Sometimes Taylor Sheridan likes to get away from it all and go to a vacation home in Wyoming.
“You drive through these oilfields up there, it’s branded in your head pretty quick — it’s such a violation of the landscape,” said Sheridan, who wrote the screenplays for two acclaimed crime dramas, “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” — the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.
The bleak landscapes of Wyoming inspired his third screenplay, and the first that he has directed, “Wind River,” which opens in Utah theaters Friday.
“In my mind, when I’m writing it, I’m writing about very specific mountains in the Wind River range. As a director, to shoot in those mountains would be next to impossible,” Sheridan said. “It becomes about finding locations that served the same creative purpose, and represent that world accurately, but were moderately feasible to access.”
Utah filled the bill nicely.
“It’s a similar chain of mountains. There are a lot of places that double, lookwise,” Sheridan said, singling out Snow Summit and Weber Canyon as two locations his crew used. The movie also shot around the Park City area and employed the Park City Film Studios near Interstate 15 for interior shots.
A sense of place permeates Sheridan’s scripts — whether it’s the Mexican desert where the drug lords hide in “Sicario” or the Texas small towns where the bank robbers commit their crimes in “Hell or High Water” or the Indian reservation where a murder has been committed in “Wind River.”
“I spent a lot of time on the Rez, and I was aware of any number of stories that were not dissimilar to this one,” Sheridan said. “Tragically, a plethora of research data is out there.”
It’s the death of a young Indian woman, found barefoot and in pajamas in the snow, miles from home, that sets “Wind River” into motion. A rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), comes to the reservation to investigate. Recognizing she’s out of her element, she enlists Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife tracker and hunter who found the woman’s body, to help her understand this wild territory. (By the way, Sheridan paired Renner and Olsen without knowing they had worked together as Marvel Cinematic Universe characters Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Captain America: Civil War.”)
Sheridan considers his three screenplays a trilogy, thematically if not a continuation of the same story and characters.
The trilogy, he said, is “about exploring this modern American frontier, and the consequences of its settlement, and how much it has and hasn’t changed. Likewise, it’s exploring failure and grief, and in particular the failure of fathers, or a perceived failure.”
“Wind River” is just one of three independent movies filmed in Utah recently that, thanks to a coincidence of scheduling, are in area theaters this week. Also opening Friday is “Brigsby Bear,” the comedy directed by Dave McNary about an innocent young man (played by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kyle Mooney, who co-wrote the script) whose life is upended, and he seeks solace in the TV character he grew up with as a child. Earlier this month, the family-friendly comedy “We Love You, Sally Carmichael!,” about an author (Christopher Gorham, who also directed) coming to terms with the popular book series he created anonymously, opened along the Wasatch Front.
Film production often lands in Utah, thanks to a variety of factors: unique locations, a variety of locations close to each other, professional crews, a strong tax-incentive program and the fact that Salt Lake City is a 90-minute flight from Hollywood.
Sheridan seems to be hooked. He’s now producing a TV series for the new Paramount Channel (debuting in 2018) called “Yellowstone,” with a cast led by Kevin Costner — and he’s shooting it at the Park City Movie Studios and elsewhere in Utah.
For Sheridan, a filmmaker for whom place is a key element, Utah is a good place to make movies.
“The way I see the world as a storyteller is to try and always find a way make that landscape feel very present,” he said. Even in close-ups, he said, “I still want that world looming behind those characters.”