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Friday, November 02, 2018
Giving it the finger
Friday, November 23, 2018
Giving until it hurts

A River Kinda Ran Through It
It’s not often that I find inspiration in sports talk radio. However, a couple weeks ago, I tuned into “The Dan Patrick Show” and found myself astonished when the conversation turned to fly fishing and the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It.” Of all the sports hosts, Patrick seems to find the most joy in veering from the mainstream.

It didn’t take long for Dan to start lobbing some good-natured jibes in Brad Pitt’s direction about the actor’s fly-fishing performance in the movie. For whatever reason, the fly-fishing topic wouldn’t go away and up bubbled a fun fact about singer Melisssa Etheridge having given Pitt some poolside casting tips at her home in Hollywood. Etheridge called into the show and to her credit — perhaps confirming that she does indeed have some fishing experience beyond that of the average celebrity — assured Patrick that whatever she taught Brad probably didn’t amount to much.

WHEN ASKED IF Brad Pitt had any appreciable fly-fishing skills prior to the beginning of filming of the movie, John Bailey directly responded, “None.”

It got me to thinking. After checking the movie credits, my next call was to Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop in Livingston, Montana. Although Norman Maclean’s 1976 book about the travails of a Montana family was based in Missoula, Livingston was chosen as the cinematic backdrop. When locations for the film were being scouted, the Blackfoot River, scene of Maclean’s narrative, was environmentally in bad shape due to logging, mining and agriculture influences. So it was Livingston, not Missoula and the Gallatin, Yellowstone and Boulder Rivers, not the Blackfoot or the Clark, that were enlisted to make movie magic. Livingston also benefited the local population who were plumbed for acting talent and, quite naturally, for their fly fishing expertise.

It came as no surprise that the filmmakers called John Bailey. Son of Dan, the namesake of a Livingston fixture since 1938 who was one of America’s most innovative fly tiers and conservationists, John was no stranger to celebrity clientele. Even so, he was not Hollywood’s first choice.

“They brought a hotshot in from L.A., a fly-fishing know-it-all,” recalled Bailey, not mincing words in the finest tradition of the Big Sky Country.

It didn’t go well. Not only were Livingston locals a little peeved about the need for having outsiders show them how to fish, the dailies from the first day of shooting were more than cringe-worthy. Sitting in the back of a darkened screening room along with Jerry Siem (now the rod designer at Sage but then employed by the venerable R.L. Winston Company), Bailey watched in horror at what he described as “fly lines going across the scene in waves.” In that moment, the two fishermen glanced over at one other, certain of the need to extricate themselves from a movie capable of demolishing their reputations.

When the lights came on, the director — Robert Redford — stood up, walked over to Bailey (someone he had not previously spoken to much on set) and asked a question that was more a statement of fact.

“That was awful wasn’t it?”

From then on, Bailey found himself camera-side, quickly solving a problem that was, to him, completely obvious.

“If there was a casting scene, I would reel in most of the line. A twenty-foot cast, on screen, looks long anyway. You have to adjust things so (the actors) look good. They just mimic people, so you had to adjust it so they look good. They could make a short cast; they couldn’t make a long cast. On screen, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Since Pitt played Paul, the rebellious, younger Maclean brother, Bailey’s advice was for quicker strokes. Conversely, Craig Sheffer in the role of Norman, the older, studious brother, was told to deliver slower, more deliberate casts. It all looked like the perfect approach to blending storyline with fly line. That is until later when John Bailey walked out of a theater after seeing the final cut of the movie. It was then he fully realized a Hollywood fact of life: All of the scenes he had worked so diligently to make right had been left on the cutting room floor.

realizinghowbadREALIZING HOW BAD the fishing scenes looked in the early filming of “A River Runs Through It,” director Robert Redford turned to Livingston fly-fishing fixture John Bailey to help the actors’ poor casting technique.

“There’s no casting in the movie. There were distinct scenes and they all got cut.”

Similarly, other items didn’t make the final cut. Of these, perhaps the strangest was a mechanical trout. If you think I’m hallucinating, watch the credit roll next time you see “A River Runs Through It”.

“A guy over in Missoula had one,” acknowledged Bailey. “There was a mechanical fish, but it never made the movie either.”

To me, the question still seeking an answer centered on Brad Pitt. Did Melissa Etheridge teach him anything? Or did John Bailey?

When asked if Pitt possessed any appreciable skills before the cameras rolled, Bailey was typically direct.


In a Great Falls Tribune 25th anniversary retrospective, Bailey was quoted as saying, “I’m sure neither one (Pitt or Sheffer) ever picked up a rod again.”

While the movie gave both fly-fishing and Montana tourism a huge boost, not everyone was happy. More people were moving to the state and Redford, perhaps stung by the criticism six years later after shooting“A Horse Whisperer” near “A River Runs Through It” locales, left the precise locations of his new movie intentionally vague in the closing credits. If Redford’s reaction was true, he need not have felt guilty. According to Bailey, “A River Runs Through It” had some unexpected consequences that would ultimately save the very river the book and the movie had sought to exalt.

“Last year was the 25th anniversary and one of (the events) was in Missoula. I drove by where the Clark runs in, where they took out the dam. I never thought that could be done. All that’s been cleaned up. The movie and a whole bunch of other things helped get all that cleaned up. It focused people on what was, environmentally, a disaster. They took out the dam and all the sediment in there. It is amazing what can be done, but until the public cares, nothing changes.”

As a catalyst for positive change, it seems that “A River Runs Through It” ended up on the right side of history while perhaps dealing a blow to our sometimes-pathological desire to suspend disbelief when it comes to heroes of the silver screen.

Although Dan Patrick generally offers offbeat daily poll questions, I thought he missed one when it came to our unique angling perspectives.

“Would you rather be a great fisherman or look like the Brad Pitt version of one?”

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