As much as we love to appreciate artistically driven high-brow work here at DN, it’s always been just as important to us to enjoy the fun stuff. The stuff that got us into movies in the first place. And Ryan Dickie’s Montana, GA most certainly plays like that. It’s about the camaraderie of friendship, and it’s filled with a great mix of humour, action and unsuspecting moments. A highly recommended watch with a good group of friends and a few Scooby snacks. DN was lucky enough to speak with Dickie about making Montana, GA and how cutting back on resources can aid your creativity.
Where did the idea for Montana, GA come from?
The idea came from my long time friendship with Brad, David and Lyn, who play slightly altered versions of themselves in the film. We grew up together in Atlanta and they introduced me to filmmaking on VHS back in high school. We’ve collaborated on various projects for over twenty years, so I wanted to celebrate our unique history as well as facilitate a group bonding experience through the production since we don’t live in the same city any more. The idea evolved into a feature-length script, but it felt necessary to make a short version as a proof-of-concept. I wanted the short to stand on its own and invite people into this weird world so I made a condensed version of the first act and focused on establishing the tone, visual style and showing that the guys could shine on screen. I set the feature in Montana, but it made logistical sense to film the short in Georgia, so it became Montana, GA. The title stuck with me because it’s a place that doesn’t really exist, theoretically off the grid and outside of time where anything can happen, which is how it feels when we’re all hanging out.
It felt important to share the joy and positivity that we bring into each other’s lives despite all the wild shit happening in the world today.
What inspired the comedic tone?
The guys have a natural comedic chemistry together and I wanted to bring that to the screen. The unfiltered banter exchanged between best friends is always the funniest stuff, the most memorable laughs and everyone can relate to those situations. It felt important to share the joy and positivity that we bring into each other’s lives despite all the wild shit happening in the world today.
Then I got excited by the cinematic potential of having these unassuming guys thrust into a fantastical situation and taking them way out of their depth. That leads to circumstantial humour that rises out of the darker moments in the story and helps the audience cope, then the laughs in the dialogue let you pivot and rally for the next thrill.
And how did you work to manage that on set with your actors?
I had written everything out but knew that once we got on set the lines needed to be molded to the guys’ way of speaking. The whole point of having them play themselves is to showcase their authentic camaraderie so I offered guidelines to work with for each scene and let them rip. I took it one scene at a time and tried a lot of variations, but we didn’t rehearse beyond the blocking so the takes felt fresh in the moment. Channelling our deep hangout sessions was a crucial element to harness so when we weren’t filming the whole team chilled out on the porch and played board games together, like Ultimate Werewolf, which allowed us to appreciate the communal experience beyond just the work on set and helped keep us in the right mindset.
Could you talk through the process of designing how the ghost would look?
It was a fun challenge to create the look for the ghost effects. I wanted the ghost to feel very grounded in space with the guys so the encounter felt genuine, like all the energy in the room was being sucked up by this otherworldly presence. Since this ghost is a scary yet benevolent character, it’s a fine line of adding effects before you go over the top. I did a lot of research on older ghost films to see how they got their tactile, pre-digital look, then combined those techniques with modern post-production tricks for a contemporary hybrid. It was definitely a lot of trial and error, but I think it got to a nice place of being both referential and original. I worked with Izzi Galindo to do the special effects make-up and prosthetics. We collaborated on another short called Club Policy, I love his attitude and willingness to go all out for the right look, he’s supremely talented.
Watching Montana, GA was like watching the kids from Stand By Me or The Goonies all grown up, under the guise of a stoner comedy, were there any particular films or filmmakers that influenced you?
Love that! Yeah, I’ve seen The Goonies at least a hundred times so that’s definitely part of my DNA. I’d also say Ghostbusters was pretty central, not only for the buddy comedy aspect but for the visual effects as well. That film is so delicately crafted to be funny, creepy, believable and surreal all at the same time, you just can’t look away from it because there’s always something new expanding the scope of the world. Jaws also has a great odd trio character dynamic and then isolates them to let the tension build. I have to mention The Shining, which is the quintessential cabin-in-the-woods ghost story and Kubrick is a major figure for me. I’m also very drawn to slow cinema and Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives has been a huge inspiration for exploring death and spirituality in a very personal, unconventional way.
Is horror or comedy a genre you see yourself working in more?
I definitely like working with polarized genres like horror and comedy, I think balancing tone between those extremes can make for a very compelling effect. I think humour always has a place in storytelling so I think no matter what the plot is there has to be an awareness of rhythm to match the downs with the ups. On the other hand, I tend to dig into darker subject matter so perhaps humour also gives me a way to deal with bleak concepts that I fixate on and write about. Otherwise, I don’t feel committed to a particular genre or type of film, only the story and characters that compel me at the time.
What lessons will you take away from working on Montana, GA?
One of the most valuable lessons I learned during the making of this film was that persistence pays off. Writing the feature and then adapting the short took quite a while but it was worth all the sweat for the rewarding journey which I’m still on. I also learned that bigger isn’t always better. One of my previous short with a similar production model, Winners, was a great experience but I was able to take lessons learned from it and applied them successfully to this film. I wanted to have the same summer camp style work environment where a remote location helps everyone really hone in on the vibe and excel in their role on the team.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned during the making of this film was that persistence pays off.
The difference was this time I made the script half the length, production was half as many days, the crew was half the size, the budget was less than half the money, and post took a fraction of the time. Fortunately, the outcome has been that this short has gone on to be twice as successful at reaching audiences and building momentum in my career, not to mention the saved resources. That success has been very validating to the process and going forward onto the feature version of Montana, GA we’ll definitely continue this homegrown approach with production, keeping in mind that quality over quantity applies to all things. You have to be ambitious but pulling off those ambitions successfully requires focus and wisdom, so making this short was an ideal way to position our team’s skills in the right direction.
What’s next for you?
I’m now in development on the feature version of this short, scheduled to film next year Montana. I’m very excited to finally bring the full scope of the story to life, exploring the themes in greater depth and bringing the spectacle to insane heights! Besides that, at the moment I’m writing and directing a pilot for an upcoming interactive series. It’s a choose your own adventure storytelling experience that’s been a trip to develop. You design it like a video game and then shoot it like a movie. There are lots of alternate scenarios that branch off the main plotline in crazy ways and your decisions affect the outcome of the story. We’re filming next month in upstate New York, can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Montana, GA is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.