Grand County resident Elissa Martin (center) with her sons Dakota Martin (left) and Wyatt Martin (right) outside Star Hall after the casting call for Kevin Costner’s film, Horizons. Credit: [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Hundreds of people showed up at Star Hall for a casting call last week, hoping to participate in “Horizon: An American Saga,” a western-genre movie written and directed by Kevin Costner to be filmed in southern Utah this fall. “Horizon” has the largest budget of several film projects slated to happen in Grand and San Juan counties this year: the Utah Film Commission estimates the movie will spend close to $54 million.

It’s not just the dollar signs generating buzz around the project. The film industry has played a part in Moab’s history since the 1940s, and this high-profile feature resonates with that history.

Some of the first movies filmed in Southeast Utah were westerns set in the 19th century. Movie website IMDb lists John Ford’s 1946 “My Darling Clementine” as the earliest movie partly filmed in Moab; it’s a classic western set in the 1880s. More westerns followed throughout the decades, as well as adventure films, alien movies, dramas and comedies. Even when there aren’t major feature films located in Moab, the area continues to host a steady lineup of commercials, TV shows, and other smaller-scale projects.

There may be a boost in major projects coming to town in the future. Earlier this year Utah lawmakers passed a new film incentive package, making the state, and particularly rural areas in Utah, more palatable as shooting locations. The new tax rebate program was crucial in Costner’s decision to shoot in rural Utah, the director told news outlets.

The “Horizon” casting call sought horseback riders; adult men and women; boys ages 10 to 14; and both indigenous and non-indigenous people; to cast both speaking roles and extras. The story, which is envisioned to unfold in four full-length movies, takes place in the second half of the 19th century, with the first part set in 1861. A short sign-up form at the casting call asked applicants to rate their horseback riding abilities and list any other skills that might be relevant to the 1860s.

Grand County resident Elissa Martin (who is the county planning director) and her two sons, Dakota and Wyatt Martin, lined up at Star Hall for the casting call on Saturday afternoon. Martin said Dakota, in particular, has an interest in theater and performance, and was excited to attend the casting call; he’s within the specific age range listed in the call, so they’re hopeful about his chances.

Staff moved applicants briskly through a brief process: a stop at wardrobe, where a production crew member took quick waist and chest measurements, and a set of head and full body photographs with an assigned number. Applicants with horse riding skills were asked to bring videos of themselves riding, and some were asked to demonstrate their skills in person at a separate venue.

Filming is anticipated to take place between late August and November. Dozens of production crew members are already in town for the project and will stay throughout filming. According to the Utah Film Commission, “Horizon” will film in San Juan, Emery, Kane, and Washington counties in addition to Grand County.

In June, the Utah Film Commission announced the arrival of “Horizon” along with news that 13 productions, including the Costner movie, had been approved for the state’s new film incentive package. Projected spending of all the productions combined totals $142.5 million, with 90% located in rural Utah. Another project on the list to be filmed in Grand County is Season 1 of the FX/Hulu mystery show “Retreat.” “Dark Highway,” an independent thriller movie, is slated to be filmed in San Juan County.

Production crew were encouraging to applicants at the casting call. One solicited passersby on the sidewalk outside the building, coaxing, “We’d love to have you in this movie!” The upbeat attitude lent a fun atmosphere to the routine process; people exited Star Hall with smiles on their faces. Elissa, Dakota and Wyatt were some of the last to leave on Saturday. Asked if he thought he’d get a callback, Dakota Martin said, “I hope so!”