Is Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins ready for the big screen?
An Emmy-winning independent filmmaker announced on social media on Tuesday that he plans to make a feature film about Collins and has purchased the rights to his life story.
“Contact us if you have any resources or skills to help tell this story,” Dan Smith said in a Facebook post.
Collins said Wednesday that this is an ongoing project and that Smith will come to Helena on September 5 to talk and see how to proceed.
Collins is a Liberian immigrant who would be Montana’s first black mayor. He came to Montana in the 1990s fleeing the Civil War. In the move, he separated from his wife for almost three years. He is now a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and recently retired from the US Navy Reserve, where he served for more than 20 years.
People also read…
Now in his second term as mayor of Helena, Collins also made a brief run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in 2020. He and his wife have two children.
Collins said Smith viewed the project as a feature rather than a documentary.
In an interview, Collins said he runs the gamut of feelings about a film’s perspective on his life.
“It’s scary, it’s exciting,” Collins, 58, said. “I have mixed emotions.”
Collins said Smith had been following his story for some time and reached out to him about a year ago. He declined to say how much he was paid for the rights to his life story. Initially, Collins said he wasn’t sure Smith was serious, but a Helena-based actor said he was legit.
Collins laughed when asked who should play him in the film.
Smith, who is based in St. Louis, said he was drawn to Collins’ story.
Collins and his wife, Maddie, met while attending the University of Liberia and left Liberia in the 1990s during civil unrest. Collins talks about living in a war-torn country and cooking a meal with toothpaste.
During her high school years, Maddie had been an exchange student and stayed with a family of Helena, Bruce and Joyce Nachtsheim, whom she calls “Mom” and “Dad”. The Collins decided to make Montana their home.
He said the residents of Helena have generally accepted him and his family since moving here. But years ago, someone painted the letters “KKK” on his garage. Collins saw the marks and entered the house to call the police. By the time he came out, the neighbors had washed the walls.
Collins was sworn in as mayor in 2018 and had a brief run as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in 2020 before being re-elected as mayor in 2021.
His election drew attention and he was featured on “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and in national media.
“I love stories of courage,” Smith said. “It’s one of the most important emotions and traits. If you have courage, you can love and you can achieve great things and be an inspiration to others.
“He’s not only mayor, but he’s also made political history in Montana,” Smith continued. “He’s an amazing character who has inspired a lot of other people. I’m thrilled to put him on film.”
Smith said Collins’ time in Liberia could be a movie on its own.
The project is in its early stages, and Smith said he expects a script to be available in the spring and filming could take place next summer.
He said the film wouldn’t have a huge budget, but it could attract a large audience and be on Hulu or Netflix.
“I think there’s a real market for this,” Smith said, adding that there’s now “a deep, respectful audience for true stories.”
“I believe in the power of independent films,” he said. “This is where the story is queen.”
His page on IMDB, an online entertainment news database, says Smith wrote and produced the award-winning 2016 feature film, “Texas Heart.” He has also written and produced narrative features and documentaries, including Emmy-nominated “February One: The Story of the Greensboro Four,” which aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens.”
Collins said he’s heard from many people since the possible film was announced on social media.
“It’s getting crazy,” he said. “People call me up and say, ‘I want to be a part of it’.”
Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.