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Lewis and Clark: Jeff T. Miller's Journey

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Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: September 2001

Co-producer Jeff T. Miller talks about capturing the Great Journey West for the giant, IMAX screen.

  

Category: Interviews

In recent years, there has been a move to add a vital ingredient to Big Movies: story. While this is an evolution in itself, most of the first story-driven giant screen films have taken account of a traditional Big Movie rule of thumb: make a film that can play in museums.

Given these two parameters (good story + educational value), certain true stories seem to jump out as perfect Big Movie subjects. Recently, one of the greatest survival stories of all time, Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, graced the giant screen after an intrepid crew battled the elements near the South Pole to bring back an incredible mix of drama and documentary.

Now, one of the most epic journeys ever, the mission of Lewis and Clark to travel across what is now the US all the way to the West Coast, has been shot in full IMAX glory. Produced in association with National Geographic, Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West is being distributed by industry stalwart Destination Cinema.

The BMZ interviewed co-producer Jeff T. Miller in late September, 2001 to find out more.

BMZ:  Will this be a documentary, or a full-blown drama, or a mix of the two?

JM: Well this is a forty-minute piece. And what we’re trying to do is connect the highlights of the expedition because, as everyone knows, it was long trek to the Pacific and back. There were over fifty new tribes encountered. A lot of significant events happened. And so what we tried to do is get out of St. Louis, get to the Pacific, and then we say good-bye to Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste. And then we do a quick summary of what they were able to accomplish on the expedition.

BMZ: It’s narrated by a third party?

JM: Yeah, we used the voice of God, if you will. And we’ll also interject a lot of quotes from the journals of Lewis and Clark.

BMZ: Right. You’re doing a lot of recreations?

JM:  We did do a few recreations. We had a Corps of Discovery, (played by) a group of Jackson Hole river rats. And, obviously Lewis and Clark and -- and Charbonneau and -- and Sacagawea and the dog. We moved those people as close to the trail as we possibly could. Of course in contemporary society we’ve built a lot of things, there are a lot of power lines, a lot of roads, there’s a lot of logging, and the format is so wide and tall that you need a lot of open space to shoot. So we found places that were near the trail that worked, that gave our audience an experience of 200 years ago, if you will.

BMZ: Did you find doing the recreations difficult, for the giant screen?

JM: Well, I’ve done some films with Kieth Merrill (director of GRAND CANYON, AMAZON and many more) and you guys probably know Kieth’s reputation. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s really pushed the envelope dramatically (in large format films). And so, the recreation part didn’t frighten me much, because I’ve been involved with many large format recreations with Kieth, whether it with Grand Canyon, Treasure of the Gods (Editor's Note: the full name of the film referred to here is Zion Canyon: Treasure of the Gods), or whether it was Yellowstone, or the Fiddle or whatever.

The only thing you have to worry about is that with National Geographic, we have to be authentic. And we went to great lengths to make sure that we were as authentic as we possibly could be with native wardrobe, with Lewis and Clark’s wardrobe, the guns they had.

We had to recreate from the nautical journals a 55 foot keel boat, and it’s museum quality. And we had to be able to transport this thing across the country. And it’s just unbelievable the money you have go through to make it right. National Geographic wants it right. If we’re gonna put it on the screen, it’s gotta be right.

BMZ: How did you secure authentic costumes and props -- did you use antiques?

JM: Our wardrobe person, from Montreal, worked on Last of the Mohicans and he had a lot of close period clothes that we were able to supplement and make work, as far as our frontiersmen go and our natives. And our seamstresses made many of the outfits that you see.

As far as the forts, the Mandan village that you see, all the pieces were recreated by our art department and our production designer, construction department. And then we had to find ways to transport those and to make sure they worked on the rivers that we chose to show the audience.

BMZ: Is this aimed at commercial or museum theaters, or both?

JM: Lewis and Clark is a great American story. Some people these days hear “Lois and Clark” (the TV program), and think you’re talking about Superman.

BMZ: [LAUGH]

JM: [LAUGH] But Lewis and Clark will be something that I think they’ll want to take their kids to. Particularly in the face of everything’s that’s going on recently, I think we all kind of want to get in touch.

BMZ: Yeah, definitely. And I’m sure there’s a few people out there that remember the orignal Lewis and Clark.

JM:  Oh, there are a lot of people who remember Lewis and Clark.

BMZ:  Did you film this all in 15/70?

JM: 98% of the film is 15/70. We do have some cool CGI stuff here and there. For example we make our little village quite a bit larger. The Mandan village was larger than St. Louis at the time. We show that in both summer and winter.

And it’s impossible to find bison these days in one place, in the numbers that Lewis and Clark supposedly saw over the Great Plains. So we’ve added some more bison to where we found bison. It was probably the largest city in the country that we would have known about.

The Great Falls as we know it, there in Montana, doesn’t really exist like it did two hundred years ago because of the power lines and the damming and everything else that’s gone on. So we had to recreate some of that.

BMZ:  Is this based on the Stephen Ambrose book? Was he involved in the script?

JM: Stephen is a consultant for us. We had lots of great consultants, for example the man who transcribed the journals of Lewis and Clark. On the native side, we have folks involved with the Heritage Trail Foundation. We have the guy who wrote most of the widely accepted information on the Native Americans Lewis and Clark encountered on the trail.

BMZ: Who are the actors involved? Anyone we know?

JM: They are actors, but not 'name' actors. We stuck with people who we thought would most look like our characters, and had some acting ability. We were counting on Bruce Neibaur, who directed Egypt and he’s directed many other things in television and film, to help us get over that hokey recreation part.

BMZ: Has working on this project changed how you think about Lewis and Clark?

JM: For us, it was most difficult and it was most trying at times, and we had modern technology. We had honey wagons and cars and we trucks and highways to drive on. And God only knows what they (Lewis and Clark) had to go through, particularly in the winter, crossing through the Lobo Pass or the terrible bugs they encountered as they started up the Missouri.

I just realized we are a really soft as a society. The difficulties that expedition encountered 200 years ago were unbelievable.

Basically they walked through territory that wasn’t their own and told people who lived there, “Hey, you’re gonna have a new Great White Father and hopefully there’ll be trade. And they promised all kinds of things and said, “All you to do is be nice to us and let us pass through here. We aren’t really giving you anything. We’ll give you some peace medals. But gunpowder or guns or supplies or anything else, we’ll kind of keep for ourselves.” And so, when you realize everything that they went through… I think it just sunk in through making the film that we’re really soft, nowadays.

BMZ: I remember reading about when they came up the river and the sky was just dark with mosquitoes.

JM: Oh, absolutely. And they were smearing themselves with bear grease. You know what I mean? We just grab a can of Off and or burn some cigars and mosquitoes go away.

BMZ:   How did you decide what to focus on and what to leave out of the story for the IMAX audiences?

JM:  What we tried to do when we went into it is to humanize Lewis and Clark, as men. Can we show them as men and as leaders? Can we show the Native Americans are important? Can you meet Sacagawea? Can you realize how important that she was to the expedition?

And we wanted to tell of the many people they met, and the maps they created. Of course their maps opened the way for the Louisiana Purchase. Clark covered thousands of miles, only missed it by 40-some odd miles.

And really, if it hadn’t been for the Louisiana Purchase and these guys hadn’t been there to map it out and talk about it and bring information back, we might not have expanded into the great nation we are today.

BMZ:  Yeah. So do you think viewers are ready for more story in their large format films?

JM:   I do and I don’t. In this format, any film has limitations. I think the institutions will accept it, if the right company’s doing it and the right group’s doing it, and it borders the line of entertainment and documentary. I think we’ll all take a little bit of that. But to go further than that, I don’t know. You know? Disney might try it. It sounds like they’re gearing up to do a lot of things. It’s difficult to tell a story in 40 minutes. And I don’t know if we’re ready for two hours. If you really shoot it in 15/70 and you really project it 15/70, there’s just too much resolution and your eyes get tired and, you make a lot of mistakes as filmmakers and people are gonna catch you in this format. I’ll tell you what, it costs a lot of money to do it right. Right now, I think Lewis and Clark is really the right mix of drama and documentary.

BMZ: OK, great. Well, best of luck with the film!

JM: Thanks. Good luck with the site.

* Visit the main film page for Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West.

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