Working on a Dream: Contending Montana Filmmaker Bryan Ferriter

Brian D’Ambrosio

Filmmaking is a miraculous journey of nerve, toil and hope. Seeking the realization of a dream, it is frequently difficult for young filmmakers to discern whether they are wise or foolish in choosing the profession. 

 
Filmmaking is the great stimulus of thirty-year-old Bryan Ferriter’s life – he finds it year by year more rich, more desirable, and more mysterious.


Since 2013 he has directed and starred in two small made-in-Montana productions and from these contacts he has learned that early filmmaking is both the art of frugality and an exercise in craftily begging, borrowing, and shooting as cleverly as possible. 
“You get a lot for your dollar here in Montana,” said Ferriter, who was raised in Montana and now calls Helena home. “It’s pretty accessible, and I know the locales well, and I may have an advantage because of that. But I’ve never paid for location shooting here. I’d like to be able to pay, but the films that I’ve made are very, very, low-budget, even compared to smaller budgeted independent films.” 


Ferriter’s initial jump into filmmaking started with “Crimson Winter” in 2013, a dark fantasy-drama involving a vampire civil war and an exiled vampire prince escaping into the mountains of “the new America.”


“I think that “Crimson Winter” has crazy, breathtaking scenery, and a dark ending, unresolved. It was a tough weather shoot, but, as director, you’ve got to lead by example, and not be too affected. We had guys (crewmembers) from Los Angeles and Arizona, and it was a grueling shoot. We had crazy situations, with minus 15 weather, and while I had no problem with that, I felt it for the crew. In “Crimson Winter” we doubled it (Montana) for France. It was my first film at age 23, directing, and you learn a ton, and while there are also things you’d have done differently (in retrospect), I am proud of it.”


“What Separates Us,” which tells the saga of a young brawling dishwasher who falls in love with a beautiful artist and must select between his stagnant street and social life and his “road to freedom,” was released in 2017. Viewers will recognize the Helena area shooting locations, including Reeder’s Alley, the Rail Link lines, the alleys of Last Chance Gulch, and some of the city’s surrounding rock outcroppings and hiking scenery. 


“I’m proud of the shots that we have in “What Separates Us,” the down and out and the gritty look,” said Ferriter, who has been a cinephile ever since he was entranced by the special features of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” installments as a teenager. 


“City shots like that come easier here (in Montana), though most films find mostly nature and mountains and the city stuff is a little harder to find.” 


“What Separates Us” expresses the infinite moods of transition and the edgy progress of masculinity and it is filled with emotion toward the main subject, Danny, played by Ferriter. Often, as in this case, filmmaking is not only truer but also much more vital if it derives its immediate inspiration and its outward form from contemporary life. 


“It’s fictional but there are real similarities, and it is that longing,” said Ferriter. “What Separates Us is as close to a biographical film about my own life as I’ve gotten. I try not to have regrets and a peace and a Zen and to be happier with what I have, and find happiness outside of the film circuit. It never seriously entered my mind until age 20 and it’s my path now. The Danny character, just like me, realizes that there is a possibility and just how big and incredible it all is. “What Separates Us” – one of those kinds of gritty, street-type movies – is more complete and it reached the vision that I wanted.” 


Similar to the character Danny, Bryan lost his father prematurely, and even ten years later, Bryan is still dealing with a broad range of emotions because of it. Robert "Rudy" E. Ferriter passed away at age 56 on Sept. 21, 2007. Born in Butte, he attended schools in Butte and California, where he finished high school. “Rudy” was a music aficionado and participated in sports at all levels, including baseball, basketball, boxing and football.


“I may get my itching for acting and storytelling from him,” said Ferriter. “I was athletic. But I was a nerd and a fan of film and I put my money into buying VHS movies while I was in middle school, and in high school, it was buying DVDs, and I’m building a Blue-Ray collection now. But what changed my life was being introduced to Broadway musicals, and I loved the story of “The Lion King.” It’s about the bond and special relations and “The Lion King” was deep and powerful to me. At 19, I saw “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” in New York City and I fell in love with them, and I’m pretty sure I cried at all of them. New York City was major cultural mind explosion. 


“It was not long after that that I was spending winter in my dorm room (at Carroll College) and listening to “The Lion King,” and at 20, I got into “Grease” at Grandstreet Theatre and it was the first big play I’d ever done. My dad was very supportive and I got to try acting and I did “Grease” and “The Sound of Music.” I was lucky to have the dad that I did. I fulfilled my degree in theatre and played four seasons (of football) at Carroll. I was the football guy who was into musical theater and yet the guys would come to all of my plays.”


Equally similar to the character Danny in “What Separates Us,” Ferriter feels like a prisoner in a world of mystery and opportunity, and he realizes that the road to freedom, if he’s bold enough to heed its shout, will eventually lead him to where he needs to be. His ambition is evident but his path to victory unclear. The boundaries of the state of Montana are not the boundaries of art: Ferriter has his scope focused on larger game which may in the future lead him to a large city along one of the coasts, where he can continue to train, grow, and be educated. 


“At 30, I’m still grasping, and I have to do other jobs, and I’m okay with that, and I want to keep getting to the next film. Filmmaking is what I live for and look forward to. With that I’ve learned more and more how to work with what I have. Say, you’ve got $1,000 to do something with that and you’ve based the film around that budget. Preparation for the unexpected helps. We’ve lost one of our finest main locations two days before filming. I’ve learned that you can plan the shot list and plan everything and you can still lose the location unexpectedly. With “What Separates Us,” we lost the lead actress four days before filming. Everything that you’ve prepped for is meaningless when a windstorm can come and blow your set away – and that’s a lesson for life.”


Artist Thomas Hart Benton once said that the only way an artist can personally fail is to quit work. Sensing the danger of such failure, Ferriter has no plans to quit. In fact, he is currently in post-production of “Wuthering Heights,” his rendition of Emily Brontë's only novel, now considered a classic of English literature. Penned between October 1845 and June 1846, “Wuthering Heights” was published in 1847 under the pseudonym "Ellis Bell"; Brontë died the following year, at age 30. 

“We managed to shoot 90 percent of the film in Montana,” said Ferriter. “Why another “Wuthering Heights?” I think it’s cool to be a micro-budget filmmaker trying to adapt that story; it has a built-it audience and fans who choose to see every version. It has some of the most fascinating, crazy, interesting characters ever written.” 


Ferriter even managed to squirrel away enough cash to fund a four-day trip to England in May 2017 in order to “to fill in the holes and get the transition and establishing shots, and keep the continuity,” he said.

 
“England and Montana cut together well, seamlessly,” said Ferriter. “Montana is made to look like England. It was a crazy spiritual battle to get it done, and for that last shoot, we had the lowest budget but a passionate crew and shot it in natural light. My DP (director of photography) gave it everything, and we all gave it everything that we had to get a shot, and every ounce of energy, and everything we got was so powerful. There is way worse crazy stuff going on around the world. No matter how hard you think filmmaking is, you remember that there are people in the world that are going through hell.”


Brian“What Separates Us” is now available on Amazon and ITunes. Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of several books, including “Shot in Montana: A History of Big Sky Cinema.” He may be reached at [email protected]