High River and Okotoks are burgeoning film hubs

Even for those who don’t watch CBC’s family-drama series Heartland – now in its 11th season – the town of High River has become synonymous with the show.

“Heartland has become a part of the community,” said Irene Kerr, the curator and director of High River’s Museum of the Highwood. High River poses as the town of Hudson on Heartland. One of the show’s most well-known locales, Maggie’s Diner, is a building right along High River’s Main Street.

“We noticed a shift around 2015, when people who were visiting High River stopped asking about the 2013 flood and wanted to see where they were filming Heartland,” said Kerr.

The interest from tourists has been so noticeable, in fact, that the Museum of the Highwood has put together an exhibit dedicated to Heartland, as well as one called On Location: Film in the Foothills.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important filming has been to this area,” said Kerr, adding that the history of filmmaking in the foothills goes back nearly a century to the days of Guy Weadick, an American rodeo performer and founder of the Calgary Stampede. The attention Weadick brought to the area resulted in some very early Western films being shot there, including a couple by famed rodeo star and cowboy actor Hoot Gibson.

Among some of the other films shot in High River are Silver Streak (1976) with Gene Wilder, Superman III (1983) with Christopher Reeve and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Television series like Caitlyn’s Way and Fargo have also used High River as a filming location.

“There’s always something going on here, and over the last few years it has really picked up,” said Kerr. “I believe the scenery is the biggest draw to the area, because there’s such a variety from foothills to prairies to badlands.”

Kerr says the exhibit has proven to be quite the attraction, noting 3,225 visitors have passed through the Heartland exhibit alone, including people from more than 49 countries.

“Heartland has been quite the show and quite the phenomenon,” said Kerr, adding that, when tourists come to High River to see Maggie’s Diner, they also tend to “fan out” into the community, spending money at other local businesses and restaurants.

Jodi Dawson, High River’s manager of economic development, estimates that $2-3 million have come to High River because of film and television shoots.

“We do not proactively attract film,” said Dawson. “We do, however, provide exceptional service to film location scouts, and we’ve designed an efficient process to ensure that we are easy to deal with and that keeps us high on the list.”

Right now, the crime-drama series Tin Star, featuring Tim Roth, is also filming in High River. In fact, Maggie’s Diner doubles as Tin Star’s Little Big Bear Gift Shop, and the exterior of the museum serves as the exterior of the Little Big Bear Police Station.

“It adds excitement and interest to the community” said Kerr.

Nearby, Town of Okotoks economic development specialist Alexandra Ross describes Okotoks as a “one-stop shop” for filming.

“Okotoks offers everything, including a quaint downtown that is a highlight for the film industry,” said Ross, adding that other local film locations include wetlands, a valley, beautiful country homes, industrial areas, an airport, farmland, and even an old train station.
Adding to the variety of locations is the town’s proximity to Calgary and its services for the film industry. These are the reasons Ross speculates film and television shoots have looked to Okotoks in recent years.

In the early 2000s, the films Viva Las Nowhere, Word of Honor and Moondance Alexander were filmed in Okotoks. In 2013, parts of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar – starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway – were shot in the town. Last year, local film Ice Blue and made-for-television movie Global Meltdown also used Okotoks as a shooting location.

Ross says while Okotoks currently is not advertising itself as a filming location, inquiries from location scouts have “seemed to increase over the past couple of years,” and Okotoks is looking to actively pursue more film and television opportunities in the future.

While Okotoks doesn’t currently track the economic impact of filming in the area, “There’s no doubt that a film crew and cast will explore the community in which they are working and will undoubtedly leave some dollars,” said Ross.

“It’s a great tourism tool as well, as visitors can be eager to go where a film has been shot.”

Ross also credits the annual Okotoks Film Festival for helping to create a film-friendly community.

“We’re lucky to have a film fest in Okotoks – as well as a separate one for youth – as it provides an opportunity for filmmakers to network. It brings those people into an area and festivals can help promote an area as a film destination,” said Ross.

“It’s great that Okotoks has become more of a film destination, and we would like more of it in the future.”