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Christmas in the Clouds

It took 10 years, but director Kate Montgomery beat the odds -- and the studios -- to make her film By Frank Moldstad

Kate Montgomery
Independent filmmakers should look to Kate Montgomery for inspiration. The writer and director of Christmas in the Clouds, Montgomery persevered for 10 years to get her movie made. In the process, she wrested the Native American-themed script back from a studio that had optioned it and secured financing from ?two dot coms and a tribe.

The tribe was the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans in Wisconsin, which eventually became the films executive producer after Montgomery forwarded a copy of the script in 1995. ?When Kate first sent me the script, I read it and said, ?Oh my goodness, this has to get made, and thats why I was such an advocate for it, says Sheila Tousey, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans, who ended up acting in the film as well as sharing co-producer credits.

Everyone who read the script seemed to have the same reaction. "I read the script and knew right away that this was a film I had to produce," says producer Mitchell Stein. Montgomery approached Stein in 1997 after seeing his independently produced film Dream with the Fishes and asked if he would consider doing the same for Christmas in the Clouds. It took two years, but he successfully raised the financing necessary for Christmas in the Clouds to begin production.

Set in an Indian-owned ski resort hotel, Christmas in the Clouds is a romantic comedy with a mistaken identity twist. The uplifting story and strong ensemble cast have won raves during the films 18-month festival tour that began with its premiere as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Limited national theatrical distribution of the film begins in November, supported by an innovative grass roots marketing campaign.

But things could have turned out quite differently if the film had stayed with the studio. ?They were trying to set it up to be more like Porkys on an Indian reservation, says Montgomery. ?I must admit, I wasnt really going along with that flow too well.  I was making my voice heard. And I managed to get it back, she recalled during a recent press junket with some of the cast in Los Angeles.

What happened was that the studio failed to meet the deadline for re-upping its option, and Montgomery seized the opportunity to get her script back even though the studio was belatedly offering ?serious money. And then she started looking for money independently, determined to keep her original vision for the film intact.

Hotel staff offer their car keys to the general manager (Tim Vahle) so he can chase after his love interest (Mariana Tosca). From left are Sam Vlahos, Sheila Tousey, Jonathan Joss and Graham Greene.
That vision included retaining the Native American angle of the film, preventing it from being overshadowed by the star power envisioned by the studio as carrying the movie. ?Studio executives believe that there are no Native American stars that can help open a movie. So you have these movies like one coming out with Colin Farrell [The New World] starring as the anchor, or Kevin Costner or Daniel Day Lewis, and its very hard to get a movie set up when it doesnt have at least one big name in it.

Instead, Montgomery sought out some up-and-coming Native American actors, mixing in a couple of well-known Hollywood character actors and a few new talents, to get the cast she wanted. ?We did not seek to put a name into any role that would overpower the Native cast if the film was successful, Montgomery says. ?Because what happens then is they say, ?Oh, well, that was just because you had Meg Ryan playing Mariana Toscas role. Theres a tendency to be star-driven in terms of packaging, and a movies success is usually attributed to an actor whos attached to it. So we wanted to avoid that.

Graham Greene as Earl the vegetarian chef.
Among the cast members is veteran actor Graham Greene (The Green Mile, Die Hard 3, Dances with Wolves), a full-blooded Oneida, doing a hilarious turn as a chef with vegetarian leanings trying to dissuade guests from eating meat. Leading man Tim Vahle, whose background is Choctaw and Cherokee, plays Ray Clouds on Fire, the Ivy League-educated son of the tribal chief whos come home to be the hotel manager. Mohican Sheila Tousey portrays Mary, a romance-novel addict running the hotels front desk. The bumbling handyman Phil is played by Apache Jonathan Joss, whose other credits include being the voice of John Redcorn on TVs "King of the Hill."

Rounding out the cast are veteran character actors such as M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, The Milagro Beanfield War) as travel guidebook critic Stu OMalley, Sam Vlahos (Lone Star, American History X, The Milagro Beanfield War) as retired chief Joe Clouds on Fire, and Rosalind Ayers (Gods and Monsters, Titanic, Jackie Chans First Strike) as hotel guest Mabel Winright. Actress Mariana Tosca plays Tina Pisati Little Hawk, the cause of all the romantic confusion. 

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Related Keywords:Christmas in the Clouds, Independent filmmakers, director, Kate Montgomery, Stockbridge-Munsee, Mohicans

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