“I think the film owes a great inspiration to … A Guy Named Joe,” Spielberg said in a 1989 interview with movie critic David Elliott. “But it’s not really a remake. It was the basis for a new story.”

Spielberg told Elliott that he initially considered making Always “a period piece” and keeping the World War II conditions. In the end, he chose to update it to “contemporary times in the American West,” while maintaining a quality reminiscent of films from the 1940s.

The first draft of the Always script was written in 1980 while Spielberg was going through a divorce from his first wife, actress Amy Irving. The themes of loss and separation and heartache may have reflected his own emotions at the time, and he said its ghost story subplot of haunted memories drudged up the pain of his parents’ divorce many years earlier.

Spielberg told the Boston Herald in 1989 about “the idea that we have a job to do — to pass information back into life after we depart. That we have a chance to come back and help other people not to make the same mistakes we made. To express themselves when they couldn’t. To say the things they’re always afraid to say.”

Construction of Faux Fire Camps

An integral foundation of Spielberg’s film, the Libby Airport turned into a certifiable smoke jumper base, with a fire dispatch center, a control tower, a weathered-looking Quonset hut and faux pumps. At the rim of the airport, a fire camp was created with tents and sheds, along with other structures and a meandering dirt road. The rudimentary U.S. Forest Service maintenance buildings were, in fact, hollow fiberglass shells where the camera operators were lined across on portable scaffolding.

“First we shot all the groundwork scenes at a firebase set we built at the Libby Airport,” location manager Patricia Fay recalls. “The crew built most of the sets, actually — the firebase, the control tower, the cabins, everything.”

A crew of approximately 300 converged in the Libby area on May 22, 1989, and second-unit shooting finished in early July. Numerous locals had the opportunity to take part in the movie, including many who were recruited from the Libby area to portray the base workers.

“We needed 175 local extras, all dressed as firemen,” Fay says. “That was probably the most unusual part of the shooting. We had to get all these guys dirty — I mean really dirty — because we all know what firefighters look like. But we had a great turnout, and our extras were really great. A lot of them had really fought fires at some time.”

After filming in Libby, the crew then headed to Ephrata, Washington, to shoot some scenes before returning to Libby for a few more weeks of additional shooting.

Production manager Gary Daigler noted that the people of Libby were kind and cooperative and embraced the production “with open arms.”

The movie was also shot in the Dry Fork area, which encompasses mountainous terrain about an hour’s drive from Libby. Dry Fork had suffered terrible fires the summer before shooting, and the film used the still badly scorched earth to film some of the wildfire aftermath scenes. In one scene, firefighters traverse an artificially constructed path of daisy-covered greenery laid across a heavily burned area.

“We were using everything around that Libby had to offer,” Wunderwald says. “There is a lot of capture, from the forests to the lakes. A lot of times, we had to go an hour and a half out of town to find the look we wanted.”

During one day of shooting in July, the fire crew members, including Mike Fantasia, who went on to work in location management on a number of films, including The Green Hornet (2011), had to foam a mucous-like “fire gel” over their faces and hands to help them withstand high amounts of heat. The manipulated forest fire set included shrubs, bushes and standing dead trees, through which liquid propane was thrust and ignited.

Fantasia says the cast and crew were “already hotter than hell” when he heard Steven Spielberg shouting at his assistant director that the fire was “too wimpy.”

The Libby airport was transformed into a base for forest-fire retardant bombers. Courtesy of Garry Wunderwald

Yellowstone Forest Fires

The dramatic forest fires captured on film for Always were a combination of genuine footage and Hollywood ingenuity. Spielberg had started sending out crews more than two years earlier with permission from the Forest Service in order to capture aerial footage of flaming fires burning in the Yellowstone National Park area. In the summer of 1988, approximately 250 wildfires consumed about 800,000 acres — roughly one-third — of the park.

For additional forest fire footage, Spielberg created blazes by re-burning areas of Yellowstone that had already been under flames. In order to control the new fires safely, the special-effects team rigged the pre-burned trees to ignite on command.

“Because of the earlier fires they were able to get this wonderful footage for the film,” Wunderwald says.

Recollections of Spielberg in Montana

Actor John Goodman told the Boston Herald this anecdote about working with Spielberg in Montana: “Steven is in the eye of the storm, with planes flying and the crew and commotion, and he comes over and says, ‘God! I love making movies!’”

When Billings pilot Denny Lynch swooped in with a film crew to squelch a controlled burn during the filming of Always, he had a hard time fighting against his natural instincts to work fast. Spielberg, who was looking to savor the shots, wanted Lynch to hover and grandstand instead of plummet and pounce. The director scolded him: “Where are you going? The camera’s what’s important here, not fighting the fire.”

“I had to keep remembering this was a love story, not a B-26 story or a firefighting story,” Lynch said.

Lynch, who ran Lynch Flying Service, a company his father started in 1931, had been flying since age 16. In one runway scene, Lynch ended up with Dreyfuss sitting on his lap in the cockpit, and in another sequence, he donned a wig when Hunter was supposedly flying the plane.

For the film, Lynch made “four retardant drops over an actual forest fire.” The famed director, he recalled, was a nitpicker for precision: “With Spielberg, you don’t do anything once. You do it about four times.”

All total, Lynch flew 150 hours, burned up two airplane engines and even had a cinematic brush with disaster when a front landing gear busted, all for 11 minutes of flying on the screen.

Taleena Ottwell, of Kalispell, served as Holly Hunter’s stand-in and double in several long-range shots; at 5 feet 2 inches, Ottwell was about Hunter’s size, and she was willing to color her hair to match the actress’ medium-brown. She looked similar enough to the actress, in fact, that other extras on the set occasionally asked for her autograph. She signed her own name along with the words “Holly’s double.”

Among other local contributions, Cameron Carmicheal, a Libby High School student, landed an assignment as a production assistant. For one day’s shoot, Carmicheal rounded up approximately 50 extras to act as patrons of a tavern. Other duties included delivering Dreyfuss his breakfast.

Governor: “A Real Coup”

Released as Spielberg’s bid for the holiday movie crown in 1989, Variety characterized Always as an indulgent fantasy romance with “a predominately goofy, adolescent tone.” The San Diego Union opined that the “corny, sentimental film” only worked so well because “the locations at remote airstrips in Montana and Washington State are gorgeous and the forest fires are truly intimidating.”

Montana Gov. Stan Stephens, a Republican who served from 1989-1993, praised Spielberg’s directing and the film’s special effects. “This has to help Montana,” Stephens told the Associated Press at a screening preview in Helena in the winter of 1990. “It’s just a ‘win’ situation to have this label on our state.”

Wunderwald arranged for the governor and his wife to observe the filming of one scene involving Hunter at Bull Lake, and to have dinner with Spielberg afterward.

“What we hope is this gets an Academy Award and reference is made to the scenes in Montana,” Stephens said before the preview. “It was a real coup to get (Spielberg) in Montana … As far as I’m concerned, [Always is] already picture of the year.”

In addition to its locations in Montana and Washington State, Always was shot on soundstages at Universal and Lorimar. But cinematographer Mikael Salomon’s beautiful Montana photography provides one of the film’s greatest strengths, from the dramatic visuals of the raging forest fires to the stirring flying sequences.

Years later, Montana was narrowly passed over as the film site for Spielberg’s epic Jurassic Park. Scouts visited the state to examine possible shooting sites in the summer of 1994, and parts of the movie were originally slated to be filmed along the Hi-Line, but Amblin Entertainment instead decided to stay in California to reduce associated costs.

While Always might be classified as something of a footnote in Spielberg’s extensive filmography, the cast and crew will forever cherish filming it in Libby, a remote town rich in beauty and hospitality.

“The city of Libby is so small,” Daigler, the production manager, remembers, “that after our location manager was there for a few weeks, everybody would know if she had a glass of wine with dinner, or where she had her hair fixed, or what she was doing each night. She became, to a degree, a local celebrity.”

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Helena, Montana. His most recent book, “Montana Entertainers: Famous and Almost Forgotten,” was released in July 2019.

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