Boulder-based filmmaker Hunter Weeks is bringing his new film, Where the Yellowstone Goes, to the Denver FilmCenter tonight at 7 p.m.; the screening will be followed by a Q&A session. Weeks and his crew -- including his wife, Sarah Hall, and Denver-based filmmaker Mike Dion, a frequent collaborator -- spent thirty days floating in drift boats along the Yellowstone, an undammed river that flows freely for more than 600 miles.
We recently caught up with Weeks to talk about the history of the river and why it is worth protecting. (Weeks is donating 25 percent of tonight's proceeds to the Greenbacks, a project of Trout Unlimited, and its work to protect fisheries and waterways.)
Westword: Last year Pete McBride's film Chasing Water, about the Colorado River, ended up being a big winner at Banff and some of the other film festivals, with a really depressing depiction of a once-mighty river that's all dammed up now and dwindles down to nothing at the end. The Colorado doesn't even make it to the ocean anymore. Can you contrast that portrait with what you found on the Yellowstone and what you got into on your adventure?
Hunter Weeks: A lot of times when you're looking to tell a conservation story, it is depressing, and it can be really frustrating; there are a lot of negative viewpoints that can come across. But when you look at the Yellowstone River, it's a river that has a lot of positive stories around it. It's somewhat untouched and unspoiled, compared to the Colorado or almost any other river in the United States. There is quite a bit of development around the river in some spots, and there have been some serious threats to the river in the past, including a proposed dam back in the '70s, and the demands on those water resources could present challenges to this river in the future, so it's had some of the same risks that the Colorado River and most of our nation's rivers have been subjected to. But the differences do make for a good contrast, and they make it an important river to protect against those cautionary tales we've learned from some of the other rivers.
How did those differences shape the story you wanted to tell?
I think the thing about this story is realizing that we have this river that's well over 600 miles long that's undammed, so you can still travel on it as a free-flowing system the way that we did. For us, it was just one amazing story after another that we discovered as we floated.
What surprised you most once you got out there, and how different is the finished film from the film you set out to make?
Just floating out there and spending time in nature on this river, you come face to face with how much we're taking for granted. There's going to come a point in time where we're going to have to face the fact that we're asking too much from our resources.
When I first set out to do this, I knew it would be a fun-filled journey, getting to spend thirty days floating and camping on this amazing river. But as soon as you start talking to people along the river, you realize that it really is hanging in a delicate balance and that, while it's been safe so far, there have definitely been some challenges the river has faced, and there are potentially a lot of challenges it will face in the future as we ask more and more of it.
Along with that realization, I think I was also hit by the bigger picture of the reality of what we've done to the world and to the West here in the United States specifically. You think back to what we've done to the landscape, and to the rivers, in the 200-plus years since Lewis and Clark crossed the Yellowstone and opened up the West with their expedition, realizing it's hard to even imagine what the next 200 years is going to bring, with us always wanting more and more from these rivers that sustain us.
In what ways did you personally experience those challenges the river is facing?
During the float we went through an area where there had been an Exxon Mobil oil spill a few months before. It was a really high, intense water flow last year, almost a record-setting year in some places, so this pipeline rupturing made an even more dramatic mess than it might have in any other year, and everyone we met in that area was spending a lot of time and energy cleaning up the spill. When you see a real-world example like that, you realize that there are tens of thousands of these pipelines crisscrossing our rivers, and that the potential for spills is always going to be there. We've made a real mess of things, even on the Yellowstone.
Besides being undammed and free-flowing, what makes this particular river special to you?
For one thing, there's a great diversity of fish -- something like 51 species of fish -- that changes significantly from the trout streams and the upper water we started out in to the bigger, wider river where you find lots of bass and warm-water fish. There's also a lot of recreation on the river, and you go through a canyon that has some pretty good whitewater.
But the thing that made it really special for our story is the people who have gravitated towards these communities around this river. They really have a true sense of what their purpose is. We'd spend time with people who would just invite us into their homes and cook up some fish for us, and they seemed to have a good sense of how we should be living, you know, maybe taking things a little bit slower than the rest of us.
The one thing I keep thinking about as I've been working on and showing this film is it just feels like real life up there. I know we're all trying to live in life and have this real experience, but up there the whole organic lifestyle is not just a label, it's not just a marketing trick. These are people living off the land and building sustainable communities, and we really got a sense of it as we traveled along the river and put the film together. So what makes this river special to me? The landscapes were tremendous and beautiful, the fishing was great, and the good times that we had on the river were tremendous -- that was all there -- but what really made our trip was the people sharing stuff with us that we all needed to hear, these little notes of wisdom.
Who are some of the different characters we meet in the film and how did the guides you were traveling with help shape the trip?
Robert Hawkins is a fourth-generation Montana fly-fishing guide who's spent most of his time guiding on the rivers of Montana. He's just your really laid-back cool cat, and he was by far our most experienced fisherman on the trip, so he would spend a lot of time with us, giving us pointers and helping us learn about the fish and their habitats. Shannon Ongaro was rowing our raft for us, and she was a lot of fun -- and a really good, strong oarsperson -- and helped bring a female perspective to our journey.
My father-in-law, John Hall, also joined us. I was really surprised when I told him about the possibility of him joining us on this trip...I didn't think he would actually take me up on it! He's a retired Marine and has been a little bit beaten down by some of the things he's had to face in life, and I figured he'd be like, "Nah, I'm really not up to it." But he stepped up and came out with us. It was a really neat way to get to know him better and have him be part of the voyage. Spoiler alert: He does not finish the trip with us, unfortunately, but it was cool while he was out there, and he did a lot of our cooking for us. Then there was myself and three other people floating with us to help make the film, including my wife, Sarah Hall, and my filmmaking partner, Mike Dion. It was a lot of work, but we also kept it pretty casual because we wanted everybody to have that river experience while we were out there.
Can you tell me a bit about the filmmaking relationship between you and Mike, and now Sarah, too, and also the extent to which you feel like a part of the adventure film community that's been growing here in Colorado?
One of the reasons we came back to Colorado is there's been some exciting legislation taking place to encourage filmmaking in Colorado, and the adventure-film community has definitely been growing. And we're having a lot of fun of trying to create meaning in the types of adventure films we're making, which is something we've been seeing a lot of from the community here in Colorado: We don't want to just be creating a lot of bike porn and fish porn and ski porn and stuff like that. We want to create what Mike and I call "thoughtful adventure" films. Mike and I first worked together on a film called Ride the Divide -- we were both producing partners on that film -- and ever since then, we've just found ways to work together and keep making films. I shot Reveal the Path with him, and he shot Where the Yellowstone Goes with me. We've found all these cool ways to work in parallel.
It was also great to have my wife working on this film with us. We met when I was in Montana and she was working in TV, and she joined us as second unit assistant and field producer on this film. Now I'm working with her on a new film about the world's oldest people, so we've been hanging out with these super-centenarians who are like 110 and older. It's a different kind of adventure, to be sure, but it's been a fun project.
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This life of being an adventure filmmaker is pretty exciting, but it's also pretty challenging -- there's so much work put into making one and then getting it out there successfully -- so it's great to have the team that we do, and we feel like there's much more to come.
To buy tickets for tonight's screening, visit www.DenverFilm.org. Where the Yellowstone Goes will also be screening at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday June 13 at the Stargazers Theatre in Colorado Springs. For more on the film and a full schedule of upcoming dates across the country, visit www.WhereTheYellowstoneGoes.com.