Return to the River
John Dietsch, The Man Who Taught Brad Pitt to Fly Fish for A River Runs Through It, Films Locally for the Outdoor Channel
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
John Dietsch films on the Gallatin-above the rapids where he filled in as Brad Pitt's stunt double.
Before Robert Redford transformed Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It into a motion picture (filmed in and around Livingston and Bozeman in 1991), he had several meetings with Maclean, who had resisted previous attempts to bring his story to the screen. Maclean, it was known, had no use for Hollywood, and so he tested Redford, searching for a tone in his voice that might telegraph an intention to bring authenticity to the film, if a film were to be made at all.
In Chicago, finally, the man haunted by waters accepted Redford’s plan, that he, the author, could pull the plug on the project if the first draft of the screenplay was not to his liking. But from then on, Redford would have free reign.
Already in his eighties, Maclean had lived in his youth the story Redford would depict on screen, having come of age in Montana in the ‘20s.
Robert Redford during a Montana Pioneer interview, Gallatin River,
1991. Photo by Thomas Burns
Redford wanted to cinematically capture the poetry and simplicity of that story in a way that was faithful to the author, while adapting it to film—a medium with distinct commercial parameters, not the least of which is the 120 minutes or so a film is allotted for screenings in theaters.
Maclean, though, died on August 2, 1990, in Chicago, at the age of 88, before production of the film began. Redford, with no practical knowledge of fly fishing, needed profess-ional expertise. He turned to local experts like John Bailey of Living-ston (he became Redford’s Fly Fishing Advisor), and he turned to John Dietsch, a 29-year-old fly fishing guide from Aspen with a background in film—the man who would teach Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, and Tom Skerritt how to fly cast.
In a brief period of time, Dietsch would teach the actors how to assume the physical movements of Montanan’s in the old days—those who fished first thing after learning to walk—part of Redford’s challenge of creating the cinematic illusion of an old-time Montana family that, as the first sentence of Maclean’s book reads, drew no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
“Norman had died a few months months earlier,” Redford wrote in his introduction to A River Runs Through It, Bringing a Classic to the Screen (Clark City Press), “and I’m not sure he would have ever borne the shift from privacy of pen and page to the very public business of his film…I’d like to think we saw eye to eye on much and that the end result reflects that unison.”
The challenge, resulting from the hope of attaining unison with Mac-lean’s poetic novel, was not only Robert Redford’s, it also belonged to John Dietsch.
“They called people like me Department Heads,” Dietsch told the Pioneer. “I was probably the only department head ever in the history of filmmaking to be the Department Head of Fly Fishing, because it was such an important component of the film.”
As Fly Fishing Coordinator, his actual title, Dietsch scouted locations, replicated 1920s fishing gear used by the Maclean family, performed and coordinated fly fishing stunts, hired consultants and fishing professionals, and taught actors to fly fish; but the most daunting challenge he faced was filling in for Norman Maclean, as it were, so that a major motion picture shot by a superstar like Redford might authen-tically convey the author’s vision to the entire world. That meant teaching actors how to credibly represent, in the fly fishing sense, the reality-based characters in Maclean’s book, and choreographing realistic fly fishing scenes, some of which, as it turned out, required the use of a mechanical fish.
Dietsch was originally brought into the project as a consultant to help Redford with various aspects of fly fishing depicted in the screenplay. The project, in its initial stages, had not delved into the specifics of the sport, and its impetus lacked technical accuracy. Much work and devotion to detail would be required before arriving at the final product we now know as one of America’s more notable cinematic achievements.
“It was strange for me at the age of 29,” Dietsch said, “to all of a sudden be thrust into this role…and in such an important work about fly fishing.… It was very intimi-dating.”
Dietsch was a guide in Aspen for eight years before working on River. He was also a filmmaker, working mostly in television. When he was brought into the project, he told co-producer Patrick Markey, who later settled in Livingston, where much of the film was shot, that he could teach actors how to fly cast in Los Angeles and in Montana.
“When I was teaching Brad Pitt...he wanted to know what it was like to play a fish, and in Los Angeles that’s not the easiest thing in the world to do,” Dietsch said.
With limited time before filming, he took Pitt to a park near L.A. that had a dry lakebed. “There were a bunch of kids running around, and I gave this four-year old the end of the fly line, and I had him run around with it, so that Brad could see what it was like to play a fish.”
In Montana, the action took place by the water—sometimes in the water, as depicted in the film’s pivotal sequence where Pitt’s character (Paul Maclean) rides and tumbles through rapids, holding fast to his rod and catch, a scene that inspired a father’s and brother’s love for Paul, and which made the moment all the more poignant when news arrives of his death later in the film. In real life, Dietsch’s involve-ment in that scene, filmed on the Gallatin River in 1991, added to his sense of destiny. Unbeknownst to many, he stood in for Pitt as a stunt double. It was Dietsch who rode the rapids, fly rod in hand, in an act of daring he would wear as a badge of honor the rest of his life, one that opened many doors.
“I came up with the concept regarding that scene,” he said, ‘where Brad Pitt’s character swims the river, swims the rapids, fighting the fish...Redford liked it...and they hired a Hollywood stunt man to do what I did on video.” With Pitt’s stunt double looking more like a stunt man than a fly fisherman, Dietsch was tapped for the job. That cinematic credential, recorded for the world to see on film, would take him much farther down the river of life—into a film career intertwined with the sport he loves, fly fishing.
Owing to his work in the film, and his notoriety in the “agency world,” as he calls it, Dietsch subsequently landed work doing commercials in New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and the U.S., along with PSA work in Montana. But it was that scene in A River Runs Through It that has been his calling card. “I basically parlayed that into a career,” he said. “That was the start. Now I have my own television series on the Outdoor Channel. That [scene] was really the big moment for me, when I crossed over from being behind the camera to in front of the camera.”
Dietsch said that he believed at the time, and believes to this day, that being called to work in A River Runs Through It must have been the result of “some kind of divine providence.” The film struck a chord in two formerly unrelated dimensions, fly fishing and film, and the resul-ting harmony proved for Dietsch to be a force of destiny.
“I tried over and over to do other things,” he said, “but my passion brings me back to the sport.”
Working on the film, though, meant even more to him at a deeply personal level. As River was being filmed and released, Dietsch’s life bore an eerie resemblance to that of Norman Maclean’s decades before. He, too, had lost a brother, and his name was also Paul. Then, compounding that tragedy, shortly after the release of the film Dietsch lost another brother.
“The film, in my opinion,” he said, “is not a movie about fly fishing, it’s a movie about family, and in particular it’s a movie about dealing with the one you love passing. And that’s a very spiritual thing.”
With Dietsch having lost his two brothers before and after filming, the confluence of art, reality and fly fishing propelled him toward a deeper sense of the meaning of all three areas of his life.
“I think for men in particular,” he said, “standing in a river, alone, casting, there’s something very spiritual about it. It’s like going to church, and Norman Maclean really described that in his book. It’s the place where he went to reflect on that spiritual cycle of life and death, and to ask the questions that maybe are unanswerable.”
Having worked on a number of projects in Montana (besides Redford’s iconic fly fishing film), for the National Park Service, and ESPN, Dietsch is no stranger to the state, nor to Livingston, and his knowledge gets rather specific.
“There are a bunch of fine restaurants in Livingston,” he said, as we chatted by phone while he waited for a flight into Montana from Salt Lake City (we talked again on the Gallatin, and at Stacey’s Bar in Gateway). He spoke of the Living-ston Bar and Grill in particular. “That’s where we hung out mostly when we made the film,” he said.
Such locations, Dietsch said, may find their way into his televis-ion series, Adventure Guides: Fishing Edition. “The Murray Hotel is another example of a place we’re going to feature in the project, because it’s where we stayed while filming A River Runs Through It. “Those places are icons for me. The time I spent that summer, as much as it was literally 18 hour days, sometimes 20 hours, it was such a memorable time of my life—all of those places in Livingston, the Bar and Grill, the Murray Hotel, became part of my life. I really look forward to coming back. Of all the places, that’s where I feel the most at home in Montana. It was a coming of age time for me.”
Dietsch’s visit to Montana is all about that sense of return as he films across the state (through July, just as Sony Pictures releases its Blu-Ray edition of A River Runs Through It). As both the producer and host of Adventure Guides: Fishing Edition, he returns to the rivers of Montana to retrace the steps he and Redford took making their now famous film. Since Adventure Guides profiles the lives and lifestyles of the world's most colorful fishing guides, “it was only natural to feature those who helped us craft these memorable scenes,” said Dietsch. Local fly fishing legends like John Bailey, John Foust and Paul Roos are to be profiled, with other veteran and up-and-coming guides along the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, Gallatin, Missouri, Madison and Yellowstone Rivers.
Dietsch is also filming a DVD called Return to the River, a revisit-ing of sites in Montana that have benefitted from conservation efforts since the filming of Redford’s classic. Of particular interest to Dietsch is the restoration of the Blackfoot, where Maclean’s story took place, though filming took place on the Gallatin due to the condition of the Blackfoot at the time.
Areas along the Blackfoot, Dietsch told us, were marred by clear-cuts and soil erosion that made the river unsuitable for filming, in that it did not resemble the river as it would have appeared in the 1920s. As a fishery, at the time River was filmed, to those who knew it, the Blackfoot had been heartbreakingly degraded. (Dietsch told us, though, having recently fished the Blackfoot, that the fishery has bounced back). Return to the River will revisit and examine the condition of such sites in Montana and the degree to which conservation efforts have improved environmental quality since the early 1990s.
“It almost feels like the Blackfoot is my true home,” Dietsch told us, after being on the river in late July, “and I am sure that for thousands of anglers who share my story of loss and the love of rivers, the story of the Blackfoot resonates with a timeless message. As Norman said, the words have always been there if we only take the time to listen.”
Adventure Guides: Fishing Edition airs Fridays 8:00 p.m. EST on the Outdoor Channel.
For more from John Dietsch, and a Livingston story involving Sacajawea Park, an old fly fisherman, and Robert Redford, see The Old Man’s Knot .