Billings may not be Hollywood, but for a while earlier this month, it was the primary location of a feature film. "We Burn Like This" draws inspiration from the Magic City’s response to anti-Semitism in the 1990’s.
On set, producer Jeri Rafter calls commands to the film crew.
"Mark It. 127 take 1. Clap. Rolling, rolling. Quiet please. Set….and action."
The film crew is shooting inside Congregation Beth Aaron in Billings with Student Rabbi Erik Uriarte.
"I’m proud to live here," Uriarte says. "A city that collectively stood up as Jew and not Jew alike, and said, 'No. We will not tolerate this.'"
"We Burn Like This" is the story of a young Jewish girl, a descendant of the Holocaust, who is on a journey of identity and personal healing.
"This has been a long time coming," says writer and director Alana Waksman. "I actually first wrote this as a short story about 10 years ago. Then I made it into a short film when I was at USC down in LA."
Waksman left LA for Montana five years ago to develop this story into a feature film.
She says Billings became the setting thanks to the involvement of film producer and Billings native Marshall Granger.
"As I was getting to know Marshall Granger and spending more time here in Billings and getting to know the history here, in particular the more recent Jewish history, it suddenly dawned on me that it would be great to connect this story to the spine of the story of the Not In Our Town movement," she says.
Not In Our Town was the citizen-led response to rash of anti-Semitic and racist incidents in Billings in the 1990’s.
Billings is not usually featured when films are shot in Montana. The setting is typically western Montana. But in "We Burn Like This," the city is almost a character.
The lead, Rae, works for the Downtown Billings Association. And Billings’ iconic scenery, like the refineries and the rims, are all featured in the film.
Having a Billings-centric movie has been a goal of Granger’s.
"I always wanted to bring a feature film project to Billings. And I am so amazed as we do this the amount of support we’ve had from the community," he says.
For Alana Waksman, the Billings support has helped them to make a professional film on a very low budget.
"We’ve had houses donated where our crew is staying. We’ve had motel rooms and hotel rooms donated for some of the actors. And food donations. And a shout out to Pita Pit who gave us a large donation," she says. "That was one of Marshall’s first jobs. That’s also the equivalent of cash as well."
The film has also benefited from a grant from the Montana Film Office as well as the Montana Arts Council.
Back at the synagogue, the scene is taking several hours to shoot.
"So how it goes," explains Rafter, "there’s some calls. I say roll camera, roll sound. And then we are really quiet throughout the whole take."
Rafter, the producer, is explaining how it will play out to the dozen of extras who turned out.
"And then we say cut. Then we make some tweaks. We’ll reposition everything. And then we’ll do it again—a couple more times."
For extras like Summerlee Arnold and her mom Lynne Arnold, the repositioning and reshooting a scene can be, well, a little boring.
"What’s hard is probably the boredom," Lynne says with a little laugh. "But I’m not surprised because I’ve seen it, seen extras working before. I’ve just never been one."
The film crew has left Billings and moved on to Butte for a few days and eventually to Missoula, where the editing will take place.
Waksman’s goal is to secure some more grants and have "We Burn Like This" completed within a year. Her dream is a premiere at a film festival like at Sundance or South By Southwest.