FOR FILMMAKER KRIS MILLGATE, IT’S ALL ABOUT WILD PLACES, WILD ANIMALS, AND WILD PEOPLE
The further away you live from the Rocky Mountains and the Green River, the less likely you are to know anything about this controversy.
If you’re on the East Coast or in the Midwest or the Deep South, the Million Pipeline proposal will probably sound like just another obscure clash over water out in the desert. To those who live closer to the Green, it’s an elemental struggle. On one side there are big developers and big money. On the other, a passionate band of river guides, fly anglers, and conservationists. To them it’s a war over the fate of one of the most fabulous tailwaters in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
No matter what your viewpoint, Denver real estate giant Aaron Million’s plan to annually pipe 80 billion gallons of Green River water over the Great Divide and into toilet tanks and Rainbirds along Colorado’s Front Range is a complex matter. It’s a tangled narrative of water rights, big money, and federal courts that’s been around for at least five years.
In 2011, outdoor journalist Kris Millgate was put in charge of putting it down on film.
The resulting documentary, “Green With Envy,” is part of the fight against the pipeline, a fight led by Trout Unlimited. The film doesn’t have time to explain every technicality and logistical vagary, but it packs an emotional wallop, and that’s why it surprised me to learn that it was one of Kris Millgate’s first big film projects. How Small A Trout caught up with her in an e-mail interview during a short break she had between projects.
How Small A Trout: You mentioned you just returned from Colorado. What’s going on there?
Kris Millgate: I just started production on a new Trout Unlimited film about renewable energy corporations contributing funds to the conservation pot. I was shooting on the Arkansas River in Colorado and it was only running at 300 cfs. Lots of bruises on my knees and backside, but I pulled off some decent shots.
HSAT: What else are you up to?
Millgate: Working on a new show called “Palisades by Season,” which airs on IPTV-PBS in May. It covers all four seasons in Idaho’s Palisades area, so it took a year to produce. We had about 400 attendees at a sneak peak for it in Idaho Falls last week. I’m working on another seasonal film—a look at the importance of Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area in eastern Idaho. Shooting starts this week with sharp tail grouse dancing at sunrise. Fishing will be the highlight of summer, hunting come fall, and prime winter range for thousands of elk when it snows.
You have weekly gigs to see to as well, right?
I have an outdoor segment on NBC and Fox affiliates on Wednesday nights, and I just finished segments about bighorn sheep and sage grouse for that. I also talk about the outdoors on radio stations on Wednesday mornings and write for newspapers and magazines.
Sounds like Tight Line Media is super busy. How did TLM get its start?
I started TLM in 2006 between having two baby boys and launching a weekly TV show. I’m not good at standing still. Before 2006 I was owned by various TV stations around the country for 10 years, but I saw the multi-media wave rolling in and I knew I could explode as a freelancer regardless of the risk. That’s when I opened TLM. Now I own me and my content. I turn content for every media outlet possible instead of just TV.
What makes Idaho Falls, Idaho, the right place for what you do?
I’m based in Idaho Falls because it’s the epicenter of outdoor shooting opportunities, from fluff to fierce, with a range of hot-button issues from wolves to water. Plus some of the best fishing in the world is out my back door.
In one of your e-mail messages you told me you were ready for a break “from all the antics that go along with working in a man’s world.” Care to elaborate?
I’m not a girlie girl. I’m an outdoor journalist and working in nature lends itself to the manly side of life—beer and bad jokes included. I interview men. I take pictures of men. I travel with men. I fish with men. If I want to capture real people in their element, I have to put up with the antics of men. I am more than ready to come home to a bubble bath after a week in waders with a bunch of men who have worse aim than my little boys. Beyond that, what happens on the river stays on the river.
Do these antics show up in your work?
If I catch it on camera, it’s best as blooper material.
How did you get involved with “Green With Envy?”
I’d worked with the Trout Unlimited Idaho Falls office as a source for various news stories, but I wanted in on the non-news side of their video production. Making that want known seemed like the way to start, so one day I boldly stated that I wanted a shot at the next big production TU had on the table.
Chris Hunt, TU National Director of Communication, remembered that bold statement and he let me bid on a video about the Green River. He told me it had to be done with no narration and lots of fish porn—then he let me have at it. I knew I had to wow them. “Green With Envy” was my test run.
A lot was at stake with this project—how did that affect you?
I was nervous for months. Here’s the tricky part: the big, flashy world of long-format film is new to me—as in 2011-new. But I’ve been looking at life through a lens for 16 years, so I produced a film that blew their old films out of the water. And I did it for half of what they had been paying.
How did you manage that?
I don’t need the showiness of traveling with a big staff. You hire TLM, you get me. You ask me to work hard and I will work harder and then some.
The film runs just shy of 20 minutes. How long did it take you to make it?
There were several brainstorming sessions with TU before production started. I made my first official trip to the Green River to shoot in April 2011. Five trips and five months later, I had everything in the can. The first cut was ready in October. I put the final to bed in early December.
There are some stirring moments in “Green With Envy,” and the two other films you made for Trout Unlimited (“Sanctuary” and “Delores Discovered”) are likewise chock-full of feeling. How do you go about moving an audience?
With real people and real places. Films aren’t moving if they’re not real. People who show a little unease around me and my camera are usually the best at real expression, especially when I ask them about something they are passionate about. Real emotion is not scripted and that is what makes it so powerful. It is risky, though. I am at the mercy of the warm body wearing my microphone. I’m also at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she loves to keep me on edge.
Talk about some of the challenges you faced while making “Green With Envy.”
It was a high-water year, so shooting fish porn was tough. To add to the challenge, I don’t stage shots and I don’t like to keep fish in holding just for a shot. So, it took a few trips and countless hours on the river. Fourteen-hour days are common on this kind of shoot because every hour of light is needed, and the best light is first and last.
Shooting this film caused one angler to totally lose it. He threw a temper tantrum in the middle of the river with my lens in his face. I’m there to do a job—he’s there to fish. He couldn’t set the hook with me filming—I couldn’t film if he couldn’t fish.
So, what happened?
He dropped a bunch of f-bombs and I dropped him as a voice in the film.
Dropping your underwater camera into the Green River couldn’t have been very fun.
I was really beside myself. It was that awkward moment for a girl among men—choosing between puking and crying or maybe both. I knew I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to retrieve the camera with all my underwater footage on it. Charlie got it on the first dive. [Charlie Card, a Green River guide and Trout Unlimited Utah Backcountry Coordinator, is featured in the film.] He is forever my hero. I still shoot with that camera, but now it’s always hooked to a lanyard.
Please tell me you and Charlie disagreed or were grumpy with each other at some point. No one can be as easygoing as you two seem to be.
Charlie and I never disagreed outright. We found middle ground. Charlie is a river guide at heart. You can’t guide for long without an easygoing side, and you can’t pull off what I do without an easygoing side. I put up with a lot to get what I need on a shoot. I have to roll with whatever wild people, wild places and wild animals dish out. I only get to flip out my obsessive controlling freak when a shoot is at risk of failing.
Walt Gasson, who plays a major role in “Green With Envy,” seems like a filmmaker’s dream—telegenic, passionate, and a good source of one-liners. What’s he like off-camera?
Walt is real. Even when he waxes on poetically. Who you see on-camera is who he is off-camera. He is a strong character in any element. Get him talking about something he is so attached to, like the Green, and he blows the roof off. He is definitely much more than a warm body put on-screen for show.
Did you speak with Aaron Million during this process?
The journalist in me went after Million and his proposed pipeline right out of the gate. I thought we needed to hear from him. I tried to reach him directly and through his attorneys. No reply. I even bugged everyone I knew in Colorado and Wyoming just in case anyone knew him. Didn’t work, but the issue moved along without him. I realized there are plenty of other Millions out there in the water wars of the West, and the issue needs a harder look with or without Million himself.
Kris Millgate, I’m grateful to you for sharing your time with How Small A Trout. I also appreciate what you’ve done for Trout Unlimited and the Million Pipeline issue. Whether the pipeline gets built remains to be seen, but I feel certain your film will always be remembered as an important milestone. Do you think the film will make a difference?
It certainly puts a face and a place on the issue. Informing people is just the beginning of making a difference. Viewers will invest time, emotion, and action, if necessary, if they are attached to the message delivered. Real people and real places create that attachment. Even if this film preaches to the choir, the choir is getting louder. That’s a change in and of itself.
This article is one in a series of interviews with filmmakers who bring the subject of fly fishing to the big screen. Read our interview with award-winning film director Ronnie B. Goodwin here, and watch our blog for more interviews. Photos in this article are (c) and courtesy of Tight Line Media, Kris Millgate, Ken Sullins, and Chadd VanZanten.
Full disclosure! The author is a member of Trout Unlimited and personally opposed to the Million Pipeline.