Hollywood’s Wyoming | Films set in the Cowboy State

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When I was 19, I went to New York City for spring break with a very good friend of mine. We were two girls from Wyoming who had barely left the state and the whole trip was a whirlwind of hostels, wandering the city and loving the subway. We even had the chance to see a Broadway show. 

However, the night before we left, we stayed the night in Denver and our host had a new movie to show us. It was called “Did you Hear About The Morgans,” and starred Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as a NYC couple who witnessed a murder and were placed in the witness protection program…. In Wyoming. 

Did You Hear About the Morgans, 2009

We were blown away, considering our trip was the opposite of theirs, from Wyoming to NYC. 

The movie was actually surprisingly sweet. It had the incomparable Sam Elliot and Mary Steenberg as the couple in Wyoming that took them in. They flew into Cody, which was only 17 miles from our college, and went to a little town called Ray. It was a fictional town, but according to trivia about the movie, it was based on Meeteetse. I guess they couldn’t make the actors pronounce that, hell we wyomingites barely do it properly most of the time. 

I was particularly blown away by one scene, where the NYC folks went to dinner at the only cafe in town. There was something about the tablecloths and the pile of condiments in the middle of the table that seemed more than familiar. In fact, it was a dead ringer for my first job at Hanks Roadside Bar and Grill in Wright. The vibe was identical, and I was impressed with the movie’s research before setting the film primarily in the Cowboy State. 

That hasn’t always been the case when enjoying a Hollywood depiction of our state. Let’s explore the best and worst of Wyoming’s appearances on the big and silver screens. 


When you think about Wyoming in film, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the gay cowboy romance from Annie Proult, Brokeback Mountain. The film takes place in Wyoming during the 1970s, but the filming was actually done primarily in Canada. Despite this, you can still see Wyoming license plates from the era and accurate costumes— Even Jake Gyllenhal was praised for his Wyoming accent by linguist experts. And that’s how I found out I have an accent. 

What if you’re more of a fan of science fiction? First, for aliens, Wyoming was a huge setting for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the famous Devil’s Tower was the setting for the first contact of extraterrestrials. In a brilliant homage to Close Encounters, the more recent film Paul included the same monument, the movie being about an alien who escaped Area 51 and wants to go home. The filmmakers set part of the story in Moorcroft, Wyoming— obviously without ever visiting. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977

The film shows a flat expanse like one would find in Kansas or Nebraska, not knowing that Moorcroft is both the entrance to the Wyoming Black Hills and Keyhole state park, both of which are flush with trees. 

A real place without any trees is Hell’s Half Acre, a location in Wyoming with a crazy landscape that looks like an alien world. In fact, the location was used for filming in the science fiction film Starship Troopers. It played the part of the world of the enemy– giant bugs that hid between the large pillars of red stone. In fact, I met a friend who had been an extra in the film when it was shot in the 1990s. They used local Wyoming boys to fill out the large groups of troopers from the stars. 

Setting of Starship Troopers, 1997, Hell’s Half Acre

On the silver screen, two TV shows show the Wyoming landscape and location as their setting- First, the very popular Longmire tv show, based on the Longmire Mystery Novels by Craig Johnson. I’ve mentioned this one a few times, because Johnson used inspiration from the Big Horn region for his novel, details that made it into the show as well. Durant, Wyoming is a fictional town based on Buffalo, WY. Once a year the town becomes “Durant” with a special edition of the newspaper and other festivities for Longmire Days. 

Longmire, 2012-2017— Note the accurate WY License Plate

Next is Yellowstone, with Kevin Cosner, about a ranching family nearby the Yellowstone National Park. While the Dutton ranch is based in Montana on the show, the real shooting locations are scattered across Utah. 

This is where I’d put my little rant about how Wyoming has voted several times not to offer tax cuts and incentives for productions to film in the state. You might notice a bunch of things set in Wyoming are filmed in Canada or other western states. You might also notice how Georgia gets a disproportionate amount of filming locations. That’s all taxes, and right now it’s more expensive to film in Wyoming for a few reasons. One is the lack of tax incentives, the other is just the remoteness of the locations itself. Wyoming doesn’t have a huge infrastructure to support a huge cast and crew, or even to get all of the equipment into the right place. That might be offset if the legislature were to vote for tax cuts, but I’m not holding my breath. 

Once you get past the blockbusters set in the Cowboy State, you find the category of Western films. Wyoming has a long history with western films, starting in the golden era of the genre in the 1950s. As we covered in an earlier episode, the very first Western novel was written in and set in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. All of the future adaptations of The Virginian by Owen Wister have been set in Wyoming, with a few actually filming in the region. 

The 1958 Academy Award winning darling, Shane, was set in a battle between ranchers and outlaws on the Wyoming plains. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne made their way into the cowboy state for several of their titles, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Any Which Way You Can.” 

Shane, 1958

While the wilds of California or Arizona spent more time on the silver screen, a few big titles filmed in the state, including recent stories like The Hateful Eight and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. If you haven’t seen the latter, I highly recommend it. 

Tarantino chose the land as a setting for Django Unchained while looking for a region with enough snow. He said filming in the Equality State was wonderful. 

“It’s beautiful country. If you’re doing a Western that requires you to be in beautiful, rugged terrain, it’s a glorious place to go. It screams ‘America.’ It’s really gorgeous,” he said. “Mountains out there are magnificent. The Tetons were just perfect. We shot the heck out of them. We were able to get the horses walking through big, thick snow. It was just beautiful.” 

The Tetons, Django Unchained, 2012

Strangely, even Rocky IV had the distinction of being filmed in some remote places of the Cowboy State, standing in for the remote land of Russia.  The infamous underground film starring Mathew Lillard, SLC Punk, was filmed and set in Evanston, Wyoming, where many Salt Lake City youth would drive to get alcohol when their state was completely dry.  All of the Flicka films were set in Wyoming and so was the recent film Wind River, set on the Wind River Reservation near Riverton. 

The final film we’re going to talk about is Dances with Wolves, another Kevin Cosner film. The filming of this was so ingrained in the local region of Wyoming and South Dakota that you can even find signs on the road detailing that the location was used in the filming of the famous movie. 12 Academy Award nominations for the film from Wyoming set the location up for more success. While much of the dialogue is in Lakota, the local Lakota reservation is just a short interstate drive from the WY/SD border and much of the filming was in the Black Hills that were originally ceded to the Lakota in the 1872 Treaty of Fort Laramie. After the discovery of gold near Deadwood, that treaty meant little to the flocking prospectors and miners. 

Dances with Wolves, 1990

One of the most common things I notice when a place is set in Wyoming is their decision to choose a specific location or city and don’t do much research to make sure their set or locale is accurate. I once saw a zombie series, Z Nation, set in Cheyenne, Wyoming and it showed it as a tiny, po-dunk town in the middle of nowhere. While the latter part might be accurate, the state capitol could be considered a city with over 90,000 residents and a whole lot more during rodeo season. The same zombie show was correct in assuming all of of those residents would be packing firearms. In fact I think a bunch of locales out here think they’d survive a zombie apocalypse. 

As silly as it sounds, many other states are afforded the ability to look at films set in their state and feel that the depiction is accurate. Wyoming, due to its remoteness and lack of infrastructure, sees itself on the big screen in different and sometimes inaccurate ways. While the few films set in the beautiful country make us proud, the ones filmed here even more so. 

Also, filmmakers, please google the places you’re setting the film in so you can choose the town accordingly. Medicine Bow is a lot different than Jackson Hole. 

That’s the end of this movie review, but the future of filming in Wyoming is still up in the air, with filmmakers still calling for more tax reform for the entertainment industry. Films using Wyoming as their setting have more incentive to film in Utah and Canada than they do here, unless they require a specific look to their film. Let’s try to get those numbers up and see more of the Cowboy State on the big screen.

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