Ruth De Jong
AS: Is your approach different on film projects versus in episodic series?
RDJ: The only episodics I’ve done are Yellowstone season one with Taylor Sheridan, and Twin Peaks with David Lynch. They are both writer/directors, each with a singular vision. The difference is that with David Lynch it was like making a movie, meaning we had a wonderful prep and then we shot for a hundred-and-forty-five days. David says, Treat this as an entire eighteen hour film, I’ll worry about where I break it up into episodes.
With Yellowstone it was different. Because of the way it had already been structured and sold as a TV show. David kept it more like Christopher Nolan, where he was in total control. Yellowstone was a sold show, where you’re cross-boarding episodes, which I’d never done before. Very fast, very short prep time, but I treated the process and the design in the exact same way as I would a film. I spent time with Taylor in conversations about the Duttons—Who are they? Where did the Duttons come from? What is their back story? For them to live in this house, on this specific ranch and to have this epic family history and make it grounded, I needed all this information to build out the world.
This was also a unique situation because I got brought on very late, and the studio had everything set up in Park City because of the stages and tax incentives. I wasn’t used to everything being already set up. What about discovery? This whole thing is written to take place near Yellowstone, in Paradise Valley and I said, Taylor, with all due respect, I need to go to Montana and find your ranch. It is not in Utah. The epic-ness of what you’ve written, and the success of this show, hinges on me going to Montana and on us shooting in Montana. Well, there’s no infrastructure in Montana, there’s no film incentive in Montana. I care about one thing right now–finding what’s going to make this show work. Then we’ll figure those things out.
I was treating it as a film, not just some show that will come and go. It was such epic writing. Taylor agreed that I go. He said, You have two weeks to come back and show me “the ranch”. Most stressful two weeks of my career up to that point! (The White House time on Oppenheimer takes the cake presently!)
I came back and said, I have a ranch. And Taylor drove up and the DP and the AD flew in to see it as well. Taylor barely made it up the driveway and jumped out and said, This is our ranch! I’ll never forget that moment.
AS: Was it in Paradise Valley?
RDJ: I’d hoped to find it in the real Paradise Valley but we couldn’t find anything shootable up there. A lot of epic ranches, but nothing you could bring a film crew to, on top of the fact that weather was a real issue over there. Then we got this lead on the Chief Joseph Ranch in the Bitterroot on the other side of the state, in the wrong direction from Yellowstone National Park. It had sold a few years ago to a private family from Missouri. I said to my location manager, We’re going to go knock on the door. But in Montana you don’t really knock on people’s doors. You have a scope on your head if you do that. But I was like, We’re just going to wing it because we have no contacts. And nothing to lose.
So we drove three-and-a-half hours from Bozeman to go knock. Then we didn’t know how we were going to get in because it was gated. We just buzzed and said, Look, we’d love to speak to you about this project. The owner said, Come on in. He did have a scope out!