Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New film captures Colstrip through a high-school lens

Beth Saboe
Montana PBS
The Colstrip Power Plant

The 21st Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is underway in Missoula. The annual event celebrates nonfiction films and creators from around the world — including right here in Montana. MTPR’s Austin Amestoy sat down with the filmmakers behind “Tomorrow’s Town Today,” which explores life in the coal-centric town of Colstrip, Montana, through the eyes of some of its youngest residents.

Austin Amestoy: Coal is the lifeblood of the eastern Montana town of Colstrip. For 100 years, its mines and power plants have electrified homes and businesses and provided the town with jobs, economic security and its identity. But half the plant's generating units closed in 2020, and now the town's future is uncertain. "Tomorrow's Town Today!" is inscribed on welcome signs in Colstrip, and it's also the name of a new documentary film that shows what life is like in the industry town through the eyes of high school seniors.

Joining me now are the film's director, Halley Linscheid, editor Matt Tryan and producer Matti Olson. Thanks for coming on, you guys.

We've aired a lot of recent Colstrip news on MTPR in the last few years, but I don't think we've ever really had an opportunity like this to live through the lens of young people in in the town. So, that that choice was very interesting to me. Matti, how did you guys make that decision?

Matti Olson: Well, I think we really wanted to make this Colstrip story different than others. Like you said, there's been a lot of news surrounding Colstrip, but we wanted to take a whole different perspective on it and try and show the history of the town, but not through the "old-timers" that have been there; through young lenses who have that history, still, through family. All three of them have very different backgrounds and struggles that we hope that everyone, kind of, identifies with as they watch the doc.

Austin: It was really striking the level of access you guys had to their lives, right? We were at basketball games, were listening to mic'd-up coaches speak at basketball games, we were in the students' bedrooms as they were hanging out with each other; we went to senior prom. That access, Halley, I thought, was one of the most standout parts of the film. And, I'm curious if it was difficult to build trust with your sources and to get that level of access. What was that process like?

Halley Linscheid: Yeah, right. I feel like, especially with a town like Colstrip that's had so much media coverage about coal — people, initially when we got there, were a little bit hesitant. But, realistically, we didn't have that much time to build trust with people, and we would not have the film that we have now if they were not — like, all the high school students really welcoming.

Austin: The edit of this film — one of the things that stood out to me very vividly is the imagery of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant itself, right? It is looming over the town; it's looming over these characters. And, some of that is inherent, because it's huge, right? And, it's hard to miss while you're there, but it almost becomes a character in and of itself. Every aspect of these kids' lives revolves around the fact that that plant is there and it's still active. Matt?

Matt Tryan: Well, to kind of tie it back to your question about access, it's crazy how many people in the town were so adverse to our presence. The media has– there's a really strong feeling about them in Colstrip, and that's why I applaud Halley so much, and the lens she took for this film, and making it so character-based. And, that's another thing with the power plant — like, it was just a motif throughout the film, kind of establishing this looming presence, this sort of control that coal has over all these people's lives. And, it's so fascinating because all of the people there are just employees. All of the stakeholders, all of the owners, all of the people who have any control over what happens there all live in, like, corporate offices in cities.

Austin: Yeah, Halley?

Halley: Once you are there interacting with all these people, it's like, if you take away coal, it's taking away their home. Like, it's really not actually that easy to just like transition to renewables and just do it like that. And so, that was, I think, something striking to all of us; that like, it is really, I mean, looming over the town. Physically, but also in a way that is complicated and a nuanced situation for the people who live there — more than people think.

Matt: There's so much pride in the town. There's so much love for the power plant and for coal. It's hard to ignore that it would be extremely beneficial to shift away from coal, but people are getting left behind in that process and, like, they matter; it's important.

Austin: Yeah, Matti?

Matti: Yes, there is this human impact, and you do– if you take that lifeline away, then yes, the people are going to be impacted. But through this film, we're hoping that people still see the love and perseverance that they have for the town; that, "Okay, you can take this away from us, but we still are strong and we still love our neighbors. We love this community and we're not going anywhere."

Austin: Filmmakers Halley Linscheid, Matti Olson and Matt Tryan discussing their new documentary, "Tomorrow's Town Today." The film premieres at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 25th at 12:30 p.m. at The Wilma in Missoula. Halley, Matti, Matt— thank you for speaking with me today.

Halley: Thank you so much for having us.

Matti: Austin, thank you.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information