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Director Richard Gray is an artist who pays detailed attention to the physicality of his craft; he built an entire town for his new film, after all. Murder at Yellowstone City (also known as Murder at Emigrant Gulch) is the first film to be shot at Yellowstone Film Ranch in Pray, Montana, and judging by the visual splendor of the location and the meticulous authenticity of the sets, it won’t be the last. In fact, the Nicolas Cage film The Old Way has already finished shooting there, with more projects under way.

Murder at Yellowstone City uses its setting splendidly to tell a murder mystery set during the gold rush boom of 1881 Montana. It’s like an Agatha Christie movie by way of the Wild West, as the small town grapples with the murder of a newly rich gold speculator and everyone suddenly becomes suspicious. That ‘everyone’ consists of an incredible cast Gabriel Byrne, Thomas Jane, Isaiah Mustafa, Anna Camp, Aimee Garcia, Emma Kenney, Nat Wolff, and Richard Dreyfuss all chew the stunning scenery wonderfully in multifaceted, complicated roles. Gray spoke to us about the making of the film and the construction of his ranch.

Murder at the Yellowstone Film Ranch

“I moved here with my family from L.A. We’re Australian, but we were in L.A. for about 10 years. I moved here with my family three years ago to build the Yellowstone Film Ranch, which is the town in the movie,” Gray explains. The Australian filmmaker wears a cowboy hat and drinks coffee while conversing, and his palpable excitement about the prospect of the ranch indicates how connected he is to the setting, as if it was the topography of his own creative mind. “It’s a perfect location, and it captures the grandeur of that area while also being like this authentic town.”

It’s true, the titular Yellowstone City has a lived-in and fleshed-out feel in Murder at Yellowstone City. Surrounded by a magnificently mountainous landscape and gorgeous, endless stretches of land, the town is a collection of 28 different buildings, though only five or so are fully functional. Nonetheless, the town actually feels real, and the Yellowstone Film Ranch (built with co-founders Carter Boehm and Colin Davis) adds a great deal of authenticity to the film. “It’s just a beautiful area. It’s called Paradise Valley, and so it was just like the perfect place to build the town, because there’s nobody in Montana, there’s a million people in the entire state. So it’s a pretty good place to make a Western.”

Related: Best New Western Movies Since 2010, Ranked

Gray had done some location scouting and filming in Montana before with his film Broken Ghost, and then filmed some of Robert the Bruce, a recent and very popular spiritual sequel to Braveheart, around Yellowstone and the Livingston area of Montana. The writer for that film, Eric Belgau, liked the location a lot and was inspired to set Murder at Yellowstone City there. “We kind of fell in love with it, and there was a new tax credit here, and so myself and my partners decided, why don’t we build a Western town?” Gray says.

Richard Gray on Eric Belgau’s Western Murder Mystery

In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the set and setting of Murder at Yellowstone City could inform the actual script, instead of just vice versa. “And so Eric was working with us over that whole time, which was brilliant because he could write the script for what we were building, which is super, super exciting.”

Belgau’s script was extremely iconoclastic, merging disparate genres with sociopolitical themes, subtle humor, and great characters into an exciting cocktail of gunslinging confidence. “A murder mystery Western is something that I hadn’t read before,” Gray says, “and the different issues the film deals with felt really fresh.” Murder at Yellowstone City follows a former slave, extremely skilled with a gun and sharply stoic yet capable of spouting Shakespeare at the drop of a (10 gallon) hat. Soon, the Black man is immediately accused of the murder in the town and imprisoned by the Sheriff. As Gray says in his Director’s Statement:

We’re dealing with social injustice, and what folks are prepared to do in seeking the truth. What are they prepared to do for true justice? They risk their lives, they lose their lives — our heroes ultimately aren’t prepared to stay silent, and that’s what makes this film tick. There are themes, moments and truths that are incredibly relevant, then and now.

The rich cast of characters make this an ensemble movie worthy of the kind of lineage passed down from Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. “The characters, from the supporting to the leads, get so much to work with,” Gray says. “Usually in a Western, there’s one or two or three that get properly developed, and the Black guy would be a stereotype or a cliché in a Western.”

Belgau’s screenplay for Murder at Yellowstone City changes that, even developing the bartender (played endearingly by Richard Dreyfuss, who is still magnetic after half a century). “I love that Eric was able to write these deep, deep arcs to these characters. And that was how we got the cast, because to get that quality of a cast across the board, they’ve got to love the script.”

The Powerhouse Cast of Murder at Yellowstone City

The cast and their performances are incredible, with everyone essentially living together near the Yellowstone Film Ranch (around Chico’s Hot Springs) and having what, by all accounts, seems to be a delightful time during the production. That kind of comfortable, amiable atmosphere seemed to create a space where actors like Dreyfuss, Thomas Jane, Anna Camp, and Gabriel Byrne felt free to try different things. Gray seemed to foster a great atmosphere on set, but working with these massive stars is intimidating nonetheless.

Related: Anna Camp Prepares for Battle in Murder at Yellowstone City Image

“So, yeah, you get on the phone for the first time to Gabriel Byrne or Richard Dreyfuss. It’s just, well, it’s an honor to talk to them, but the fact that they read your script and are entertaining it is just mind-blowing. But it pushes you also to be the best that you can be and just be so well researched and so ready, so you don’t just sound like a fan,” Gray laughs. He continues:

I think living here really helped with that, because that’s great to be able to tell people who ask, “Where are you shooting?” “Oh, we’re building it! I live hereI” And so we’re able to sit with it every day, you see every shot in your head, and we had the luxury of being able to think about that in the setting for years instead of weeks. And so talking to those actors[…] it was just it was so much fun on set. For a director, it was awesome.

“We all lived really close,” Gray says, “and that was another great thing. We didn’t have actors coming in and out for a few days here or there, which can be challenging. They all wanted to stay as long as they could.”

Richard Gray and the Future of Yellowstone Film Ranch

Gray seems to love where he lives right now, both literally and figuratively. He and his family have been happily living in Livingston, Montana, which is both ricidulously far from and somehow reminiscent of his Australian roots. He’s creating his own backlot, his own cinematic town, but the area is already haunted with films, steeped in cinema history.

“I live in a little city called Livingston,” Gray says, “and it’s got a fantastic history. Sam Peckinpah stayed in the local hotel here writing westerns. Jeff Bridges lives here, and Michael Keaton. It’s just this beautiful place. So it’s a little city, and then 30 minutes from here into the valley towards Yellowstone is where we built the western town and backlot. The Yellowstone Film Ranch has 28 buildings sat over amongst 500 acres of just land. So you can really just come here and do whatever you need. My kids have kind of grown up in it, and they’re having a ball.”

With the Film Ranch and the new MEDIA tax credit which incentivizes filming in Montana, the state will likely see more and more productions being filmed in its gorgeous locale. “We’ve had back-to-back Westerns filmed here since we shot Murder at Yellowstone City, so it will be an ongoing location for everybody,” Gray says, so it looks like his intriguing, visually stunning Western murder mystery is beginning a strong new lineage of Montana Westerns.

From RLJE Films, Murder at Yellowstone City is in theaters, On Demand, and Digital starting June 24th.

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