The natural sets of Colorado that made movie magic

by Jessie O’Brien

Driving through the awe-inspiring mountainsides of Durango and the old-timey towns nearby, it often feels like moving through a movie set. It’s no wonder the Southwest has been selected as the backdrop for some of Hollywood’s greatest Westerns, strange sci-fi films, and action adventures. Take a look behind the scenes of a few classic films where stunning Colorado locations made movie magic.

“The Hateful Eight” 2015, TellurideThe cold country of Telluride was fitting for violent neo-noir director Quentin Tarantino’s snowy flick, “The Hateful Eight,” which almost wasn’t made. The script was leaked, and an angry Tarantino vowed to scrap it. It took some convincing from Samuel L. Jackson to persuade Tarantino to bring the gross, bloody, REAL film – shot on the dead 70mm Ultra Panavision format – to life.

The storyline takes place in post-Civil War Wyoming. A bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) with his prisoner seeks shelter from the blizzard raging outside the wooden door of Minnie’s Haberdashery. The patrons of Minnie’s may be safe from the cold, but they aren’t safe from the nefarious, deadly characters inside.

Telluride has snow on the ground seven months out of the year, creating the freezing, bright-white landscape necessary for the film’s outdoor scenes. The 900-acre Schmid Family Ranch was where the “Hateful Eight” crew of nearly 200 set up shop.

Sid Schmid owns the ranch with his brother and sister. It has been in their family since it was homesteaded in 1882, around the same time the movie takes place.

“We’re country folk up here. You get 150 people around that don’t know about the country, it’s a learning experience,” Schmid said. “People were not used to driving on snowy roads and things we deal with every day in the country. It was fun, (but) Hollywood is a lot different than Wilson Mesa, Colorado.”

The ranch was still functioning during the eight months the crew was there. Some of the lands that were disturbed by filming are still being repaired today. Schmid, who hasn’t seen the movie yet, said the picturesque ranch’s dramatic view of Wilson Peak has been used in many commercials, including Toyota, Budweiser, Marlboro, and others. The famous peak is on the Coors can, too. Apparently, there’s just something about beauty that makes you want to drink, smoke, and kill.

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“The Prestige” 2006, Silverton, Durango, Telluride A Western filmed in Colorado – how original? But it makes sense. The landscapes fit the bill for cowboys, Indians, shootouts, and spurs. That is why the Christopher Nolan sci-fi thriller, “The Prestige,” sticks out among the rest.

The bewildering mystery is about two rival magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), in 1890s London. After splitting ways, the two try to sabotage each other’s acts. Angier is obsessed with uncovering Borden’s show-stopping trick, the Transported Man, and tries to recreate it. (We imagine this is how Criss Angel and David Blaine’s relationship is.) The twist ends up being surprisingly far out, but satisfying. So, how are the San Juan Mountains fit for a film set in Edwardian Europe? In the movie, Angier comes across Borden’s diary with clues to his meticulous and scientific tricks, which leads him to America in search of Nikola Tesla. In real life, Tesla built a laboratory in 1899 in Colorado Springs to test wireless power transmission.

In the movie, however, the Tesla scenes are not shot in Colorado Springs, but Durango, Silverton, and Telluride. Nolan and location scouts took advantage of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for train scenes.

The D&SNGR Museum Curator Jeff Ellingson said “The Prestige” is a minor film compared to some of the others that have utilized the railroad, such as “Around the World in 80 Days,” one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles in “A Ticket to Tomahawk,” and “Night Passage,” among others. Ellingson said it was films like these that brought tourism to Durango.

“People started watching these movies from all over the United States, and then they would find out where (they were filmed). They’d jump in their car and ride the train themselves,” he said.

“Cliffhanger” 1993, DurangoIn the ’90s, you could find Sylvester Stallone trapped in a tunnel, caught in a crossfire, yelling inaudible lines like “I am the law!”, and doing everything every 12-year-old boy aspired to be doing, including dangling hundreds of feet in the air on the side of a mountain in “Cliffhanger.” The muscle-packed movie has so much action you will need to break a board in half with your head in order to calm down after watching it. The plot follows a mountain climber who gets mixed up in a failed plane heist, and a U.S. Treasury aircraft that ends up crashing in the Rocky Mountains.

While the story takes place in Colorado, the majority of the mountain scenes were shot near the Northern Italy ski resort Cortina D’Ampezzo in the Alps, and in Rome, according to a 1993 Variety article. Only some scenes were shot in the San Juan Mountains and Durango.

“City Slickers” 1991, Durango, Abiquiu, NMThe quintessential ’90s comedy “City Slickers,” starring Billy Crystal, follows a jaded city boy on his quest to find some passion in his life again by going on an old-fashioned cattle drive with his friends. A 2016 Land.com listing revealed that the 230-acre Destination Ranch, where part of the film was shot, went on the market for $2.6 million. The expansive ranch, which is no longer on the market, is located just a few miles west of town.

Part of the movie was also filmed on the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, about a 2 hour and 45-minute drive from Durango. Ghost Ranch has been used for many other movies, including “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Missing,” and “Comanche Moon.” A prop log house from “City Slickers” is still on the property, where the distinct Cerro Pedernal flat-top mountain can be seen in the background. This is the same mountain that famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted multiple times, and where her ashes were spread after her death in 1986.

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“True Grit,” 1969, Ouray, Ridgway, MontroseThe spurs-and-horses Western feel of Ouray County (Ouray, Ridgway, Loghill Village) is palpable today, with buildings that belong in sepia, and beautiful rugged mountain landscapes. This might be why this location was chosen as the backdrop for the famous flick “True Grit,” starring John Wayne, who won his only Academy Award for the role of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The classic film, which was remade in 2010, is about a young woman who convinces Cogburn to track down her father’s killer, but not without a band of hard men and snakes standing in the way.

The film was made almost 50 years ago, but many reminders of “True Grit” can be found around Ridgway today. According to the Ridgeway Chamber of Commerce website, the jail paddywagon used in the film sits out front of the Ouray County Ranch History Museum. True Grit Cafe, which opened in 1985, pays homage to the film with John Wayne memorabilia. There is even a “Chambers Groceries” sign from the movie that covers one of the restaurant walls. Many of the Ridgeway business locations are still around, such as the funeral parlor and Chen Lee’s Chinese grocery store, which is still on Clinton Street. The Ross Ranch is still around on Last Dollar Road, just outside of Ouray. There are distinct environmental markers in the film, too, such as Chimney Peak and Deb’s Meadow near Owl Creek Pass in Montrose, where the final shootout takes place.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” 1969, Durango, SilvertonThe four-time Academy Award-winning Western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” also made use of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The film stars outlaw companions and megastars Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy) and Robert Redford (The Sundance Kid) as they cheat their way out of knife fights, while robbing banks and blowing up train cars.

Ellingson said the railroad was used for three train scenes. The car used in the first successful robbery is on display in the D&SNGR Museum today. The second robbery scene used a car that was taller. The crew backed a truck up to the backside of the train car to make it look like Pinkerton agents were on their horses hiding inside. When the train car door opened, the chase ensued. The third is when Butch blows up a train car by using explosives to try and open a safe. In the late ’60s, railroad tracks still ran to Shaman, New Mexico. The scene was shot near Oxford.

Ellingson said the explosion was the real deal. “Back in those days, they used real life stuff,” he said. “They used real dynamite.”

That meant the crew had one time to get it right, making Redford’s unscripted line, “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” even more noteworthy and hilarious.

There were other shots captured in Durango, too. In a famous chase scene, Butch and Sundance are being pursued by a posse of lawmen. Their only option to escape was jumping off a cliff into a raging river. That took place at Baker’s Bridge, off Highway 550. Even though Newman performed his own bicycle stunts, and Redford wanted to run along the tops of the train car (it’s documented that Newman was upset about this, and said, “I don’t want any heroics around here. I don’t want to lose a costar.”), the rugged duo didn’t really jump in the Animas. According to a 2009 Durango Herald article, there wasn’t enough water in the river at the time. Stunt doubles jumped off the bridge into a safety net below. The big splash was filmed in a water tank in California. Newman and Redford didn’t take the leap off Baker’s Bridge, but the jump is a rite of passage among Durango youth, proving they’re just as tough as any outlaw.

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