March 19, 2003
White of Winter, south of Livingston: Sundance entry features best of Park County

BY DEON LACKEY, WEEKLY STAFF WRITER

The barren valleys, slush-clogged river, and ridges of snow-capped mountains that picture Montana in winter are one of the reasons that area film and government professionals have been trying to attract movie projects to Park County. And  it was that legendary fight and harmony with nature that appealed to San Francisco producer Robert Saitzyk when he began development of his independent feature, “White of Winter.”

Last March and April, Saitzyk and a small crew of Los Angeles independent film actors and local talent  banded together to produce “Winter,” a Sundance entry that is already generating a buzz that could surpass the Great Falls’ productions “Northfork” and “Slaughter Rule.”

“Winter” is a dark, psychological movie about a young, disturbed woman named Rachel (independent film actress and composer Zoe Poledouris). Violently attacked by her high school boyfriend, Tommy (Bret Roberts), Rachel had been committed to an institution, confused and trapped within herself. During that time, she believed she had given birth to a child, who was taken away from her. But the doctors and her family had convinced her it had never happened. Years later, she sees Tommy as a bit part in a movie, and, as the past was stirred up in her mind, she resolves to find him and their child and force a resolution to everything that had happened more than a decade before.

“I start with a theme, and character evolves,” Saitzyk, who also wrote the screenplay, said. “I wanted to write about a woman lead, then deal with a woman who has dealt with some kind of loss. You don’t see that in a lot of Hollywood (productions). You don’t really deal with female sexuality. It’s all from a male character or it’s glossed over.”

Rachel, the personification of Saitzyk’s initial theme, is an extremely complex character, strong and compassionate yet child-like and almost immature. There is a struggle between the brutal attack against her and the resulting child, and her grandparents’ simple, clean, religious life. Ultimately, they try to hide the truth of violence, and that pushes Rachel to the point where she doesn’t know herself or her history clearly. The way to resolve her inner struggle is to confront the people, Tommy and her child, and bring the truth to light.

Saitzyk played out that character movement against the historic Americana of Park County, “where part of the American West played itself out—both in acts of violence and in basic survival of the elements.”  Part of the mystique lies in the macho attitude and physicality of men in the West, and how Tommy let himself get out of control physically and couldn’t deal with it. “He’s someone dealing with a violent act, who’s not ever able to forgive himself for it,” Saitzyk said. “He’s sort of this walking ghost; he’s a tragic figure.”

“Montana represents iconic America in my mind,” Saitzyk explained. “It represents that to a lot of Americans, and it’s amazing how it matched what I expected.”

“You could just feel the energy come right out of the ground, through your feet, and into the air around you below the mountain,” recalled executive producer Joseph Chase, who also co-starred as Tommy’s brother, Harris. “That place was just truly, totally sacred-magical-powerful.”

The main impediment to most movie ventures in Montana is how many incentives, paybacks, and breaks Canada gives to the film industry. Saitzyk said he thought about filming in Canada, but when one of his producers recommended the Bozeman area, he agreed to scout it out. “Mostly, it was important to shoot White of Winter where it was set,” he said, “but when we got there, it was right. There’s a feeling there that was pretty powerful.” Most of the week-long shoot was in the city of Bozeman or on the Story Ranch in Emigrant, which became the old home of Tommy. But it was the willingness of the local community, public and private, to pitch in and dedicate themselves to the project that sold Saitzyk on shooting in Park County.

When Saitzyk called Livingston talent agent Phyllis Alexander, the rest of the pieces fell into place. Alexander contacted Peter Story about using his home, and the family moved out of the house for a day for them to shoot. Local talent David Gerke, Reily Friedman, and Jeremiah Slovarp, just to name a few, agreed to work for low pay to support the SAG low budget picture. Livingston businesses like Hallmark opened their doors to the film crews. Livingston Memorial Hospital donated all the hospital gowns for some of the scenes.

Even Hollywood professionals, like Gloria Betinger from Virginia City, threw themselves into the project. Betinger, whose film credits include costume design for Dances with Wolves and The Patriot, donated all of her time and skill to make traditional Native American costumes and props for the feature. Her daughter, Amber, had a small role in the film, and that was enough to spark Betinger’s interest.

“Everyone was so supportive, everybody worked for nothing,” Saitzik said. “It was a film made by passion and the need to make it.”