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Interview with Filmmaker Erik Petersen: Preserving “Paradise”

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Montana photojournalist, still photographer and filmmaker Erik Petersen sat down with the Montana Press staff to discuss his new film, “Paradise.”

Debuting in Montana January 2020, this short film documents the effort to ban gold mining on public lands near Yellowstone National Park, and the unlikely associations formed between conservatives and conservationists that helped pass the federal Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act. Passed in March 2019, the Act removed the possibility of mining on public lands in 30,370 acres that surround Yellowstone National Park in perpetuity.

Montana Press: What was the inspiration for the film and the story-making process?

Erik Petersen: Well, the inspiration was just following this particular story that was in my backyard and knowing what an important issue it is and was. I had just finished a previous film project, and I was looking for something else to work on. I have a family, so my projects need to be relatively local these days, and this one kind of checked all the boxes of being something I was passionate about, something that was close to home, and a story that had interesting characters and issues that were important to me.

I just started reporting it as you would any other story: doing some initial interviews to get a feel for who the players were, what the issues were, what the back story was and figuring out what the narrative arc was going to be.

Bryan Wells, the main character, is super-compelling in that he is a traditional conservative. He is pro-mining, pro-logging, and fiscally and socially conservative. But on this particular issue, because he has had a history with mine companies and getting burned by them, he felt strongly enough to step out of his box, cross political barriers and join forces with a group that he would probably never have had interactions with, and certainly not become friends with, outside of an issue like this.

Montana Press: Wells says in the film, “If you want to have a powerful voice, you have to leave politics at home.”

Petersen: Working with Bryan was a great joy. He’s such a wonderful person and so thoughtful; he doesn’t say much but what he says carries weight. I think that’s why people gravitate toward him and like him. It’s always hard doing these film projects because I’m asking so much of the subjects. I’m asking them to open up their life and their homes and their family and their beliefs.

Montana Press: Did you suggest Bryan’s epic hike to Emigrant Peak which is depicted in the film?

Petersen: Yes. Not only was I asking him to open up his life and his home to me, but I was asking him to do something, physically, that was really demanding. And he wasn’t entirely sure he would be capable of it.

Montana Press: Who are some of the other characters in “Paradise?”

Petersen: The other main characters in the film are Lynette Jones, co-owner of Katabatic Brewing, [lodge owner] Jeff Reed and Dale Sexton, the owner of Timber Trails [an outdoor gear store].

The reason I chose these three characters is they each represented a form of outdoor recreation, namely, fishing, hunting, and back-country skiing

The business coalition formed because there’s such a robust outdoor-recreation economy in Paradise Valley, and honestly in all of Montana. One of our biggest assets and one of our biggest economic driving forces is outdoor recreation. To put that on the line for a short-term monetary gain, like gold mining, something that has so much potential for environmental destruction is ridiculous.

Montana Press: In the film, there are some fairly extreme scenes from the Montana backcountry. What were some of the challenges of capturing the wilderness of the Absaroka Mountains?

Petersen: Well, the biggest challenge was the hike itself. I mean, not just physically, but logistically as well. Making sure that we had the equipment we needed and were set up for the shots that we needed. We had a four-person film crew on that hike segment.

Montana Press: Had you hiked Emigrant peak before?

Petersen: Well, the skiing scene with Dale, that was my first time. That was two years ago, when we backcountry skied up to the top and then skied off of it. I hiked it one more time before going with Bryan, to scout it and to figure out where we wanted to do what. I think I made it up there four times during the filming.

Montana Press: What is your connection to Montana, and your background in photography and film?

Petersen: I grew up in Minnesota and moved to Montana right after I graduated college. I started here in Livingston, at the Livingston Enterprise in 2000 as a photographer and then got a job at the Bozeman Chronicle where I was a staff photographer until about 2012, when I left the newspaper industry and started doing freelance work.

I traveled to central Asia for several years with the Central Asia Institute, documenting their work in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then taught as an adjunct at the University of Montana in the journalism department for a couple of years. I also got my master’s degree in science journalism there.

Part of the thesis for that master’s degree was my first film. When I was going to school in Missoula, I met this old-timer, this 89-year-old guy named Bob Hayes, who was still running absurd amounts daily and running 50K races, and still cutting his firewood with a crosscut saw and doing these old-time things to stay active and vital. I did a magazine story about him, photographed and wrote a story about him. When I got done, I was like, there’s still so much of his story to tell.

I approached Jeremy Lurgio, who is a professor in the department, because he had some film background, and said, “Hey, I’ve got this great character and this great story, I’ve never done a film before. I would like to do one on this guy, would you be interested in partnering with me?” He said yes.

We spent two years filming “The Hard Way,” and that was my first film project. The film went all over the world, because Hayes was such a great and likable character. I think the theme was universal and really resonated with people. It was my first taste of filmmaking but because of the character, it played in China and South America and went to Banff Mountain Film Festival and Telluride and some of the biggest film festivals, at least in the outdoor-adventure genre.

I got a taste of that and was like, wow, this is a really powerful medium. I had been doing still photography at that point for 15 years, and it was neat to learn a new medium and be challenged in a new way. After that, I started augmenting my still- photography business with a passion project I would select each year, just because I like the process of making films, and I wanted to build that toolkit out for being able to use for my other commercial clients.

“Paradise” is the fourth film I’ve done.

Montana Press: What was the process of getting “Paradise” produced?

Petersen: I applied for a media grant from Patagonia in 2018. Their media grant is unique in that they just back projects that align with their mission and there’s zero editorial oversight, which was pretty cool

Montana Press: Did you have any other partners in the project?

Petersen: The filmmaking world is not a one-person program, unlike still photography, which is my background. I realized that I had a lot of holes that needed to be filled; reaching out to people in the industry and building a team to do these projects is pretty important. It’s such a complex process compared to still photography.

Kirk Rasmussen of Topographic Media is one of the people I brought in. I met him at the Banff Filmmakers Workshop a couple years ago. He lives in Wyoming. so it’s close enough that we can collaborate on projects. He was a second camera and co-director on this project. And Jeremy Lurgio, who teaches up in Missoula in the journalism department, this is the third film that we’ve collaborated on. He was the editor.

Montana Press: What kind of input did the other sources and organizations, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Park County Environmental Council, Strategies North and others have on the project?

Petersen: They were the sponsors of the film. Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Patagonia, Park County Environmental Council, Wisetail, Strategies North, and Sweetwater Fly Shop all sponsored it.

Montana Press: Musician Ryan Acker wrote an original score for the film. How did you connect with that resource?

Petersen: Ryan and I met at Red Ants Pants [Music Festival] in White Sulphur Springs, because I also do their still photography, and he’d played there several years ago. When he started hanging out in Montana more and more, I reconnected with him. I asked him if he’d be interested in something like this. He was super excited. He wrote the music for it. The fun part is he’s going to be touring with the Montana screenings, so he’ll be playing some live music at the live events that we do.

Montana Press: What is the process of distributing “Paradise” and bringing it to the big screen?

Petersen: Part of the process when I finish these films is identifying film festivals that they might be a good fit for. For this particular one, there’s a lot because it checks the box of both the outdoor-adventure film genre, which is what I normally work in, but also the conservation/environmental film festivals.

The world premiere was at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Banff a couple weeks ago, and that’s the biggest of the outdoor-adventure film festivals. I was super excited to get it into Banff. One of the goals when I do these outdoor-adventure films is to get it into Banff, because they have such a big audience.

So far, “Paradise” has also been accepted into the D.C. Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC, as well as the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, California in January. Following the film festival circuit and the local screenings, I will release it to the public via Vimeo.

Montana Press: Will you have special showings in Montana?

Petersen: Yes, the Montana screenings will be January 9 in Livingston at the Shane Center, January 10 in Bozeman at the Ellen Theater and January 11 in Red Lodge at the Roman Theater.

Montana Press: “Paradise” is a unique story because it brings together some unlikely political forces. Why do you think that is?

Petersen: I think that’s a big part of why there’s so much interest in it, because it’s unique in that it brought together people from all sides of the political spectrum.

Montana Press: How do you think the film fits into the current political climate in Montana and the country?

Petersen: This was one of the few examples in recent times in our country that people crossed the political aisle and worked together, and that’s a rarity these days. I think any time that happens it needs to be celebrated.

I think we’re divided politically in the media, but when it comes to talking person-to-person with people, we can all find common ground, especially in Montana. It’s worth celebrating when something like this happens, when people come together and set down their political beliefs and work together for a common goal.

Secretary of the Interior [Ryan] Zinke first signed a 20-year moratorium [on mining on public lands near Yellowstone National Park] and that was great. But it was only for 20 years. The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act removed the possibility of mining on public lands on 30,000-plus acres around Yellowstone in perpetuity.

Montana Press: Why do you think politically-conservative elected officials like Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte joined this effort to side with environmentalist groups in order to get the Protection Act signed and passed?

Petersen: I think that happened because they heard from their constituents. People spoke up, including Republicans, including Democrats, including Libertarians. People from all walks of life and all sides of the political aisle spoke up, and they listened to their constituents, which is their job. From my perspective it’s not Daines’ doing it or [Senator Jon] Tester doing it; it’s that they all did it. They all listened to their constituents. They all did their jobs.

I think it’s a really good example of setting aside our differences and working together for a common goal. That’s the takeaway. Yellowstone is a treasure to the world, not just our country. There’s a lot of reverence for that place, regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

"Paradise" premieres in Livingston at the Shane Lalani Center on January 9, in Bozeman at the Ellen Theatre on January 10, in Red Lodge at the Roman Theater on January 11

Photos courtesy of Erik Petersen

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