STACK chats with director Richard Gray and actor Thomas Jane about their thrilling new western, Murder at Yellowstone City – the first feature to be shot at the all-new Yellowstone Film Ranch co-established by Gray.
From his days working as a cinema projectionist in Melbourne, all the way to Hollywood and beyond, Aussie director Richard Gray has made a home for his family in Montana where he’s built his own fully purposed backlot studio.
Following his poignant debut feature, Summer Coda (2010), Gray has gone on to make a string of star-studded films in the US such as The Lookalike and a quasi-Braveheart spin-off, Robert the Bruce.
His latest feature is Murder at Yellowstone City, a classic brand of western that takes its cues from some timeless favourites and plays like a gripping whodunit, with a man accused of a murder he didn’t commit. And despite everyone in town being a suspect, most of the men turn a blind eye, knowing they’ve captured an outsider.
Chatting with Gray and one of the film’s stars, Thomas Jane, over Zoom, the latter is quick to confess his love of the genre.
“My old man and I would sit around on a Saturday afternoon and watch the old Sergio Leone westerns,” Jane recalls. “And then I got into John Ford stuff when I got a little older, and all the great westerns, you know? So in other words, yeah, I’m a fan!”
Gray has similar memories, which would ultimately influence Murder at Yellowstone City.
“When I was growing up we had the more fun style westerns that I would go and see with my dad, like Silverado, The Three Amigos and The Quick and the Dead. But my favourite western has always been Once Upon a Time in the West.
“Then we got lucky with films like The Proposition, Unforgiven and Jessie James, he continues. “Those more atmospheric types of westerns came in, and they’re very dark, and that’s what we embraced, with a fabulous cast.”
The cast he refers to is an impressive ensemble that includes Gabriel Byrne, Richard Dreyfuss, Nat Wolff, Anna Camp and Aimee Garcia.
“You get a good script and you’re darn right, you see a lot of really good and established actors in the show,” says Jane of his co-stars. “Because when you get a good script, everyone wants to show up for that.”
Jane has high praise for Richard Dreyfuss, saying, “He’s a legend and such a kind man, and full of all the great stories, from Close Encounters to Jaws, and all the other things that he’s done over the years. Having a guy like that around is like having one of the godfathers of actors around.”
Gray agrees: “He’s a historian too, so you’ve got to be on your toes. When he asks about American history or where this was set in Montana in 1881, then you better be ready.”
Having fallen in love with Montana’s Paradise Valley while watching episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, Gray moved his family to Livingston and set about building a fully-functional backlot township, with surrounding locations also fit for purpose.
“Westerns are predominantly filmed in Calgary [Canada] if you want the northwest – that’s where they shot Hell on Wheels and the new Billy the Kid show. And if you want the desert, these days it’s usually Santa Fe [New Mexico]. So we decided that we would build a backlot, so that those [Montana] stories could be told here. It’s called the Yellowstone Film Ranch and it’s for all movies, not just westerns.”
“A lot of these western towns, you’ve seen them before,” adds Jane glibly. “They change the signs and repaint a couple of buildings, but it’s the same old town. This is a new one, and it’s really well done. There’s no facade that’s being propped up by a couple of two-by-fours. All the buildings are real. You can shoot in them and outside of them. It was an extraordinary amount of fun to shoot there.”