A Career Conceived as a Child’s Dream on a Bozeman Movie Set
By Pat Hill
Acclaimed filmmaker and Bozeman native Per Saari discov-ered that he wanted to produce movies when he was ten years old, after he and some friends wandered upon a movie in production during a nocturnal neighborhood ramble on the south side of Bozeman.
It was the mid-1980s, and the movie being filmed was Amazing Grace and Chuck (Tristar Pictures, 1987). Saari said he was the one that came away amazed with the experience.
“I was up late with friends and we stumbled onto a night shoot (on South Willson Ave.),” the now-35-year-old Saari told the Pioneer. “I became amazed with making movies.”
Saari said that he put himself on the set of another film by the time he was in high school. A River Runs Through It was being filmed locally, and Saari, who was hoping to get in on the production of the film somehow, managed to meet the producer of the 1992 hit, Patrick Markey (who now resides in Bozeman), and the director, Robert Redford.
“I got to see what a producer and a director did during the making of that film,” said Saari. “When I was on the set watching what was going on, I knew I wanted to be the person who brought it all together.”
Saari has carried that vision through in award-winning form. The Hollywood producer was in Bozeman on Mar. 11 for a Bozeman Film Festival screening of his production Rabbit Hole (Lionsgate Films, 2010), for which Nicole Kidman was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s been both an interesting and painful journey along the way, which is reflected in both the man and his films.
When Markey and Redford returned to Montana to produce The Horse Whisperer (Touchstone Pictures, 1998), Saari said he sent his resume to Markey. He was hired by the producer and “put in the production office.”
“I don’t think they knew what to do with me at first,” Saari said. But Saari, who’d said he’d been studying philosophy and film in Maine and New York State before being hired on by Markey, continued as production assistant on The Horse Whisperer for the next two years, honing his skills and developing new friendships. He stayed on as Redford’s assistant for two years at Wildwood Enterprises following The Horse Whisperer, where he helped develop the films Spy Game, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The Motorcycle Diaries.
In 2004, Saari partnered with Nicole Kidman at Blossom Films. Rabbit Hole, their first production, is an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s tragic play about a happy young couple whose son is killed in an accident, leading to even more loss as the mother and father choose their own means of coping and as the family begins to fray. Rabbit Hole garnered the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award before Kidman and Saari decided to bring it to the big screen, having heard director John Cameron Mitchell (who directed the screen adaptation) rave about the story.
“When I read the Rabbit Hole screenplay I dropped everything and reached out to [Kidman and Saari],” Mitchell wrote in a director’s take on the film. “They simply listened as I blabbered on about how the story knocked me out. I found it so true, so gimmick-free, so moving, so funny. And I told them not only that I wanted to direct the film but that I had to.”
Kidman did not see Rabbit Hole on Broadway in 2006, but after reading a review, she called Saari, who flew from Los Angeles to New York to see the play that very night. He set up a meeting with Lindsay-Abaire, Kidman read the play (and later saw it performed in Australia), and the film version of Rabbit Hole began to gel.
“[Linday-Abaire] gave us a great gift by explaining the many facets of loss,” Saari told the Pioneer. “I couldn’t believe how accurately he captured the experience of grief in the play. In the truth of going through those experiences, there is humor…David was able to incorporate those experiences as well.”
Loss and grief has touched Saari’s life and film endeavors outside of Hollywood. In May of 2001 Per’s brother, exteme skier Hans Saari, was killed in a skiing accident in the French Alps. Hans, a Yale graduate, was also a Bozeman resident who had gained an international repu-tation as a writer and adventure columnist. Per made a documentary film about his older brother in the wake of his death titled Why He Skied. He said that he made the film not only to try to explain the meaning of the adventure and risk his brother pursued, but as a way for him to deal with his loss. He said the film has been “a very personal journey” for him.
“I think Rabbit Hole helps people [who see the play or movie] deal with loss…Why He Skied helped me to deal with the loss of my brother,” said Saari of the documentary production, which had its international premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2006. It premiered in Saari’s hometown of Bozeman that same year, where The Hans Saari Memorial Fund, a non-profit corporation, was established to honor Saari’s memory by supporting both educational and exploratory endeavors related to life in the mountains.
“My dad identified with the mountains, too,” said Saari, who also lost his father in a cross-country skiing accident in Yellowstone Park in 2007. “I come from a people who love adventure and love challenge. We thrive in those situations. Athletically, I’m the black sheep of the family, but adventure comes out through film for me.”
It was a bit of an adventure for Saari regarding his appearance at the Bozeman Film Festival’s premiere showing of Rabbit Hole.
“It was an absolutely unexpected trip for me,” said Saari regarding the last-minute flight back to his hometown for the premiere. “I’m thrilled…this is incredibly satisfying. It’s a very special night for me. The experience of watching Rabbit Hole [at the Emerson’s Crawford Theatre] is a lot different than watching it [in LA] with 2000 Romans.” Saari said that future Blossom Films releases include Monte Carlo, featuring Selena Gomez, and The Danish Girl, which has Nicole Kidman playing the role of a transsexual.
“Nicole has such an amazing range as an actor and beyond…she’s very talented,” said Saari. “I’m glad to be working with someone who enjoys film as much as I do. I can’t imagine my life without movies. I feel very lucky to have discovered that on Willson Avenue.”