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Jeri Rafter, a production manager at Warm Springs Productions, is one of the hardest working women in show business, on television, and in Montana in general. Originally from Polson, Mont., Jeri earned her MFA at the University of Montana and is now involved in managing a number of the large budget, far-reaching television shows produced in Missoula, Mont. Warm Springs produces shows for the History Channel, Travel Channel and Nat Geo Wild, among others, including ‘American River Renegades’, ‘Mountain Men’, and ‘No Man’s Land’, bringing much needed focus to the great production teams and quality film environment in Montana. Jeri’s credits also include work on the award-winning ‘Winter In The Blood’ and Rotterdam Film Festival Selection, ‘Bella Vista.’
Rachel Gregg, Crew Liaison at the Montana Film Office, recently caught up with Jeri and chatted about production in the state and how it feels to be a female filmmaker under the Big Sky.
Rachel Gregg Montana is a unique place to get a start in the film industry. Talk about what made you pursue film as a career.
Jeri Rafter I was just post-college wondering what to do with my life and I thought “what would be the most fun thing that you could do, out of all careers?” I’m not really like a cinaphile – I like movies, not a huge film lover, but I felt like it would be so much fun to make a movie and so I just kind of went for it – I thought “I want to work in something fun for the rest of my life.” I went back to grad school at the Master of Fine Arts program in Missoula and from there it just totally took off. My second year of grad school was when we shot “Winter In The Blood,” and ever since I worked on that, I’ve had one film after another. [Montana-based production manager] Allison Whitmer pretty much started my career because she gave me that [job]. It was kind of easy to get on “Winter In The Blood” because [director] Andrew Smith was my professor, and it was part of our curriculum that all the grad students got to work on it, but then afterwards Allison knew that I did a good job, and so she called me for “Jimmy P.” and after that it was just like a snowball effect. I went to Portland and worked on films, went to New York and worked on films, and then decided I love Montana and would rather be working here. There was a position open at Warm Springs Productions – I applied for that and got it, and I’m working there now.
RG You were a costumer on “Winter In The Blood” and “Jimmy P.” – what made you move towards production management?
JR I did four or five projects as a costumer, and then realized I am more of a production person. I love costuming – there was one show that just showed at SXSW called “The Wilderness of James” that I was pretty involved with the design and that was really fun to do, but it was deciding which ladder I was going to climb. The costume ladder – was I really going to become a costume designer? Though I loved it and the styling stuff was fun, the production side is my thing – fast paced, lots of people, lots of networking – it’s kind of like being a detective, find all of these pieces and put them together to make everything work.
RG You’ve been working in production in Missoula for several years now – what’s the film environment like there?
JR Missoula started out as a place to do documentaries. It has a history of environmental movement and that led to the style of filmmaking that evolved which was documentaries about the outdoors. Now I feel like it’s evolving from documentary into lots of narrative projects, web series, Hank Green’s outfit is going strong with their web presence, Warm Springs has reality shows – Mountain Men has over 80 million viewers… There’s a vibrant little community that’s coming together. I know a documentarian from New York who just moved here to make a documentary about bull riding. It feels like there’s a lot of upward movement, the DIY era is really starting to evolve here and become more sophisticated. People are starting to understand how to sell their films, how to distribute them. If you look at [Missoula filmmaker] Christian Ackerman, making these B-movies in his backyard – he’s selling them now! It’s part of how he makes money, and that’s the next step, how to make it professional, how to make it viable. Something that myself and others have talked about is creating a Missoula film society, basing it off of the Austin model. How do we get infrastructure here and networking, and draw people to come shoot? You need a little outside money coming in to support productions. We’re on the verge – I know some sounds guys that are freelancing here that are making it, getting enough work. I even know a few kids who are PAs and grips and gaffers and camera guys – that’s all they’re doing and it’s working.
RG What do you think you’d be doing if you didn’t have this opportunity with Warm Springs Productions?
JR Since I’ve been back I’ve had enough people call me that I could be freelance producing in Montana – using things like Staff Me Up and Facebook groups like “I need a producer” – between online resources and calls from Montana projects I feel like I probably could have a full freelance schedule. I’m pretty committed to Montana, living here and working on productions here. But it’s nice to have a full time gig at Warm Springs.
RG Do you think working with Warm Springs Productions has expanded your opportunities?
JR Definitely. I would feel way more confident applying to be a show runner, with TV especially – it’s honed my nitty-gritty on-the-ground production skills. Producing Bella Vista was pretty intense – there was a lot of organization – but it was with our friends, there were three of us producing it and we had budgeted a lot of time to figure everything out. Working at Warm Springs everything is really fast paced. We work with a lot of networks, have lots of specialty deliverables and work with a lot of freelance folks – the pace of pulling stuff together is pretty fast. I learn something new every day.
RG Are there more opportunities for Montanans to work with Warm Springs since you joined their staff as a Montana-based production manager?
JR Yeah! I’m proactive about reaching out to Montana people directly for crew recommendations, or putting opportunities on Facebook, Missoula or Montana groups. I think using Montana crew for Warm Spring is more cost effective, and I think Montana crew care more about the production because that’s just how Montanans are. They are way more supportive. They’re supportive of anyone, but they love their state, and if they know it’s a Montana company and they’re going to be going up to the Yaak or to the Ruby, they’re going to be excited about it. I like putting Montanans to work – and it’s cheaper, way better than flying somebody from LA or Austin when I can find enough people here. Warm Springs has done a good job. They have almost ten Montana guys on staff that are full time camera guys and DPs.
RG What’s up next for Warm Springs Productions?
JR I think we’ll still be focused on reality stuff, but there are rumblings of other projects like documentaries and scripted television. I think they’ll always be doing hunting shows, they’ll always be doing gun stuff, but getting more sophisticated with it.
RG So you’ve decided you want to stay and work in Montana. What do you think draws filmmakers to Montana?
JR I think filmmakers are drawn to Montana for the location, first of all. It’s a beautiful spot. People can move here now because so much stuff takes place online and so much of your circle is readily available – it’s a lot easier. Filmmakers travel a lot now, so it’s okay to have your base in Montana, do work here when you can, and go other places when it’s slow. I also think filmmakers like to shoot here because everybody is so nice and really supportive – not that other states aren’t friendly, but I feel like Montanans do a little extra.
RG Working on sets you know that production is more than a bunch of people showing up with cameras to make a movie. Film inherently involves help from all different types of people and industries – can you highlight some of your experience with that?
JR For sure – locations are a big part of that, you’re always using different kinds of places and working with different types of businesses. On “Winter Light” we shot at Harold’s Bar in Bonner and they were great, very interested and involved in the shoot, helped us find extras and set up the scene – by the time we shot it the owners and customers were all excited to have been a part of it. And it pays too – a lot of people don’t realize they can get paid for their location.
I’ve gone to the hardware store to get art stuff and telling people about the project – they get really interested and say “oh this will work for that, or how about this…” We work with the Children’s Theater a lot for costumes. Grocery stores in Missoula are really nice about letting you shoot in their stores, like Orange Street and Patty Creek. It’s kind of endless.
RG You’ve worked all over the country on movies, TV and commercials. Tell us your best production story.
JR I’m thinking…like with a celebrity or something?
JR One really nice story – when we were shooting “Jimmy P.” Benicio Del Toro was so nice. “Jimmy P.” did a really good job of integrating the tribe into their production. They had Marvin Weatherwax as [Del Toro’s] dialect coach, who is from Browning, and they were friends, they got really close. When they came here to shoot, finally, a lot of people from Browning were in the movie. There were not huge crowds coming to see Benicio or anything, but he would be there for a half hour talking to kids who rode up on their bikes. He just took it all in stride. I think he loved being here. That was a fun production to work on because it was so big. It was crazy to see Browning taken over by all these giant honey wagons and trailers and cords running everywhere. You know how they have the dogs up there? I think the crew adopted three of the street dogs. One of them lives in New York now.
RG How about shooting “Winter Light” in a snow-pocalypse in Arlee, MT this January?
JR There’s a good story there. The assistant director on “Winter Light” drove a Ford F-150 off the road into a giant 4-foot ditch and it was blocking everybody else from getting out. So it was all hands on deck. The first two guys to jump in are Vincent Kartheiser, the guy from “Mad Men” – he is from Minnesota and he’s jumping in with a shovel – and Josh Pence [from “The Social Network”]. So it’s two actors in there knee-deep – they were in there for like an hour just digging out that truck and they were both having a blast with it.
RG What’s your favorite project – if you could possibly choose just one…?
JR I will always love “Winter In The Blood” because it gave me my start. I love the book, that story, I think it really resonates with me personally. Plus that shoot was FUN. It was like summer camp. I’m still friends with all those people, and it was fun to see my professor directing. I also loved working on “And So It Goes,” the Rob Reiner film that I worked on in New York, which is coming out in the summer – July. Getting to see Rob direct was really valuable. He’s a pro. He’s the ring master and everything revolves around him. Which is crazy. He makes people cry – he’s insane. But it’s like having a really good coach, it makes you a better player. Gotta get a sports analogy in there.
I’m still new. It’s like school – there are certain people your age that you kind of go up with if they stay in it. Which a lot of people don’t – it’s hard to work in production. It’s a tough lifestyle. I didn’t have a house or apartment for two years. It’s really unnerving. That’s why I like living in Montana. I love working here but it’s also like – I can’t be without a house with my own bed, have all my stuff in a storage unit for two years. That’s the thing about working for Warm Springs, the stability. I think if Warms Springs were in LA people would work until 11 at night, but they’re in Montana for a reason. They like the lifestyle, they like getting in, getting out, working with good people.
RG What do you think is necessary for the growth of the film industry in Montana?
JR There’s definitely a need to have some sort of educational component beyond the MSU and UM film schools, continuing education like a film forum that offers an editing class, a screenwriting class, things like that. I know there’s been talk about building some kind of studio space here – I think that would be fantastic – a studio space with a sound stage, sound booths for recordings, having that kind of infrastructure is important. To build infrastructure you have to have a partnership with bigger productions. Getting a TV series here would be amazing.
The US as a whole needs to be able to do co-production with other countries. In Europe and South America there is a lot of money for the arts. In Europe two countries can do a co-production and then they have access to each other’s film funds and resources.
RG Any final advice for those climbing the ranks in the Montana film industry?
JR Just like anything else, living here you have to rely on other people. Be nice to everybody because you are going to see them again, or you’re going to be related to them. You can’t be rude and leave somebody’s location in disarray.
Entertainment in general is an industry that is always going to be around – anywhere you travel American shows are on every television.
The biggest thing for me right now is trying to have a better network, creating something eventually if I ever get some free time. Or teaming up with someone who is dedicated to organizing it.