Way-Back Wednesday Looks at Wyoming’s History Through the Lens of Film and TV

We're about two months away from 44th anniversary of the release of a film that for many people across the globe put Wyoming 'on the map,' and on their radar: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

October 12, 20219 min read

Close encounters

Sponsored By Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor

Special thanks to Charles Lammers, Creative Assets Manager, Wyoming Office of Tourism/Wyoming Film Office 

While there is little data on film within the state from 1890-1940’s, there were quite a few films that were set within Wyoming that were either filmed in state or elsewhere during this time period.

The earliest noted film about Wyoming is “The Virginian” (1914).

Since then, there have been many films both captured in Wyoming and/or featured Wyoming as a location. 

We’re about two months away from 44th anniversary of the release of a film that for many people across the globe put Wyoming ‘on the map,’ and on their radar: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Wyoming has what would be nearly impossible to duplicate on a movie set  that being, of course, Devil’s Tower, our country’s very first National Monument.

Close Encounter of the First Kind – Sighting of a UFO

Close Encounter of the Second Kind – Physical Evidence

Close Encounter of the Third Kind – ContactWE ARE NOT ALONE!

Now for anyone who hasn’t seen the film (excuse me, where have you been the last forty-four years?) or haven’t seen it in a while, two parallel stories are told in the film starring Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr. 

Dreyfuss plays the lead as Roy Neary, an Indiana electric lineman, who finds his quiet and ordinary daily life turned upside down after a close encounter with a UFO. His obsession sends him on a cross-country quest for answers as a momentous event approaches.  Simultaneously, a group of research scientists from a variety of backgrounds are investigating the strange appearance of items in primarily desert regions with sparse populations. 

If you don’t recall the plot line you most likely will recall the music. In their ongoing investigation, one of the lead scientists, a Frenchman named Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut), incorporates the Kodály method of music education as a means of communication in their work. The response at first baffles the researchers, until American cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) deciphers the meaning of the response. 

While the scientists are working on communications, family man Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) are among some individuals in Muncie, Indiana who experience first-hand paranormal activities before flashes of bright lights in the sky, which they collectively believe to be a UFO. The obsession both for Roy and Jillian is ratcheted up a notch when they begin to have a vision of “a mound with vertical striations on its side” as the answer to what is going on. 

While the obsession negatively affects Roy’s life as he knows it, Jillian is driven to find the key to the meaning, especially as it relates to her only child, three year old Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), who may be more attuned to what is happening than the adult figures around him. 

The two stories potentially intersect if Roy and Jillian can discover where they’ve seen that unique mound before, and overcome what they believe to be a cover-up perpetrated by those in authority. 

While the film was not the runaway hit parade of success that was in store for another 1977 space-opera film written and directed by George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind won two Oscars and racked up 15 overall wins and 39 nominations

The scene most people remember is Dreyfuss sculpting mashed potatoes into the shape of Devils Tower. What many people don’t know of the dinner scene in the Neary household is that just before Roy piles on the mashed potatoes, the little girl Silvia (Adrienne Campbell) says: “There’s a dead fly in my potatoes.” This was unscripted and almost caused the rest of the cast to laugh, however the scene was kept as-is. 

While for some it doesn’t see that long ago, it’s easy to forget that in 1977 people didn’t live their lives with a cell phone ‘supercomputer’ in the palms of their hands but instead  navigated by road atlas rather than GPS, or simply asking Siri for directions. The coordinates received by the scientists (40°36’10” N, 104°44’30” W) aren’t at all close to Devils Tower. Movie fans have confirmed that following the coordinates will actually land you in a ranch paddock roughly 200 yards east of Highway 85, half way between the towns of Pierce and Ault, Colorado, or about 17 miles east of Ft. Collins. Indeed, the coordinates in the movie would send you to the wrong state and more than 275 miles due south from  Devils Tower. In the film they got the north latitude wrong by 4 degrees, it SHOULD have been 44°35’25″N. In addition the longitude is incorrect, it should be 104°42’54″W).

While Close Encounters of the Third Kind was dwarfed in comparison to Star Wars, it was still a very big deal for The Cowboy State. A notable and noble credit near the end of the credits reads as follows: “During the filming of all animal sequences, H.L. EDWARDS, Veterinarian of Gillette, Wyoming, was in attendance at all times to aid the filmmakers and the anesthetist in proper treatment of the animals used, and at no time were the animals harmed or mistreated in any way.” In reality, Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one of the best-performing films that were captured in Wyoming, and you can find more about the six best-performing here

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the film in 2017, the Wyoming Department of Tourism’s Travel Wyoming took the opportunity to commemorate with  “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: 

Why aren’t more movies and television shows filmed in Wyoming? 
No matter how critical the landscape might be to the plot, often the stories set in Wyoming aren’t filmed here — not because cheap imitations are available, but simply because Wyoming is deemed too expensive, even if the filmmakers wanted to shoot here. Charles Lammers of the Wyoming State Film Office points out a page from IMDB has a good list of films that featured Wyoming either as a filming location or storyline setting, but notes the page is not maintained by the Wyoming Film Office and is not a complete list. For example, TV series are not listed. Discovery Channel’s “Street Outlaws: Fastest in America” was filmed just outside of Casper in July of 2020 but is not included. The same is said for an episode of “Modern Family” set in Jackson Hole that was filmed in 2011. 

It’s a bitter pill when contemplating the loss of economic revenue for films and shows that depict Wyoming but are filmed elsewhere. In the 2009 film “Did You Hear About The Morgans?” the area was purported to be a small town outside of Cody, but filming actually took place over 25 days in May and June for the film starring Hugh Grant, Sara Jessica Parker and Sam Elliott in New York City (for the city scenes) and then Santa Fe and Roy, New Mexico for what was supposed to be Wyoming. Likewise the popular series “Longmire” was actually filmed in New Mexico, however The Longmire Foundation hosts Longmire Days each summer based out of Buffalo, Wyoming, even after the television series ended.
There is a revived interest in attracting to Wyoming bright lights and cameras with a  Wyoming Film Production Incentives Program with a proposed draft of incentives. 

In a summary of proceedings from the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee Meeting held in August at the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Diane Shober, Executive Director, Wyoming Office of Tourism, provided the Committee with an explanation of the working group’s proposal for creating a film incentive program while also discussing the previous program that had operated in the state. Karla Smith, Senior Program Evaluator, Legislative Services Office, summarized Legislative Fact Sheet discussing film incentive programs in Western states and Canada while John Brodie, LSO Staff Attorney, presented a legal memorandum discussing state
constitutional implications of creating a film production incentive program.
Since October is the month of chills and frights, this is a good time to make the effort to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind again, or for the very first time. While some Halloween movies are too scary and gore-filled for younger kids, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a pretty tame film and sure to become a classic film family favorite. The whole atmosphere of the UFO scenes can be quite eerie, but while there is fright and intensity it’s a film to be shared with the generations. With that said, it’ may also be a good time to plan your travels around Wyoming, and if that includes an up close and personal encounter with Devils Tower then you will know why this highly unusual formation is America’s first National Monument. 

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter