Environment & Public Lands
7:40 am
Mon August 27, 2012

BLM Addresses Conflict on Movie Shoot

Utah spends millions of dollars promoting the state as a location for movies and commercials, and offers significant tax breaks to production companies when they come here.  A recent confrontation outside Moab caused some worry about the state's reputation as a prime spot for shooting movies.

Back in July, Jerry Bruckhheimer's production company was in southern Utah, shooting scenes for the upcoming Lone Ranger movie starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.

It was a big production, with dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people -- actors, extras and crew members -- working on land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Professor Valley east of Moab.  The producers were already frustrated when a private landowner told them they couldn't build their set on his ranch. As they tried to re-work their shots, director Gore Verbinski decided to have a group of riders bring their horses across the scene riding fifty abreast.  The original script called for them to ride in a column two-by-two.  The change could have potentially damaged sensitive soils and vegetation in the area.

The BLM had issued a permit for the production based on the original script, and its employee on the scene questioned whether that change should be allowed.  An angry confrontation -- some accounts call it a shouting match -- broke out between the movie crew and the woman representing the BLM.  Eventually, the dispute was referred to the management of the BLM's Moab Field Office and the director got his shot.

Rock Smith, the director of the Moab Field Office, says part of the problem was an employee who hadn't worked much with production crews.

"She was doing her job," Smith says, "and she probably had less experience dealing with film productions than some of us do, and I think was a little uncomfortable with her decision space, and that might have been part of this issue.  Just took her probably a long time to assess what those impacts for this change might be."

The real worry, as the production team left town, was a threat to tell everybody in Hollywood that they'll never come back to Moab -- and that the state's reputation as a filming location would be badly hurt.

Marshall Moore, the director of the Utah Film Commission, says tempers have cooled since then.

"So yeah, when you're in the heat of the battle, things get said," Moore reflected.  "There were those feelings, and maybe they walked away with some of the fears when things don't go exactly as you had planned and you have 400 people standing around and you have millions of dollars at stake.  Certainly, I don't feel there was any permanent damage done, and I think what the BLM has done in response to this has been terrific."

What the BLM has done is to promise additional training for their employees who work with film producers and to hold meetings with its state director and the Utah Film Commission.  Smith also wrote a letter of apology to the director and the film crew.

Utah's state BLM director, Juan Palma, says the agency will back up its employees, but it also recognizes that creative teams often need to make changes when they get on location.

"In this particular situation," Palma told KUER, "even though it might have taken a little longer, it was a matter of all of us in the BLM, including our employees, being able to talk with their supervisors and getting their approval to do so.  The question is, do we support our employees?  And the answer is yes."

Tara Penner, the director of the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission, is concerned the incident is being blown out of proportion.  She says Grand County and the BLM have formed a committee to proactively address the concerns.

"It's not just this incident in particular," she says.  "Yes, we do want to make amends and just reassure the individuals that were here with the Lone Ranger that they can come back and we would love to have them back and this is just a situation that we have taken seriously and the BLM has as well."

A publicist for the Lone Ranger movie with the Disney Company said they absolutely have not been bad-mouthing Moab or Utah as filming locations.  Michael Singer says they had a wonderful experience shooting in Utah, but declined any further comment.