Garry Wunderwald, former Montana film commissioner, had a clever talent—scouting for directors and producers. Wunderwald found dated cars, railroad beds, carnivals, waterfalls, whatever was needed for high profile film productions. One August afternoon in 1986, he was asked to find a 1930-period bridge, but it couldn’t be just any 1930-period bridge.
On this bridge, Prohibition-era whiskey runners would clash with lawmen in the filming of Paramount Pictures’ The Untouchables.
“The movie was being filmed in Chicago and they called and said that they needed to do a scene and they’d be out in two days,” recalled Wunderwald, who served for more than 10 years spanning the late 1970s to late 1980s as Montana film commissioner.
Paramount wanted a bridge that connected two distinctly different geologic formations to imply a border crossing between Canada and the United States. It had to be low enough that a man could fall from it and survive, and it had to look like Canada on the opposite side.
Wunderwald found several bridges that wouldn’t suffice before he scouted out the Hardy Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River 50 miles north of Helena.
“Most of the bridges the company looked at in the Midwest were too close to Chicago in areas where modern bridges were within view,” said Wunderwald. “So they came to the Northwest and looked in four states as well as Canada. Actually, we looked at three bridges in the state before settling on the Hardy Bridge over the Missouri.
“One, at Thompson Falls, was beyond repair, making it unsafe for equipment. The Dearborn Bridge, on the back road to Augusta, was also considered for possible use, but lost out because of low water in the Dearborn River. One of the bridges was too narrow. I had another bridge in mind between Red Lodge and Billings, but it had way too much traffic on it. We were on the last bridge that they had time to scout in Montana before they were heading to Washington.”
Producers liked Wunderwald’s final suggestion, selecting Hardy Bridge (built 1930), located on the frontage road between Cascade and Wolf Creek.
The Hardy Bridge was closed to traffic Oct. 6, 1986, and remained closed until Oct. 20, 1986, for filming an iconic shootout between Eliot Ness’ Untouchables — played by Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith — and Al Capone gangsters. (The movie’s lead role was played by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, organizer of the group of U.S. government agents known as the Untouchables. Sean Connery played Jim Malone, an Irish beat cop from Chicago who is Ness’s first recruit as a Prohibition agent.) Like the early television series of the same name, The Untouchables portrayed a special federal crime unit that had actually worked in the 1930s, targeting the criminal activities of bootleggers under mobster Capone.
Paramount sent “up to 100 people” as part of their crew. About 25 area residents were cast to ride horseback as red-coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police during the scene in which the lawmen try to capture Capone’s bootleggers in their 1930s automobiles. The extras playing Mounties didn’t need their own horses. Paramount, with a strict eye for detail, wanted all the horses to look similar, like those of the actual Mounties.
Sometimes filming isn’t a case of locating things but concealing them from within camera range.
When the crew of The Untouchables decided on the Hardy Bridge they had to make cabins and summer homes along the river temporarily vanish. With 50,000-square-feet of olive-drab canvas and camouflage netting, and 600 trees planted in a day and a half, it was an inspired disappearing act.
“I called every company in Montana that could conceivably provide this canvas and netting, but no one had such large amounts in stock,” said Wunderwald. So, a firm in Chicago provided the material.
The trees, however, were state-raised. Brought in from the Lincoln and Kalispell areas, the movie company paid about $25,000 for the additional disguise of greenery. “It was a wild thing to see these Christmas trees out there,” recalled Wunderwald, “which they mostly contracted from a Kalispell man, and all of the tarps used to hide the homes.”
Wunderwald helped obtain several 1920s and 1930s-era Fords and Ford Model-Ts from a group of ranchers from Conrad who restored old Ford bodies as a hobby. Several Great Falls-area folks who provided period autos were paid $300 per day. The person hired to maintain the vehicles received $50 a day.
“The film crew marked them up to appear as if they were all shot up — Hollywood-style,” said Wunderwald. “We figure close to $1 million was spent in Great Falls in the two weeks they took to shoot the film. And of course there was the prep work, too. One carpenter said he made $4,500 in that time.”
Actual filming in Montana took approximately 10 days but the production staff reserved the bridge for enough time to allow for production delays. “Everything went smoothly. The trainmaster in Helena even agreed not to run trains through at the time of the shooting,” said Wunderwald.
Robert DeNiro, who did not appear in the Montana-filmed sequence, had a cameo role in the movie as Al Capone. The Untouchables production allowed people to watch from a nearby field, and to use cameras. Hundreds of people showed up during the first weekend of filming. Connery treated well-wishers and fans “openly and cordially,” said Wunderwald.
Wunderwald said that similar to The Untouchables experience, he generally had little advance notice from scouts. In more than 10 years of pitching and promoting, his preparedness and quick thinking led to the use of many production sites in Montana. Though, he “lost a few along the way,” he said that rejection and competition were part of the nature of the Hollywood hunt.
“If the scouts or companies don’t find what they need in 24 hours they politely exit,” said Wunderwald. “You have to be cool and levelheaded and patient. You can’t let it get to you.”
Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Shot in Montana: A History of Big Sky Cinema, available in the fall of 2016 (Riverbend Publishing).