Amber Heard
Rising star Heard (Photograph by Kurt Markus)

Floating the River Why

Can a cult fly-fishing novel about a young man coming of age in the wild blow up on the big screen? It's happened once before

Amber Heard

IT’S A CHILLY JULY MORNING on the Wilson River, a deep, narrow stream in northwestern Oregon. The pool below me is clear to the bottom, where I can see a pair of summer steelhead holding. The place just looks cinematic, and that’s before you consider the tribe of production assistants and wetsuit-clad effectsmen bustling about onshore. This is day nine of shooting The River Why, the film adaptation of David James Duncan’s 1983 novel about fly-fishing, growing up, and Everything Else. I’m eagerly awaiting the next scene, because the crew is about to shoot the most incredible catch in the history of angling literature.

Amber Heard

Amber Heard Amber Heard plays Eddy, the girl of every angler's dreams

Zach Gilford

Zach Gilford Zach Gilford as Glum Gus

Amber Heard

Amber Heard Rising star Heard

That’s saying a lot—fishermen, especially those who write fiction, are liars—but this sequence is pretty unbelievable. Waiting on the bank is 27-year-old actor Zach Gilford—best known as introverted high-school quarterback Matt Saracen on NBC’s Friday Night Lights—who plays the novel’s hero, a troubled fly-fishing prodigy named Gus Orviston. Gus stumbles upon The River Why’s heroine, a blond fishing goddess named Eddy, as she hooks a huge steelhead with a homemade hazel pole, tosses the rod into the river to slow the fish, sheds her clothes, and subdues the leviathan by swimming after it and grabbing it underwater. Only the most imaginative of anglers could have dreamed up such a catch, which has achieved mythic status among fishermen in the 26 years since The River Why was published.

Alas, there’s a holdup. While a producer readies a dead hatchery-raised steelhead for the scene, word comes down that an overzealous makeup artist has delayed the actress playing Eddy, 22-year-old Amber Heard. Director Matt Leutwyler greets this news with incredulity, raising his megaphone. “You don’t need to do her makeup!” he yells. “She’s going swimming!” Nearby, executive producer and screenwriter Thomas Cohen looks at his watch, shaking his head. There are only 14 days left to wrap filming, and the last thing anybody wants is further delays.

Cohen and Leutwyler hope to premiere the movie at Austin’s South by Southwest festival, in March, and find a distributor soon thereafter. But no matter when The River Why hits the big screen, it will face the kind of scrutiny that’s rare for an independent film. Since it involves both salmonids and flies, The River Why will invite comparisons with A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford’s bigger-budgeted 1992 hit. But Leutwyler, Cohen, and Cohen’s wife, producer Kristi Denton Cohen, face other challenges, too. With a lean budget and a guerrilla shooting style, the film’s brain trust is trying to bring to life a deeply complex, revered story of self-discovery in the American West. And they’re trying to accomplish this without the cooperation of the book’s author, who has done everything short of sabotage to stop filming.

THE RIVER WHY is no mere fishing yarn. Trout are caught, yes, but that’s just the beginning of the story. Duncan’s debut novel follows a socially inept 19-year-old angling wunderkind as he moves to a cabin on a fictional Oregon river, the Tamanawis, to master his craft. There, “Glum Gus” catches prodigious amounts of fish, burns out, flounders in an existential crisis, and lives through a series of absurd misadventures. (In one sequence, Gus goes hypothermic trying to rescue a submerged fisherman. When Gus comes to his senses, he sees that the man has been dead for hours.) Eventually, he undergoes a spiritual awakening and finds love, thanks to Eddy.

At its core, The River Why examines what it means to lose and find your way as an adventurous young man. Its quirky appeal has earned it a cult following and critical acclaim in 1999, the San Francisco Chronicle named it one of the 100 most important novels ever written about the West.

As with many literary novels, its path to the screen has been bumpy. Thomas Cohen bought the rights from Duncan’s publisher, Sierra Club Books, in 1984, hoping the project would launch his filmmaking career. Cohen asked Duncan to write the script.


“Tom said he’d pay me $6,000 to write the screenplay,” says Duncan, now 57. “I said, Oh, great. I can write a screenplay for a guy I don’t want to work with and impoverish my family. That was the end of that.”

The Missoula, Montana based writer has long contended that Sierra Club Books sold The River Why‘s rights without his consent, naively giving Cohen an option that lacked an expiration date. (Most contracts give filmmakers a set amount of time to begin shooting before the rights revert to the author.)

Cohen co-authored the script with screenwriter John Jay Osborne Jr. and spent years trying to secure financing for the film, but the project eventually lost its legs, in part because of the long shadow cast by A River Runs Through It. With Brad Pitt playing the lead, Redford’s adaptation of the Norman Maclean novella became a surprise hit, winning an Academy Award for cinematography and bringing fly-fishing to the masses.

“People would say, ‘You can’t make this film, because in the audience’s mind it will be just another fly-fishing movie,’ ” says Cohen. Dispirited, he focused on the law practice he opened in 1991 and gave up on The River Why. The project lay dormant until 2004, when his wife convinced him to give it one more shot.

Over the next year, the Cohens reached out to industry contacts and overhauled their script, amping the romance and the action. (At one point, Cohen considered having Gus and Eddy bomb a dam during the film’s climax but thought better of such monkeywrenching. “It never felt organic,” he says.) A break came in 2005, when Kristi approached William Hurt, an avid fly-fisherman who expressed interest in playing Gus’s father, a stodgy trout purist. Soon afterwards, Leutwyler’s Los Angeles based production company, Ambush Entertainment, offered to back The River Why. The film was a go as long as the Cohens could find the right leading man.

THE ACTOR PLAYING GUS would not only have to be convincing as an expert fisherman; he’d have to communicate intense inner turmoil with few words: Gus spends long hours alone in rivers, wrestling with his demons. “If we miscast Gus, it would ruin the film,” says Denton Cohen. “Whoever we picked had to have a true understanding of the wilderness.” They came across Gilford, a former backpacking guide, in the pages of Outside, and sent him the script. Gilford also read Duncan’s book, and he took to the character.

“I identified with Gus’s need to get out there and get away,” says Gilford, who led backcountry trips in British Columbia as recently as 2007. “The book helped me to really get this kid, so that I’d feel like I’m not bullshitting while standing in the river alone.”

By December 2007 the Cohens were sold on Gilford. Leutwyler was hesitant—he hadn’t met the actor—so he and Kristi invited Gilford to lunch. “Within ten minutes I was on board,” says Leutwyler. “Because of Zach’s outdoor interests, I knew I wouldn’t have to train him to fake it in the environments we were going to put him in. He was already that guy.”

Once Gilford had signed on, the Cohens pulled the trigger. It was April, and the project would start in July and Gilford had to be in Texas in August to start shooting Friday Night Lights.

But first Gilford had to learn to fish: Oddly enough, before last May he’d never picked up a fly rod. Handing a novice a five-weight and telling him to play Gus Orviston would be like handing a Texan a hockey stick and asking him to play Gretzky. The Cohens sent Gilford to a fly-fishing crash course at Three Rivers Ranch, on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork of the Snake. For Gilford, the trip provided a firsthand look into the obsessive world he was about to enter.

“All the guides told me, ‘You have to do this right,'” he recalls. “They said, ‘You don’t want to look like they did in A River Runs Through It, casting with your elbow way up high. That’s not fly-fishing.'”

Meanwhile, Duncan was trying to stop the Cohens in court. In April, he filed suit against them and Sierra Club Books, alleging copyright infringement, listing two decades’ worth of grievances, and skewering Kristi as “a producer primarily of corporate training films.” In November, the Cohens, Sierra Club Books, and Duncan finally settled the suit, with an undisclosed amount of money going to Duncan. Under the terms of the agreement, the rights now revert to Duncan, who hopes to create his own version of the film with Patrick Markey, producer of A River Runs Through It. The Cohens can produce their movie, but they’re prohibited from using Duncan’s name to promote it.

“They were capitalizing on whatever integrity my work has against my will,” Duncan says. “It feels good that they’re done talking about me, or else it becomes very expensive for them.”

OBSTACLES ASIDE, The River Why has a lot going for it. Kathleen Quinlan plays Gus’s shotgun-toting, bait-fishing mother, and the film’s supporting cast includes Dallas Roberts and William Devane. (Devane owns a house on Montana’s Madison River and brought his own tackle to the set. He plays a bumbling fishing columnist who can’t catch a cold.) The setting doesn’t hurt, either in the few scenes Leutwyler released for advance viewing, raw, visceral cinematography amplifies the Wilson River’s green-and-silver grandeur.

Then there’s Heard and the Most Incredible Catch Ever, which, unfortunately, I wasn’t permitted to watch. She filled me in later. “That was physically the hardest part of the movie, swimming naked in the 50-degree water,”she said. “It’s a challenge to focus on your lines and your intentions, but there’s something to be said for the extra adrenaline.”

But a promising co-star won’t take the pressure off Gilford. Like that other fishing movie, The River Why is the story of a young man transformed. And though the Cohens take great pains to avoid any comparisons with A River Runs Through It, they are taking the same gamble Robert Redford did in 1992: that the film version of a cult fishing story will strike a chord with mainstream America. The success of this gamble depends on how Gilford’s leading-man debut goes over.

If the actor is aware of the pressures on him, he doesn’t seem fazed. He’s an untroubled guy from the Chicago suburbs who attended his hometown college, Northwestern. In person, he shows no hint of the burden borne by the moody quarterback or the glum angler. When I later asked Gilford what kind of guy Gus is, Gilford laughed and said, “I don’t know, I just kind of show up and see what happens.” But that’s a little misleading. In the film’s climax, Gus plays a huge chinook for a day and a night. Leutwyler shot this scene from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. “What Zach does is almost death-defying,” he says. “He went balls-out, plunging into pools and submerging himself. The water was freezing, and three hours in, his lips started turning blue. We started to get concerned.”

“With everything I do, I always like to do it right,” says Gilford. “I know football inside and out, but on my show, I’m always asking the guys to make sure what I’m doing makes sense. It’s the same with fishing. You want to keep the pressure of the role in your head, but you don’t want it to overwhelm you. People criticize everything. I hope more will enjoy it than criticize it.”

But fishermen do not “enjoy” this book. They haul it down rivers, wear out the spine, project their lives onto Gus, dream about finding an Eddy, and pass on dog-eared copies to their friends. The appearance of the story on the big screen should be cause for celebration. And though the Cohens may have bought the rights to the book under questionable circumstances, it’s worth noting that The River Why has become a labor of love for them as well. They spent the better part of two decades struggling to make the movie and had a passage from the novel read with their wedding vows. In setting their film on the Wilson, they chose a worthy stand-in for Duncan’s fictional Tamanawis.

In the book, Gus is adamant that he’ll never divulge the river’s location. And while Duncan told me that the Wilson wasn’t his model, it’s clear that the Cohens’ choice still resonates. “My father’s ashes are in that river,” says the author. “That river is powerful to me. So whether the fact that they chose that river helps ” He pauses. “I don’t think it changes anything.”

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021
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Lead Photo: Photograph by Kurt Markus