Last One There Granger and Kemmick launch a film project centered on childhood recollections

Billings, Montana isn’t known for its pretty face. The city sways in a cradle of what was once the shore of a vast inland sea, yet a skyline of refinery pipes and spewing factory smokestacks steal the show.

These unassuming sandstone cliffs, compressed as the sea retreated, form the valley that holds Billings—described by explorers as expansively beautiful, and in the right light, at the top of the cliffs, it’s easy to imagine such an untamed landscape.

Billings’ street view isn’t as striking. Sharp, characterless buildings camp on the historic backbone of the downtown’s first structures, leveled to make way for the 1980s. There’s a gritty rhythm to the city, and it’s easy to be distracted by the soundtrack of passing trains and hollering transients, the swish of moderately priced suits and the sway of pencil skirts among ripped, greasy Carhartts and pastel medical scrubs. Sprawl further west and box stores merge into Roundabout Hell, where pavement seas on The Land Formerly Known as Farmland link one-story stand-alone structures.

JP Kemmick spent most of his remembered life surrounded by the Billings sandstone, moving to Montana at a young age with his mother. During JP’s teenage years, the town’s expansion was slow. Culturally, the city was quiet. Venture Theater was still a tiny operation in a garage. There was one brewery—Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., but it wasn’t a thriving operation. Live music was sparse. The Babcock Theatre was shuttered.

“We roamed the streets until we found some basement stairs and hung out there,” said JP of growing up in Billings. “We hung out at Hastings for hours, until we bought some terrible $1 album and drove around listening to that. We got bored, and then we made some fun. That’s what Billings was for me.”

Along the same timeline, Marshall Granger was also milling about in Billings.

“Whatever drives 15-year-olds to hang out in a parking lot, or to drive up and down 24th Street at midnight, like it’s ever going to be a different experience…” Marshall recalled, trailing off as though his 15-year-old self suddenly surfaced, gawking at the space that Billings presented, a landscape of warehouses and flat, yellowing prairies where expansion seemed inevitable.

Independent of one another, JP and Marshall felt displaced, not interested in the party circuit. Both began filming their friends.

“We were just having fun, being creative individuals,” JP said. “Growing up in a place where there’s not that much to do, you have to be resourceful, and for us, that was creating stories constantly.”

Filmmaking interested Marshall in middle school, and he began taping his friends “being dumb.” At the same time, his older brother was studying film theory, and through these experiences Marshall began to understand cinema’s essence.

By melding those two sensibilities—the world of film appreciation and the different ways of approaching film—Marshall began to see how he could create in that field. It felt so open to him, a space that allowed experimentation and vignettes outside the Hollywood lens.

JP considers himself lucky, as he knew he wanted to be a writer from a young age. From his recalled experiences, JP has crafted many stories of growing up in Billings.

“Whenever I write a realist piece, it has a couple of teenage boys getting into a distinct kind of trouble that is unique to growing up in a smaller place,” JP said.

Though JP made plenty of movies in high school and a couple short films in college, he found the process incredibly difficult and frustrating.

“I discovered early on that it wasn’t really for me, but I continued to write stories and be madly in love with movies,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to connect the things I’m writing to film without having to do the work myself, which is where Marshall comes in.”

For Marshall, the stories he gravitates toward are the ones where nothing much seems to happen, but the underlying dynamics create a tension and dialogue that can spring deeper connections and conversation.

While both attending school in Missoula, JP and Marshall connected over a short story written by JP, which struck common chords in Marshall from his background in Billings.

The story follows two high school boys disconnected from their families and their struggles navigating life in this removed way against a backdrop of the open, empty spaces of Billings. The narrative is rancid with teenage time sucks: Taco Bell for dinner, Slug Bug punches, trailers wallpapered with pornography, and the darker side of youth, of picking on fat folks, and deadbeat dads, and mothers who drink away the day. Of a stolen handgun and the inevitable dramatic twist that such a possession creates in short narratives of teenage angst.

From the young protagonists we’re given a glimpse into trailer windows and the lives that play out behind the curtain: the mother peering out just once to shout unheeded advice to her child, her sleepy eyes holding yesterday’s mistakes; the early afternoon smell of alcohol on a father’s breath, the grasp of his hand too tight on his child’s shoulder; the desperation and displacement in a half-packed suitcase and the knowledge that you’ve got nowhere to go.

Marshall latched onto the visual potential in JP’s characters, these aimless high school kids trying to figure out questions bigger than they were capable of digesting at that age. The setting, these drifting spaces where people live on the edge of poverty, was a ringer for some of the scenery Marshall experienced while knocking around Billings as a teen.

“When I first read the story, there was a lot of meat that I didn’t process, such as the family dynamics,” Marshall said. “What I did see were visuals of the Billings area and the scenarios that these kids are in—they are photographs of growing up in Billings and having nothing to do as a kid and just wandering around. Those images were frozen for me. It became clear that (the film) should be done.”

Marshall is currently working on preproduction of the piece, titled Last One There. Filming of Last One There will take place in Billings and surrounding areas this summer, and Marshall hopes to release the film in the early part of 2016.

JP describes the story as “99 percent fictional, and by that I mean 10 percent fictional, like all things.”

Early drafts didn’t explicitly state that the setting was Billings, JP explained, “but I always had some version of Billings in my head. I like to use more of an imagined landscape, because I don’t like being bogged down in being accurate about a real place, but it was so very Billings to me.”

To Marshall, Billings has been a place of transition, even when it felt stagnant. “I saw it as a proper city when I talked to kids from rural towns, and it felt like an empty mess when I would visit my brother in Missoula,” he said. “But what I have come to see in Billings is a perfect synthesis of the sides of Montana I know. I met all my best friends doing community theater with a loving tight-knit group of kids and adults working together constantly, and then spent my teenage years with those same kids wasting time in empty parking lots and trespassing box stores after hours. There’s a lot of emptiness in Billings, but there’s also a ton of vibrant life.”

To fund the project, during the Christmas holiday Marshall and several friends and Billings musicians (many home for Christmas) turned the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s stage into a transient living room that glowed with mismatched lamps and was covered in treasured furnishings and trinkets collected from homes of the participants. Five dollars were collected at the door to “lend a helping hand” to the production of Last One There, and $1,500—half of Marshall’s projected budget—was raised.

The jam, a roving collection of Billings musicians, included the Kemmick family, Dan Page, Hannah Habermann, Jenni Long, and Marshall (who, in addition to his filmmaking skills, can sling a guitar and sing) taking the stage with friends and fellow musicians with Adam Roebling & Skylar Jessen. It was worth more than the price of admission. Musicians rolled though tunes so comfortable that the living room concept became real.

Marshall’s a bit hesitant when it comes to “crowdfunding” the rest of the money needed for the project (the latest Internet way to raise money). He’d rather trade goods, barter, or provide a service in exchange for funds raised.

“Over the past year, a lot of my projects have been very Montana-centric,” Marshall said. “I want to keep exploring that, and there’s plenty of room for people to be contributing to that here and plenty of resources to take advantage of.”

Though currently living in Missoula (he will finish his degree in spring), Marshall’s relationship with Billings continues. “I’ve gone from ‘How do I get out of this place?!’ to ‘How come no one has done this?!’ There’s a lot of untapped space here.”

For JP, who is currently finishing his master’s work in Missoula, his Montana run isn’t finished either.

“You learn to love a place after you leave it,” JP said. “It’s a big state, and I still know very little about it. I’ll keep coming back.”

Marshall isn’t quite sure what direction he’ll go after finishing school. “I feel it’s necessary to head out for a while,” he said. “I’ve never not lived in Montana.”

Yet, after spending the first 20 years of life here, Marshall views Billings as his first act. “It’s weird to think of having that and not coming back.”

For more information, or to contribute to Last One There (financially, spatially, actorly, etc.) email marshallgranger@gmail.com.

A Retrospective of Music Culture in Billings, Montana

As I drop down Interstate 90 into the river valley that holds the “Magic City,” I swear: I won’t ever live in Billings, Montana.

The sun glints off a sprawling refinery that dominates the city’s eastern entrance. A sickly sweet smell smacks my face, making my teeth ache and my stomach curl. They’re processing sugar beets on the south side.

Somewhere in this landlocked dustbowl are 100,000 people sprawling west along the Yellowstone River, which winds across the city’s southern belly. Yet all I see as I enter the city are neon signs shouting “liquor” and “casino” amongst the transients curled in doorways. Downtown morphs from a gritty scene to a workingman’s paradise. Bank buildings dominate the landscape and hospitals stretch across the land like arteries, overtaking historic neighborhoods in the city’s core.

Surely this “magic” city has been misnamed.

I’m like many other Wyoming residents—I’ve come for the shopping and lack of sales tax. With my car stocked and the refineries in my rearview mirror, I’m confident. I will never live in Billings, Montana.

Yet in the months that follow, as I plow my way through the doldrums of living in a small Wyoming town without much opportunity, Billings beckons me. It’s small enough for a small town girl to feel at home, yet big enough and far enough away from Wyoming to feel like something progressive could actually happen.

I find myself dropping back into the city in which I swore I’d never reside with a U-Haul full of my belongings. I figure my journalism degree and background in newspaper and photography work will land me a dream job as a reporter or photographer at the largest newspaper in the state, The Billings Gazette. Seven interviews for seven different positions later, I’m in the least glamorous position possible: night-side paginator.

Once again, I question the “magic.”

Yellowstone River from the top of Pompey’s Pillar looking west. MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

It was through the explorations of W. Milnor Roberts, a chief engineer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, that Billings came to be. As Roberts and his crew rode toward the site of present-day Billings, Roberts observed: “We have passed through the finest valley by far that I have seen in Montana” (Lubetkin 2002). Railroad financier Frederick H. Billings founded the city in 1882 and it quickly became a booming railroad town, hence the “Magic City” nickname. From its speedy beginnings, Billings has continued to boom, reaching a population milestone of 100,000 residents in 2006—the only city in Montana to do so (Kemmick 2006). I figure with all these sprawling urbanites, there must be some culturally enlightened folks. Even in Casper, the small Wyoming town where I grew up, there were pockets of culture—small clubs where the sweatiest punk rock music you could imagine rolled through town.

My life has always centered on music, from the early years of sneaking listens to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (my mother found it inappropriate music for children; my father was thrilled I took an interest in music of his generation) to my symphonic music pursuits to my teenage days of foul-mouthed punk rock. I was a symphony in the flautist by day, an elbow thrower in the mosh pits by night, attending concerts in divvy warehouse venues in Casper. When I started college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie I dropped the flute and picked up the bass when I formed a band with my roommate. I screamed, she sang and played guitar. All our songs were three chords. Our favorite compliment: we were a “cuter Bikini Kill” (Besides Green Day, which my roommate listened to incessantly, Kathleen Hanna and her Riot Grrrl movement was our inspiration).

Eighthundred Reasons

In the tiny town of Laramie, Wyoming, we fought to bring musicians through town. This was the late 90s and the early 2000s, when the Internet was just developing into a tool for traveling bands. Musicians still relied heavily on word-of-mouth and moved from city to city based on the good word of other traveling bands. Details in publications such as Book Your Own Fucking Life let this traveling network know where there would be food and gas money.

In Laramie, we handmade flyers for shows and taped them to poles. We held concerts in garages that the police shut down and in warehouses that the fire department condemned. Bands slept on our floor, and we fed them ramen noodles and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon until the sun came up. It was during this time that I worked as entertainment editor for the college newspaper while pursuing my journalism degree.

Music was everywhere; music was my life.

Sarah Stoli and her Beers.

The shift out of college into working life was a shock for me. My roommate formed another band—Stoli and the Beers; I went to intern at a newspaper in Sheridan, Wyoming. She toured the country in a van with smelly boys; I worked just about every day of the week as the paper’s only photographer for a disgustingly small salary. I’d be ambulance chasing one minute, photographing high school football the next. I was even sent to an accident outside of town involving a cow. Within the six-month mark I felt that I knew everyone in town, or at least everyone knew me. The chemistry in Sheridan was strange. It was a small western town that attracted rich residents who built sprawling McMansions for vacation homes, yet it was a poor city in many aspects without well-paying job opportunities. Poverty was high, drugs were easy to find, and life was tough if you weren’t independently wealthy.

Though I left Wyoming for opportunity (and to get the hell out of Sheridan), in Billings I begin to feel disconnected from music. I’m building ads and classified sections, and there is not a smidge of writing or photography opportunities in sight. Night after night, paper after paper, and I was stagnant.

I was withering away in this “magic” city.

Conor Oberst, Billings Shrine Auditorium, 2008. Casey Riffe/Billings Gazette photo

So begins my musical quest. I take a review of a Bright Eyes album to the entertainment section’s editor, and he likes it. He asks if I’ve got more. I start writing album reviews, requesting advanced copies of my favorite artists. Suddenly pagination has meaning, as it led me to my savior—published articles with my byline.

I learn to overlook the oil fields flanking the city’s east and west entrances for the sandstone rimrocks that surround the northern edge of the city. The smell of burning sugar beets becomes the sweet fragrance of home and the deafening rumble of bike gangs a sweet reminder that summer is near. I smile at the homeless and ignore the casinos. I’m not even upset when our gas prices are high—despite the fact that we produce and export the stuff! I treasure spring rain when it comes for the smell it leaves on dirty asphalt, and I cherish the fires of a Montana sunset after a blistering summer day that make a cold microbrew taste better than I could have imagined.

Rim walking.

A few years in the “Magic City” and I begin to take note of the sweet and welcoming sounds of bluegrass drifting out open doors in the summertime. I start gathering with collections of musicians on patios at downtown locales—the upright bass providing a beacon and reassurance that music is not far. At the local alehouses where brews are handcrafted, I’m sure to hear music pouring from doors amid the din of Montana Avenue traffic. Open mic jams also provide me reassurance that live music in Billings is a constant pursuit—each open mic revealing yet another budding talent. As temperatures steadily drop, inside the tiniest tavern a band will be set up in the corner, rolling through a sweaty set of jazz grooves and demonstrating they could care less about the weather.

I’ve been given access to music in a new and exciting way. I have countless moments of musical intensity, festivity, and joy. The musicians of Billings show me that the term “family” is broader than the intended definition. They support and mentor one another, often sharing instruments and the stage. The musical families in town rear their youth in a culture that has inspired the youngest amongst us to pick up guitars, take their voices to the stage, and start their own bands. I’m in through the backdoor, the one that reveals what happens behind the scenes. I spend time with local musicians, prodding them for their stories, finding the angle that will propel readers to come to their shows. I interview traveling bands via phone, working up previews to entice readers to come to the concerts. This time the venues are legal, yet the crowds are small, the musicians are poor, and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what concerts will pack the house and what concerts will leave the promoter holding the bag.

In conversations, I gather that no one really knows why they stay in Billings. The city has always been perceived to be the “butt hole” of Montana, as a friend and local musician Ron Schuster once told me. To outsiders, our music isn’t cool enough, our restaurants aren’t hip enough, our people aren’t liberal enough, our concerts are the leftovers from other big markets—yet this is a false perception. Billings is what we continue to make of it.

Located on a rolling prairie 600 miles from any city of substantial size, Billings is isolated, shut off from the trends and cultures that sweep big cities. Those of us that value cultural qualities in our town continue to fight for them—even if it appears outwardly that the town’s residents don’t support it. In the coming years Billings could be the city we imagine it to be… the western hub, the must-stop location for bands and artists that we currently drive hundreds of miles to see…

Billings isolation may be the key to its magical properties, as the music that evolves here is distinctly original, inspired, and created from a sense of urgency. Billings is a big city with a small town mentality, yet it’s on the cusp of greatness. I just feel it. Those of us who choose to stay fight for a cultural scene that this city can’t create on its own. That’s why I stay. I want to be part of the story, not just read about it someday.

Magic City Music Awards, 2012