Denis R. O'Neill

Author, Screenwriter & Producer

Books and Stories


The River Wild - 20th Year Anniversary


On the 20th anniversary of its cinematic debut, THE RIVER WILD – which has been seen on movie and television and airplane screens all around the world – will be available in book form. The story that ended up on the silver screen started out as a humorous article for Fly Rod & Reel magazine, “Diary of a Mad Floater” — based on a six-day float trip down Montana’s Smith River with a bunch of buddies. The river runs through the Louis and Clark National forest, and once you get on it at White Sulfur Springs, there’s almost nowhere to get off it until the take out near Great Falls, where the Smith joins the Missouri River. It’s pristine wilderness most of the way, with eagles wheeling overhead, bears, rattlers and deer sharing the floodplain that narrows to almost nothing in the switchback cliffs the river is famous for. Even as I was conceiving it as a light entertainment for fly fishermen and river adventurers, I couldn’t help think, one night, while sitting around a campfire, how limited your options would be if a bad guy walked out of the darkness and into your lives. That thriller component marinated for a couple of years until I decided to pitch it as a movie. When the pitch failed to attract any interest after four outings, I wrote the screenplay on spec in three weeks. I was able to get Meryl Streep’s interest through her husband Don Gummer, who read it first and passed it along to Meryl. She loved it – and the idea of doing an action adventure movie for the first time. With Meryl attached, it went out to studios on a Friday afternoon and was bought by Universal at the end of the day Monday after a bidding scuffle. For the record, “The River Wild” is actually four rivers – The Smith, on which it was based, two other Montana rivers, the Middle Fork of the Flathead and the Kootenai, where we filmed most extensively… and finally, Oregon’s Rogue River where we completed filming in the fall and had to spray paint a few autumn-turning leaves green to extend the movie magic of summer. Returning it to print form – with numerous scenes that never made it into the movie – brings the story full circle, completing its 20-something year journey. The first chapter follows…

From The River Wild (The Novel) — Chapter One


( the novel )

ONE The Clark Fork River meanders through Deer Lodge, Montana, a ranch town of three thousand intrepid souls, trapped between a more prosperous past and a less certain future. In the old days, copper and mineral wealth made it an important stop on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Cattle were also shipped out – primarily from cattle king Konrad Kohrs’ massive land holdings that at one time included a million acres in Montana, Wyoming and Alberta. Mountains to the west and southwest of town provided a windbreak and saving grace from harsher weather. The resulting climate was pleasant enough to support prairie bunch grass ideal for fattening cattle. A natural salt lick created by warm springs lured wild game out of the colder, higher elevations when winter set in (and gave the town its name). Deer Lodge was so beckoning it even grew a place of incarceration – the Montana State Prison. But the days of addition (unless you want to count a growing prison population) are definitely in this town’s rearview mirror. It’s all about subtraction now. The railroad abandoned Deer Lodge in the mid-1980’s. The once thriving Kohrs Ranch evolved into the “Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site,” dedicated to preserving a glimpse of the cattle baron era. The original state prison at the end of Main Street is now the “Old Prison Museum” – featuring, among other artifacts, an old electric locomotive from the days when Deer Lodge was an important railroad town. Only Deer Lodge Mountain and Mt. Powell, rising dramatically out of the brittle grassland southwest of town, seem unchanged. Five years ago, forty-eight year-old Barbara Walsh moved to Deer Lodge from the big city of Bozeman, after a bad divorce. She embraced the town’s diminished pulse, and the middle school kids she taught science to embraced her. She loved to fish the Clark Fork in August, long after run-off, when thermal breezes blew the annual grasshopper hatch out of the neighboring hay fields and onto the water where trout gorged until they went off the bite. She was an avid hiker as well, and had climbed Mt. Powell countless times. She had been disappointed in love, but she hadn’t given up. Life rewarded her persistence with a 60 year-old man who was as gentle and solicitous as her ex was intemperate. They met at the town’s annual Fourth of July picnic and fireworks extravaganza. He worked at the Old Prison Museum. Their courtship proceeded at an old fashion pace: Sunday dinner at her place or his, Friday was date night. Which is why on this late June, early evening, she pulled her 2009 red Ford sedan up to Debbie’s Gas & Wash do-it-yourself car wash – “The Best Shine in Montana.” She had a dinner date with you know who, and she wanted her car to be as scrubbed as she was. Barbara fed two dollars into the machine. Classical music seeped out of her open window. She waited until the security arm lifted in front of her, then rolled up her driver’s window and eased her front tires onto the guide tracks. She turned the ignition off – but left it on “battery” so she could hear the stirring end of the symphonic composition. She turned the volume up. As her car lurched forward, she reached for her purse and fished in its contents for lipstick. Distracted, she did not see the head of the man ease out from behind one side of the wash shed, glance around shifty-eyed like a cartoon character up to no good, and slink up to her back door. She didn’t hear him climb in either, because of the music and because he closed the door softly. He was wearing gray cotton, drawstring pants and a gray cotton top with numbers stenciled on a lone pocket, and larger, black letters: M.S.C.I. splashed across the chest. As the car moved deeper into the shed, water pissed down, and giant pompom cleaners descended on the roof and sides. Liquid soap engulfed the shell of the car in a cocoon of cleansing froth. Inside, Barbara leaned forward as a new set of soapy pompoms attacked her windshield. She looked at her face in the mirror, turning it one way, then another, trying for a more favorable angle. Resigned to the homely appearance that had stared back from every mirror she had ever looked into, she started to apply lipstick, happy to accept the reality of life as a progression of small victories. She was a teacher of science, after all, not mythology. Even if she had glanced out her side window, the mousse of soap suds would have prevented her from seeing a second escapee from the Montana State Prison in signature gray, drawstring pants slink along the interior edge of the corrugated steel shed, keeping pace with the car until the pompom nearest him retracted upward. He was larger than the first man, with a funny shaped torso that looked like a surreal painting where the wide lower body gives way to a size smaller middle section gives way to a size smaller head. He reached for the handle of the back door nearest him and climbed into the slow moving vehicle. As the door clinked shut, the rinse cycle opened up with a mighty, multi-nozzle assault – water ricocheting off metal and glass with a percussive din. Minutes later, the front grill and hood of the car emerged to the softer acoustic of hundreds of cloth tendrils, swabbing the car dry. Slowly, the windshield emerged free and clear. Barbara Walsh was no longer driving. The first man to climb into her car was – Deke, by name. His partner in crime, Terry, sat shotgun, his pasty white face also visible through the windshield. Both men were in their 30’s. Deke started the engine when the car’s rear tires cleared the guide track. He aimed the Ford out of Debbie’s Gas & Wash and into light traffic on Main Street. Mt. Powell loomed in the distance, its top still snow-covered in late June. Barbara’s face stared up from the back seat floor, her body grotesquely stuffed into the narrow space. A smear of lipstick angled up from the corner of her mouth, marking the moment her neck was broken. Her eyes were frozen forever in an expression somewhere between horror and surprise. The rousing conclusion of the symphony added acoustic punctuation to this latest subtraction from life in Deer Lodge, Montana. Deke poked at the radio buttons. “Can’t drive to this shit.” He hit the buttons four or five times until an up-tempo Country song shitkicked out the speaker. Deke started to laugh. “I think we just redefined clean get-away!” Terry took a moment to absorb the joke. Information reached his brain Brontosaurus-style – slow boat from the tail up to the tiny head. He smiled in time… (got it!), and bobbed his noggin to the beat. Behind him, Barbara’s head jiggled slightly as the car gathered speed.

Jim and I - Book Cover

Jim and I - Cover

Jim and I - Bear Canyon Fishing Club

Bear Canyon Fishing Club - Original Magazine Article

Bear Canyon Fishing Club – Original Magazine Article

Bear Canyon Fishing Club - Magazine Short Story

Bear Canyon Fishing Club – Magazine Short Story

Bear Canyon Fishing Club - Original Manuscript

Bear Canyon Fishing Club – Original Manuscript