The movie A River Runs Through It celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year. It premiered on October 9, 1992. Based on the novella by Norman Maclean, the film launched the career of Brad Pitt and boosted interest in fly fishing. It continues to captivate viewers who resonate with its story of tragedy, family, the American West, and fishing.
The movie is set in Missoula, Montana, though most fans know that it was filmed 200-plus miles east of Missoula in Livingston, Montana. Livingston served as Missoula, and the Gallatin River served as the Big Blackfoot River.
But there are some fun facts about its filming which you won’t find in most reviews or articles. This information comes from two primary sources. First, I lived in the very area where the filming took place. I could take you to the exact spots on the Gallatin and Boulder Rivers (and Mill Creek in Paradise Valley) where the scenes were shot.
Second, my podcast partner, Dave, and I had an extensive conversation with Gary Borger about his role as a consultant. So if you’re curious about some of the details, keep reading.
The “Maclean house” is across the road from the Springhill Presbyterian church, fourteen miles north of downtown Bozeman, Montana. The porch was built specifically for the scene where the Maclean brothers climb out of their bedroom window.
Then, when they drive away in the dark with their cronies, the church is visible, and it looks as much like a schoolhouse as it does a church.
In the scene where the father teaches his young sons the art of fly casting, Tom Skerritt (the actor who played the role of Rev. Maclean) originally said: “Go get the fly poles.”
This happened to be Gary Borger’s first day on the set, and he told the line producer that a fly fisher never would have referred to a fly rod as a “fly pole.” So the line producer got producer Robert Redford’s attention.
“Go get the book,” Redford said.
He found the passage that says that “it is always supposed to be called a rod” — not a pole. And rod it was.
Most of the fly fishing scenes were filmed on the Gallatin River in the Gallatin Canyon south of Bozeman.
In these scenes, Gary Borger’s son, Jason, did almost all the fly casting for the actors in the movie. This includes the memorable “shadow-casting” that Paul Maclean performed while standing on a big rock in the middle of the river. When Jason did that particular cast, an elderly, long-time friend of the Maclean brothers was on the set. After the scene was filmed, he approached Jason and said, “You are Paul.” The friend was stunned that Jason had captured the essence of Paul’s artistry with a fly rod.
While Jason did most of the fly casting in the movie, the actors picked it up rather quickly. Tom Skerritt (the elder Maclean) had done some fly fishing previously. Both Craig Sheffer (Norman) and Brad Pitt (Paul) were quite athletic. Jason made sure that Skerritt and Sheffer used the traditional forearm style, while Pitt used the more open freearm style that Paul Maclean would have used.
The “trout” the Maclean brothers hooked into and fought were mostly non-fish.
In several scenes, the fish on the end of their line was actually a half gallon milk jug with rocks in it. In the scene where Paul fights a fish hidden from view behind a large boulder, the fish is actually John Bailey of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston, Montana. John was behind the rock, pulling on the line!
In the final scene, when Paul is fighting a monster trout, the producers filmed the water flying off of his fly reel in a city park rather than in the river. The city park was Lindley Park in Livingston, and the producers created this effect by dipping the fly reel in a bucket of water. Then, after an actor lifted it out of the bucket, someone on the end of the line immediately started pulling it to get the spool spinning and flinging off beads of water.
Riding the Rails
The scene where Norman’s girlfriend, Jesse, pulls her car onto the railroad tracks and drives through a tunnel was filmed on the CA Ranch forty miles or so north of Bozeman. The exact location is the Eagle’s Nest tunnel on an old railroad grade that the Ringling brothers used to haul their circus equipment to Ringling, Montana, for off-season storage. The railroad trestle leading into the tunnel towers over Sixteen Mile Creek. There is a brief view of the creek in the movie.
My podcast partner, Dave, and I have both caught trout underneath that trestle (pictured above – Dave, in fact, took the picture). In the movie, Jesse and Norman actually enter and exit the same end of the tunnel.
A Final Thought
Sometimes, knowing insider information on how a movie was filmed can spoil it. But both the cinematography and the story itself prevent his from happening. If you’ve never watched the move “A River Runs Through It,” you simply must. Even if you watched it years ago, it’s worth revisiting. I’m convinced that after watching it, you, too, will be haunted by waters.