Montana State University

Montana is fertile ground for recent film school graduates making second feature film

May 24, 2012 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News


Members of Sanshead are now at work at their second feature film, "Magpie," which won the Montana Film Commission's Pitch the 406 contest announced at the Sundance Film Festival. Front row, left to right: Alisha Dyk, MSU business student and Michael Gaughan of Bozeman. Second row: Denise Barrett, MSU film graduate; Jason Stevens, MSU film graduate, and Brittney Dorrell, MSU business student. Third row: Steven Hilton, MSU film graduate; Josh McRae, MSU music technology student; Matthew Smaglik, MSU film graduate and Kevin Hilton, MSU film student. Not pictured: MSU graphic design students Miranda McAdams and Samantha Delvo. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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While the roads to Los Angeles are now crammed with recent film school graduates migrating there with their dreams of hitting it big and making a feature length film one day, a group of Montana State University film school graduates and students have already found success while staying in the Big Sky State.

Matthew Smaglik and Steven Hilton, both recent graduates of the MSU School of Film and Photography, are the principals of Sanshead. This summer they will begin production on "Magpie," a feature-length film set in Eastern Montana that won the Montana Film Office's "Pitch the 406" contest.

The members of Sanshead, which also includes Alisha Dyk, an MSU College of Business students, and Michael Gaughan, of Bozeman, learned they had won the contest at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival held in Park City, Utah, in January. Pitch the 406 http://scout406.com/index.html supports Montana-based filmmaking and carries a $20,000 production package from Filmlites Montana. Sanshead will use the prize this summer as they shoot their film about the conflicts between traditional Montana culture and the impact of the Bakken oil boom on the area.

While writing, producing, casting and directing a feature film is a massive project for anyone, regardless of where they are in life, it is a huge undertaking for filmmakers still in school. Yet, the production partners have done it twice. This summer they also put the finishing touches on "Cooper," a film shot last year in the Dillon area. The film is about the pressures of a modern economy on a Montana ranching family. Sanshead is submitting "Cooper" to film festivals. In the meantime, they are arranging the many details to begin filming "Magpie" in August in Sidney, Plentywood, Williston, N.D., and Bozeman.

In addition, Smaglik teaches at elementary and middle school students throughout Montana about video and making film as a job with Montana 4-H and Montana Extension.

"Having seen so much of the state and working with so many of its residents has been a wonderful opportunity to not only create relationships with the untapped talent here, but it also has given me an insight into what makes Montana tick," Smaglik said.

It is during his travels that some of the best ideas occur to him, Smaglik said. Steve Hilton, actor and producer, hails from the Dillon area so he knows the dynamics of Montana life well. Smaglik, co-writer and director, came by his Montana sensibilities more recently. He is a native of Fond du Lac, Wis., and started film school in Milwaukee before transferring to MSU's film school.

He said not long after he came to Montana he decided his route to feature filmmaking was to stay in the state rather than take his ideas to Hollywood.

"There was a story that I wanted to tell and people I wanted to tell it with, that, along with recent technological changes, we suddenly found that we could (do it in Montana)," Smaglik said. "I've always felt that you should try to do the thing you think you can't, so we said yes, we can do this. And despite tremendous struggles somehow, we did.

"There are a lot of opportunities but also so many barriers put up by going to L.A. or working in the industry, doing it ourselves and possibly failing was going to be more important to us. I knew I would learn more that way."

Smaglik said that much of the group that became Sanshead met on the set of "Cooper." There they discovered a shared philosophy. That philosophy is expressed in the slogan of Sanshead, "Embrace story. Find truth." The tagline for their company is "Embrace story. Find truth." Smaglik said that rather than focusing on beginning their careers in Hollywood after they graduated, as many students do, they liked the idea of being their own bosses. And, they were inspired by the great material found in modern Montana life.

"We embraced what was around us," Smaglik said. He added that they draw heavily on the MSU community for talent for their films and a support staff that includes Brittney Dorrell also an MSU business student, Jason Stevens and Denise Barrett, film students, and graphic design students Samantha Delvo and Miranda McAdams.

When they learned via an email, and a later follow-up call, that four judges from the film industry unanimously selected "Magpie" as the winner from 30 entries from across the country, Smaglik, Hilton, Dyk and Gaughan loaded into a car and drove to Sundance where the prize was awarded.

"Then, we accepted the award and then drove back that night," Smaglik said. "(Sundance) was exhilarating.
Our goal is to go back with one of our films. That would be the best."

The group is seeking experienced advice to accomplish that goal. Among their advisers are MSU film professor Cindy Stillwell whose shorts have been accepted to the famed festival as well as the alternative festival, Slamdance. They have also spoken to Ashley Martin, an MSU graduate and producer of the film "Prairie Love," which was screened at the 2011 Sundance Festival.

"I am amazed at the level of commitment that these students have shown working on finishing their first feature and developing their next one," Stillwell said. "The prize is a fantastic way for them to build some steam as they work toward their fundraising goal. This kind of success is a great morale builder for them. To see this level of support from the state and from Filmlites Montana is so great for our students, our department and the university and our statewide filmmaking community".

While Smaglik said the company is making the film on a shoestring, that shoestring is still pretty large for two recent graduates. Sanshead is working to raise $200,000 to shoot the film. They posted their case on the arts funding site Kickstarter and attracted 24 investors, raising more than $7,000 for seed money to start. Smaglik said they plan to launch another Kickstarter soon to raise an even larger part of the budget. And, not all needed contributions are monetary.

"Because Sanshead is growing, we are seeking craftspeople, artists, a website designer, business support from accountants to marketing, anyone interested in producing films, entrepreneurs and investors with passion to join the cause and build an established group of independent filmmakers producing more and more projects," Smaglik said. "'Magpie' is just a start."

Smaglik may be contacted at sansheadstudios@gmail.com or visit sanshead.com.

Cindy Stillwell (406) 994-6521, cindys@montana.edu