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Finding And Creating The 'Open Range'
Although the script doesn't specify exactly where the story takes place, the image of Montana with its majestic mountains serving as a backdrop remained foremost in director Costner's mind. As much as the creators wanted to stay in the U.S., however, shooting at home was simply not feasible. There was also the issue of the unfortunate demise of many of the once famous Hollywood Western sets—Paramount Ranch and Bell Canyon Ranch have all since been taken up by housing developments. The decision was therefore made to scout Canada. Since Valdes had shot Unforgiven in Alberta, he suggested they try there first. 

Scouting commenced March 15, 2002, beginning with the two existing town sets in Alberta. They were rejected and scouting continued, with vast tracks of the prairies covered by car and helicopter. After months of searching, various ranches were finally chosen for the cattle driving and range camp scenes: the Nicoll Ranch at Jumping Pound Creek; the Turner Ranch and the Hughes Ranch, both southwest of the village of Longview; and a beautiful spot on the Kinnear Ranch called Fireguard Coulee. At first, the quintessential spot for the fictional town of Harmonville remained elusive—until the helicopter landed on the Stoney Nakoda First Nations Reserve west of Calgary. Even though there was still a foot and a half of snow on the ground, Costner could see he had his place. With the Rocky Mountains jutting grandly out of the wide open prairie space, the setting fit the script's themes of conflict and contrasting ways of life perfectly. 

Unfortunately, the blanket of snow disguised one major flaw in the location: no access road. Before production on the town could even begin, therefore, a one-and-a-half mile dirt road had to be built across the reserve. But no sooner was that hurdle overcome than spring arrived. The melted snow left the access road covered by over three feet of water and many wondering how they were realistically going to get vehicles in and out. Production designer Gae Buckley recalls the daily game she and construction coordinator Alf Arndt would play while attempting to cross the flooded road caused by a beaver dam. "Alf would say, ‘The water's deeper today. I'm not sure we should do this.' And I'd say, ‘Then don't go, you'll ruin your truck.' At which point he'd hit the accelerator and plow through the flood, with water rising over the windshield. It was like a ride at Disneyland!” 

The trucks got through and the creation of Harmonville began. Actual construction took nine weeks, which was preceded by four weeks of intensive research and design in Los Angeles. Working from history books and the pictures of pioneer photographers like Silas Melander and Evelyn Cameron, Buckley's team of art directors and designers painstakingly recreated the era. Graphic designer Ted Haigh, who is, says Buckley,"a walking encyclopedia of the period,” took charge of the many signs and labels while others researched construction techniques and color schemes. All of the lumber needed to build Harmonville was milled to the actual sizes of the period and then weathered for the exterior of buildings. Only nails were used; these were allowed to rust and dribble, leaving black marks from the nail heads for an added effect. The interior wooden floors were treated to make the wood cup and buckle. The window glass for the entire town was handblown and imported. Set decorator Mary-Lou Storey oversaw that the interior details were faithfully attended to, right down to the oiled paper window shades and kerosene lamps. 

"We really tried to recreate something that existed back then, in the style of the buildings and the selection of paints they used,” says Buckley of her team's remarkable efforts. "Our color palette directly reflected paint sample charts from 1880, and even the wallpaper in Doc and Sue's house was reproduced from 1880; it's called ‘Ashes of Roses.'” 

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