‘Yellowstone’s’ biggest star is Utah
Although “Yellowstone,” an upcoming Paramount Network series starring Kevin Costner, is being partially filmed in Utah, crews are taking painstaking efforts to make the interior sets built at the Utah Film Studios as authentic as possible.
“All the logs for the sets are real and we imported them from Montana,” said “Yellowstone” Publicity Coordinator Perri Eppie during a press tour of the studios. “The sets are also fully functional with water and stoves. They are built up on a higher base so we can install real plumbing. So when John Dutton, Kevin Costner’s character washes his hands, real heated water comes out.”
“Yellowstone” is a present-day drama about the Duttons, a fictional ranching family who struggle to keep their land out of the hands of greedy encroachers.
Costner, an Academy, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor, director and producer, has been shooting the series since August. Crews have taken over all 45,000 square feet of the Utah Film Studios, said Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission.
“We have three sound stages and they built a lot of cover sets so they can shoot from multiple directions,” Pearce told The Park Record. “That way they’ll have more options as the weather gets trickier.”
“Yellowstone” is directed by Taylor Sheridan, who is known his thematic American Frontier trilogy that includes “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River.”
Sheridan filmed “Wind River” in Utah and Pearce is happy to have him back.
“I have been a fan of his work way before ‘Wind River,’ so we’re excited to work this him again,” she said. “One thing about Utah is once a director or producer shoots here, they realize what great resources we have here. We have great crew and a fantastic infrastructure in place.”
Pearce said “Yellowstone” is a great fit for the studios, but also for Utah.
The production works with a 160-member crew and up to nearly 500 local extras, according to Eppie.
“There was one episode that included a Native American ceremony, so we brought in members of the Ute Tribe,” she said.
Pearce said the size of a working crew fluctuates on any given shoot.
“With a show this size, you will typically see new crew members that range from designers to construction workers during the day, because the project has committed to hire as many Utah people as they can,” she said.
One of the biggest reasons to do that is the Utah Film Commission tax credit.
“We have a post-performance motion picture incentive program where productions get up to a 25 percent tax credit on what they spend here in the state,” Pearce said.
The program is similar to other incentive programs set up in different states.
“Productions apply for the incentive and once they are approved, we hold those funds for them,” Pearce said. “After they shoot the film or series, they do an audit of what they spent and how many people they hired from Utah. And we then give them a tax credit on what they spent.”
The Utah Film Commission rests under the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, so the tax credit is used to encourage productions to boost Utah’s economy by filming in the state.
“Usually anyone shooting on a budget of more than $1 million will look for an incentive,” Pearce said.
“Yellowstone” is estimated to spend about $28 million in Utah alone, she said.
“What the $28 million doesn’t account for is the money that the out-of-state crews are spending on food at local restaurants, hotels, car rentals, local dry-cleaners, building materials from Home Depot and other expenses,” Pearce said.
In addition, a production this size is a way for local crew to gain experience.
“We like going after TV series such as ‘Yellowstone,’ because they are more sustainable,” Pearce said. “The jobs run longer and the wages are higher.”
The first Utah-crew hire was Matias Alvarez a unit production manager who was hired the first part of June, two months before filming started.
Alvarez’ role is to oversee the budget and shoot schedule through the end of principal photography.
“The production designer comes early on in the process and she takes the director’s written word and artistically creates the world,” Alvarez said. “From a production standpoint, I have to facilitate that vision.”
“Yellowstone” is a major project that has a lot of working parts.
“It’s set in Montana around a giant ranch, but we couldn’t find a suitable one in Utah where we could do what we wanted to do,” Alvarez said. “They did find a ranch in Montana, but it’s smaller than what they needed, so we built a lot of the interiors here in the studio. We had to match the ranch in Montana to what we build here.”
Alvarez had to make sure everyone created the “Yellowstone” world within the given budget.
“Those challenges go through all the departments — down through props, wardrobe, vehicles and the others,” he said. “We try to work with the budget to give the departments the resources they need to make it work.”
One unique department is the animal wranglers.
“This show has a ton of animals — horses, bison, coyote, a bear and a snake,” Alvarez said with a laugh. “These are referred to in the script, but then you think how do we get a bear in the woods being chased by a horse and lassoed.”
The grip department is another crew staffed by Utah workers.
Craig Sullivan, who lives in Sugar House, is the key grip.
“The grip department is responsible for a couple of things: set safety, lighting and camera moving,” Sullivan explained.
After the electricians install the lights and turn them on, the grip department will filter or shape the lighting to make it softer, he said.
“As far as the camera equipment goes, we use jib arms, cranes and things like that so crews can get the shots they need,” Sullivan said.
To do this, the grip crew works with the series’ director of photography (DP).
“We have to learn their style,” Sullivan said. “That way we can know what equipment I need to have available on any given day.”
“Yellowstone” is large production for Sullivan.
“I have 10 people on my crew and that’s huge,” he said. “In comparison, on an independent feature I will usually only have five people on a crew.”
Pearce said the last time a production took over the entire space of the Utah Film Studios was in 2015 with the ABC TV production of “Blood and Oil,” that starred Don Johnson.
It was the first show that filmed at the studios, Pearce said.
“This is similar to that,” she said. “The difference is the studio is more established and we’ve had other projects come before ‘Yellowstone.’”
Those productions include “Wind River,” Disney Channel’s and “Andi Mack,” which is still in production.
“If the Utah Film Commission is as busy as we want to be, there are usually three or four productions going on in the state at once,” Pearce said. “Ideally, we would love to have at least one series shooting in the Utah Film Studios all the time for the sustainability and amount of jobs, but we also want smaller local and independent productions to really market to the independent world.”
Last year the Utah Film Commission had four independent films that were shot in Utah premiere at Sundance.
“With Utah hosting the Sundance Film Festival, this is a great fit for us to market to that independent world,” she said.
“Yellowstone” will shoot in Utah until the end of December, Pearce said.
“I think there are plans to do pick-up shots in the spring,” she said.
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