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Mountain Outlaw: Filmmaker Mark Vargo



This story was originally published in the 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. To read the digital version, click here.

From behind the lens to the front of the class

By Brad Van Wert, Contributor

Since its invention in the 1800s, the cinema has captivated people. Images flickering across the screen at 24 frames per second have the ability to make us laugh, cry and transport us to magical locations around this world and beyond.

For those who enjoy this experience, there’s a pretty good chance they’ve seen one of the films Mark Vargo has worked on. As second unit director of photography, his name has graced the credits of such films as “The Green Mile,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Way Back.” Most recently he crafted memorable shots for the 2011 science fiction blockbuster “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

This past fall, the Montana State University alumnus worked for the first time as an adjunct professor at MSU, imparting some of his experience and wisdom to the next generation of filmmakers.

“Vargo’s approach was very hands on,” said one of his students, Erik Morrison. “Where other classes might offer a cursory introduction to a piece of equipment or technique, he would spend the time making sure we had a working knowledge of the information.”

Gentle and soft-spoken, Vargo becomes enthused when speaking about his passions, be it filmmaking, teaching or reading up on obscure state department officials.

Over 15 weeks, he taught aspiring cinematographers not only how to compose the perfect shot, but also demonstrated through his real world experience how they could make a career out of filmmaking. But when the fall semester ended, he didn’t have to uproot his family and drag them back to L.A., because Vargo’s Bozeman address is his permanent address.

The students who took his course can consider themselves lucky, because Vargo likes to demystify the idea that you have to go to Hollywood to find success. In fact, he suggests other courses of action.

“It’s almost like the system these days is designed to grind up young talent,” Vargo said. “But don’t believe the hype.”

While the craft of filmmaking is very much an art form, the bottom line is it’s also a business, and many states other than California have become friendly to the industry.

While Montana has benefited from picturesque landscapes, there’s far more to making films than just scenery. States like Louisiana and New Mexico have built infrastructure that allow an entire production to occur there. In addition, financial and tax incentives have found their way through these states’ legislatures, and movie producers have taken notice.

The net result: Heading for Hollywood is no longer a necessity. Hungry young filmmakers are now free to choose a different route.

For Montana to attract more productions, it will take a concerted effort in both the private sector as well as the legislature. With many talented filmmakers choosing to make the last best place home, change is on the horizon.

As much as Vargo enjoyed his time in academia, the veteran says he isn’t ready to take it on full time just yet.

“There are still too many films I want to work on,” he said.

And although many of these projects take him around the world, Vargo always looks forward to returning home. The movie industry can be a competitive, dog-eat-dog world, he says.

“It’s crazy and cruel out there, but Montana has a pastoral quality that allows you to refresh and rejuvenate and go back to work,” Vargo says. “I always have a camera next to me. The light, the nature, the wildlife, the sunsets I am fortunate to view from my office window—these are all continuous sources of inspiration.”

The pace of life and sense of community in Bozeman is also important. The good schools, safe environment and elbow room give him confidence that his daughter can enjoy her youth. And for Vargo, there’s more to success than just his film resume. Even though he is sometimes gone working for months at a time, when he returns to Montana he can direct 100 percent of his time to family.

“In the end I think I might get more quality time on the meter with my family than a guy who goes to work nine to five, because I can chill out, and I demand it,” he said.

But make no mistake, that film resume is quite impressive.

Starting out in visual effects in the late ‘70s Vargo helped bring to life such movies as “Return of the Jedi,” “Ghostbusters” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Since moving into cinematography, he’s been second unit director of photography on “Poseidon,” “Tin Cup” and “In the Line of Fire,” among others.

Having shot photos and video to document setting up and executing difficult shots, he brought this material into the classroom as a teaching tool.

That street knowledge and the lessons learned from his time in the industry has proven to be invaluable for Vargo’s students, Morrison said.

“There is a certain level of credibility when you’re teaching these students about techniques that you have put to the test in the field,” Vargo said, smiling.

Vargo also looks to other successful Montana-based filmmakers. Many of these friends and associates visited his class and offered workshops, which resonated with his students. Taking it one step further, he used Skype to invite successful directors such as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” director Rupert Wyatt to speak to his class.

“I love to be able to explain things and give examples and see the light bulbs go on,” Vargo said. “I just loved every minute of it.”

Mark Vargo isn’t going anywhere. He takes great comfort in the fact he can live here and be inspired and feel refreshed. But he’s glad that he can catch a flight out at anytime: There are great films being made all over this world, and he’s the man to help make them.

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