CHEYENNE - Dubois residents are disappointed after learning that portions of an HBO movie about a local Marine killed in Iraq will be filmed in Montana.

Local people and officials with the state film incentive program pushed hard to see that hometown scenes about Pfc. Chance Phelps were shot in Dubois, even convincing a communications provider to erect a cell tower to make the area friendlier to film crews.

A number of factors, including the remoteness of the area and the lack of local film crews, led to the decision, said Michell Howard, manager of the state film incentive program which was created last year to help lure productions to the state.

"We were very disappointed," Dubois Mayor Mark Harrison said. "We did a lot of work."

The TV movie stars Kevin Bacon and is based on a short story Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl wrote after escorting Phelps' body across the country in 2004 to his funeral in Dubois.

Wherever he went, Strobl wrote in the story, people greeted him with tremendous hospitality, respect and, often, teary eyes. The title of the movie is "Taking Chance."

While most of the feature will be filmed in New Jersey, the script also calls for scenes from the funeral and the funeral procession in Dubois.

Phelps' family and Dubois residents were largely supportive of the project and thrilled when HBO location scouts visited the area. Town officials sought help from Gov. Dave Freudenthal and worked with Union Cellular to have a temporary cell tower erected, the mayor said.

Harrison said town residents were in favor of a positive story about one of their own who made a commitment to his country and followed through.

Harrison said local filming would have helped the town of about 1,000 in Fremont County find closure and would have further expressed its connection with Phelps and his family.

Phelps was 19 when he was killed in an ambush west of Baghdad on Good Friday in 2004.

"Chance was a great young man and came from a wonderful family," said Harrison, who choked up as he expressed his thoughts about the loss. "And that's really the basis for why this whole story was even told."

HBO will bring about 75 people to southeastern Montana next month for more than three weeks to film the "Dubois" scenes, an HBO spokeswoman said. They'll be shot in Ennis, Virginia City and Bozeman.

Although Ennis doesn't look exactly like Dubois, that's hardly a problem for the film, said Markus Zetler, an Bozeman consultant hired as the film's location manager.

"In this kind of show you want it to be similar, but it's really not that important to the story line," he told The Associated Press. "It needs to be scenic, but in this case, it's about a Marine taking this young man home."

Howard said she doesn't consider the loss of the film a blow to the state's fledgling film incentive program, which was established last year as a way to promote tourism and to grow and diversify the state economy.

A single movie, TV or commercial production can deliver a major economic boost to communities where filming takes place. The film industry can also create spinoff companies that provide props, equipment, lighting and other resources.

Howard said the film program is a big reason Wyoming was a contender for three feature film projects this year - about triple the normal number.

The other films included a Tom Hanks production based on Larry McMurtry's novel, "Boon's Lick," and a film version of Jackson author Ken Thomasma's children's book, "Naya Nuki." The Hanks project is on hold, and scouts for "Naya Nuki" are still working, Howard said.

Wyoming's film incentive program provides up to a 15 percent rebate on production expenditures made in Wyoming that total at least $500,000.

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"We're still working on marketing (the film program), letting the industry know that it's out there," Howard said. "So we really didn't expect to have this flood of projects come in.

"Getting three feature films that were looking at Wyoming this summer with Wyoming story lines, that's pretty big for us," she said.

But Howard said the loss of "Taking Chance" does illustrate a major obstacle to the state becoming a player in the competitive world of film: the lack of professionals trained in film production.

That's a problem because the state competes with places like Montana with its well-regarded film curriculum at Montana State University in Bozeman.

"Our incentive program is more attractive than Montana's," she said. "They just have slightly more of a crew base there."

The next step, she said, is to partner with work force services programs, colleges and the University of Wyoming to help develop skills that can be put to work in the film industry.

"The film incentive was kind of the first stage of what we were trying to do to get up on that level playing field (with other states)," Howard said. "Now we really need to work on developing work force."

That's not much consolation to the residents in Dubois, who said they are heartbroken that the story about Pfc. Phelps will be filmed in Montana.

But what matters most, Mayor Harrison said, is that the nation will learn the story of the Marine from Dubois, Wyo., his family and the proud town that helped raise him.

"The good news is it's being told," Harrison said.

Reach capital bureau reporter Jared Miller at (307) 632-1244 or at jared.miller@casperstartribune.net.

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