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Filming Life in the Wild
A conversation with filmmaker Brian Bolster, whose fascination with Montana’s remote setting led him to the Polebridge Mercantile
Filmmaker Brian Bolster | Courtesy photo
Filmmaker Brian Bolster recently returned home from the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where he introduced moviegoers to one of Northwest Montana’s beloved relics, the Polebridge Mercantile.

“The Mercantile,” a 16-minute documentary about the landmark up the North Fork, is Bolster’s second consecutive film set against the backdrop of Glacier National Park. Last year at Slamdance, Bolster debuted “The Lookout,” a 16-minute peek into the solitary lifestyle of local Leif Haugen as he spent the summer of 2010 manning the classic fire lookout atop Thoma Mountain in the Flathead National Forest. The film traveled the national festival circuit, picking up critical acclaim and top honors at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. Bolster also raised enough money independently for a weeklong theatrical run in his hometown, New York City.

“The Mercantile” will make its Montana debut later this month at the 10th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Feb. 15-24. The film is scheduled to play Feb. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at Missoula’s Crystal Theater.

Bolster’s two documentaries are also screening at an upcoming local fundraiser for the Gateway to Glacier Trail, a planned pathway along U.S. Highway 2 from Coram to West Glacier. The event is March 1 at 7 p.m. at the Belton Chalet. Along with the two films, the night will include a pie auction and discussion with Haugen, who has served as a fire lookout for almost 20 years. The Chalet has donated its space and will be open for dinner beforehand. All proceeds from the event will help build the trail.

Fresh off his recent cross-country trip, Bolster spoke with the Beacon about his documentary work and why he remains fascinated with life in the wild.

You live in New York City but I heard you’ve still found a way to be an avid hiker?

I love backpacking. I was in the Boy Scouts as a kid and I didn’t like it back then at all. I was doing it just because my brother was doing it. My heart wasn’t in it. Then I took a trip back in 2005 to Colorado and I just fell in love with the Rockies. Since then I try to do a good two-week backpacking trip every year … I love Montana and Colorado, they’re my two favorite places. And also New Mexico. When I go out I like to do two straight weeks and carry everything and all my food and not have to go into town. It’s really refreshing. It’s a great way to recharge your soul.

It was during a backpacking trip through Glacier National Park a few years ago when you came across a fire lookout and became intrigued, right?

That’s exactly how it happened. It was in 2006 and my second year going to Glacier. We had such a good time the year before and said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ We started at Kintla Lake Trailhead and spent two weeks basically making our way through the park. Halfway through the trip at Swift Current, that’s where I first encountered a fire lookout. I thought it was the most amazing job and it was something I wished I could do. It stayed with me for a few years and I kept thinking about it. Finally I said the only way I’m ever going to try something like it is to make a movie about it. I reached out to the park service and my original intent was to profile the Swiftcurrent Lookout. That’s the one I first came across. The logistics just didn’t work out but they put me in touch with the Hungry Horse Ranger District. They said, “Hey we have this perfect lookout and we have someone up there and we’d love to have you work with Leif. He’s a real veteran.” I was fortunate to spend a week up at Thoma Lookout … It fulfilled my satisfaction of wondering what it would be like to be a fire lookout. It really did. That’s the beauty of working in documentary. In some ways you get to experience what your subjects do.

Inside the Polebridge Mercantile, where Brian Bolster filmed his latest short documentary “The Mercantile.” | Courtesy photo

What made Leif a good central character for this documentary?

During that week we got to know each other really well. He’s a good subject because he’s a real pro. He’s been doing this since 1994. He’s passionate about it and he really believes in it. He’s open and he’s honest.

During the filming, is that how you naturally stumbled across the Polebridge Mercantile?

Ironically it was on the same backpacking trip in 2006. We were staying the night at the Belton Chalet and a woman there was nice enough to offer a ride up (to Kintla Lake Trailhead). On the way up there, she stopped at the Mercantile and said this is a nice destination for people before going into the park. You go in and I had never seen anything like it. On the East Coast we don’t have things like that. So for me it was really interesting that something this old and historical still functioned prosperously in such a tiny little remote area. It takes work to get there and it’s a long ride up a bumpy dirt road, and you’re rewarded with some great treats. I always say this to people about the Mercantile. Everyone talks about the food in New York City, and we do have wonderful stuff here. But I have to say those baked goods (at the Mercantile) are probably the best stuff I’ve ever had.

What is it about Montana that interests you and intrigues you as a filmmaker?

It’s just a beautiful place. It really is. It’s probably the most beautiful of the 50 states that I’ve been to, in my opinion. It really is stunning, especially Northwestern Montana. I’ve grown up and lived on the East Coast going to beaches every year. For me going to the mountains as an adult was a totally different experience and something I’ve never seen. The majestic peaks are so different from the hills we have. It’s so dramatic. There’s a peacefulness to it. I appreciate that. It’s hard to explain. I feel connected to it, even though I don’t live there. And I think there’s lot of interesting stories out there to tell that I didn’t know about that are worth sharing with other people. I’m in search of stories about people who live and/or work interesting jobs where it’s remote. The Mercantile is in a remote area. Leif’s job is in a remote area. I like that: people who can live and work in remote areas with very limited access to the outside world.

“The Lookout” is available to purchase on iTunes.
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