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By Betty Vanderwielen

No Fish Were Harmed in the Making of This Film


September 14, 2017

The movie poster for "A River Runs Through It" that John Baily, owner of Dan Baily Fly Fishing shop in Livingston and fly fishing coach for the movie, said is more artist than reality, "No one can make a line go straight up. That's impossible."

SEELEY LAKE – When a book begins "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing," it is a safe bet the book is going to contain a lot about fly fishing. When that book is converted into a movie, it becomes necessary to show someone casting and catching fish. In addition, the fly fishing needs to look completely authentic. John Bailey is the one who brought that degree of perfection to the film "A River Runs Through It."

Baily owns the Dan Baily Fly Fishing shop in Livingston, Mont. The name, which is accompanied by the reputation of being the most famous fly fishing store in the west, originated with Bailey's father. Bailey continues to live up to that reputation. He, however, was not the first choice for the job of movie fishing coach. Originally the filmmakers brought what Baily described as "a hot shot fisherman from Hollywood." Baily added, "the [fly fishing] community didn't think too much of him."

Nor did Baily think much of the abilities of his students, actors Brad Pitt (Paul Maclean) and Craig Sheffer (Norman Maclean). Baily related how during one of the early lessons Scheffer got so frustrated he threw down his rod and walked off.

Later, when Baily watched the fly fishing footage with the director and producers, Director Robert Redford said, "That was awful." Baily agreed. He said it was so bad he considered quitting the project. At that point, he didn't want his name or the name of his shop associated with the film.

Redford said, "We're reshooting that."

Baily restricted the actors reel line to 20 feet. He said that made it a little easier and Scheffer could "sorta do it then." He added, "But Craig never did get good." A couple of stunt doubles, who knew how to fish and were easier to teach, were added to the production.

Later during the question period, someone asked whether any of the actors eventually got good at casting and started fishing on their own. Baily's answer, "I doubt it," occasioned a great deal of laughter among the Roxy audience.

Another aspect of the production which Baily said he found a bit over the top was the letter from the Humane Society of Los Angeles about animal, or in this case, fish cruelty.

"So," said Baily, "there was not a hook used on the set."

During his slide presentation of production photos, Baily pointed to the fish biologist who brought fish from the hatchery and took them all back – alive – when filming was over. For the big fish scene in which Paul Maclean shadow casts and a large fish jumps up to take the hook and runs with Paul in tow, a mechanical fish, nicknamed Ferdinard, was used. Ferdinand was on display at a later Maclean Festival presentation at the Wilma Theater.

When the first cut of the movie was ready, Baily was flown to Los Angeles for the viewing. He said it took three days, 10 hours and four versions to edit the fly fishing scenes. When they were done, most of the footage was cut out. As a fly fisherman, Baily said he was "really sorry" to see some of it go.

"It's still a great movie," he said. "But it's a family story, not a fly fishing story, and the scenes in it are spectacular. I mean, anyone who sees this movie wants to be in those scenes. But most of them got cut."

Nonetheless, he said he found the whole movie making process strange but fascinating. He recalled one day when they were filming on the river and there was a bunch of commotion on the road parallel to them. It turned out the highway patrol was stopping traffic while a water truck sprayed all the willows so they would glisten for the film.

Commenting on the movie release poster, Baily said, "You can't cast like the poster. No one can make a line go straight up. That's impossible. That's an artist that did that. You aren't going to catch any fish way up in the air."

One of the film's producers Patrick Markey was in the audience and said, "John was relentless in getting the casting right. He really did make the fly fishing scenes work. [The River Runs Through It] is kind of known as the iconic fly fishing movie, even though there's very little fly fishing in it – there's only about 11 minutes or something."

He said both he and Redford knew they had to get the fly fishing scenes right, "Because if we didn't get that right, first of all it would be a major offense to Norman, even though he was no longer with us [Maclean died 10 months before the film was released] but also an offense to all the people that fish and pursue it and become very good at it."

Baily's presentation at the Roxy Theater was an adjunct to the showing of the documentary film "Screening of Shadow Casting: The Making of a River Runs Through It." The documentary, created for Montana Public radio and directed by Montana State University Professor Dennis Aig with the assistance of four of his students, was shot simultaneously with the production of the movie. Aside from the entertainment value of being privy to the thoughts, decisions and inside stories associated with the movie, the documentary has its own claim to fame. It was the first in-depth exposition of the making of a film.

Aig said, "We wanted to show what it takes to take a fairly short novella and turn it into a movie."

Because the documentary recorded interviews with members of every production department, it is often used in film schools to highlight the individual roles that get little publicity but are integral to a successful production. Like the movie itself, the documentary was forced to relegate much of its footage to the cutting room floor. Aig estimated a ratio of 20-25 cut scenes to every one included.

Aig also described how he and his crew let the movie cast and production people get used to them gradually before actually doing any filming. Eventually everyone was as comfortable with them as though they were part of the regular shooting crew. The strategy resulted in much more natural and interesting interviews. Aig said his group eventually got the nickname "spycam."


Reader Comments

DHouck writes:

Just watched again last night; found your article while searching the surprising claim: no fish were harmed. Thanks for writing. May hunt up the documentary. A beautiful film.


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