Jason Borger doesn't look a whole lot like Brad Pitt.
Jason Borger doesn't look a whole lot like Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt can't cast a fly line much like Jason Borger.
But together, they captured the fly-fishing mystique enough to briefly gentrify the trout bum in the early 1990s and make the pursuit of fish with fur and hackles into an outdoor version of New Coke.
Borger doubled for Pitt in most of the fly-casting scenes for "A River Runs Through It," the 1992 film version of Norman Maclean's book whose popularity propelled fly-fishing from the mountain stream to the mainstream.
Those long, looping casts into Montana trout streams shot for the film? That's Borger.
The guy on the rock laying out the Zen-like "shadow casts" that form the artistic heart of the movie? That's Borger, too.
Even the guy on the movie poster is Borger looking like Pitt portraying protagonist Paul Maclean in a moment that best captures the singular beauty of fly-fishing. The masses ate it up like rainbows in a stonefly hatch.
"At the time I had a sense that the film certainly would have an impact," says Borger, 40, of Vancouver, Wash. "But I didn't think it would have such an impact on fly-fishing, as well as become a cultural reference.
"The movie still wields a lot of influence and is talked about in fly-fishing," Borger says. "It's like it never goes out of style. The 'River Runs Through It' thing is always interesting to people."
Borger will share that interest when he headlines Wednesday's meeting of the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Red Lion Hotel.
It's a story he knows well, having told it regularly during speaking engagements across the country.
Borger is an expert fly-caster and teacher who has written books and produced graphics on the subject, while serving as casting instructor on movie sets and in commercials.
But every time he's hired to talk about the nuances of a line mend or the timing of a double-haul, the conversation tends to flow toward that moment when Borger played Pitt playing Maclean.
"It's one of those perfect opportunities that come along once in a lifetime," Borger says.
The book, and movie, are a fictionalized autobiography of Maclean and his brother, Paul, who grew up under their father, a Presbyterian reverend, with a shared love of fly-fishing the Blackfoot and other Montana rivers.
The story centers around a summer the pair spent fly-fishing together as young adults, each channeling their non-fishing energies in different directions.
The book includes lengthy descriptions of fly-casting, and director Robert Redford needed help in ensuring the casting scenes in the movie lived up to the novella's prose.
Redford hired Gary Borger, Jason's father, who already was a big name in fly-fishing videography. Gary Borger recommended the crew include 21-year-old Jason, who was fresh out of the University of Wisconsin film school and a skilled caster, as well.
On his first day on location in 1991 in Montana, the crew noticed that the younger Borger was about the same size as Pitt and actor Craig Sheffer, who played Norman.
Borger whipped out a fly rod and demonstrated his deftness. He was hired.
"It made a pretty big difference once I had gear in hand," he says. "Not only could I do everything they needed, but being the right size for both brothers was big for me."
He almost blew it all on his first take while trying to lay a cast out along the stream.
"I put the fly in a tree behind me," he says. "I thought, well, that was quick."
Borger not only recovered but also went on to help craft the famous "shadow casting" that is one of the work's most identifiable scenes and the cornerstone of the story's fly-fishing metaphors.
The act is described as Maclean's signature ability to cast his fly line so the fly dances over the water's surface, casting shadows on the water that trigger the trout to rise.
The problem is, trout aren't drawn to shadows over the water; they are afraid of them.
"It's B.S.," Borger says. "Remember, it's a fictionalized autobiography."
The actual cast in the movie is really a compilation of various techniques developed and choreographed for the movie "by committee," including Borger along with John Dietsch, the film's fly-fishing production coordinator, and others on the set and in Los Angeles, Borger says.
In the film, Borger is standing on a rock atop the river, whipping the line in the air around him as if giving Pitt's character a halo.
"The shadow cast is where Paul becomes an artist, rising above the river. Transcendent. Be an artist touching grace," Borger says. "It's really about Paul's moment on that rock, certainly more than catching big fish with it.
"Whether it was a purely literary device, I don't know," Borger says. "I never got a chance to ask Norman."
But the film caught on with the public, grossing more than $43 million and earning Philippe Rousselot an Oscar that year for best cinematography.
Across the continent, the allure of the art of the cast turned golfers into fly-fishers, then soon back to golfers.
"It really sparked an interest in fly-fishing, and participation levels went through the roof," Borger says. "It lasted a few years, but eventually it tailed off."
For Borger, the film has never tailed off, thanks to a moment in 1992.
Sitting in Redford's Santa Monica office after shooting was completed, a friend brought in a mock-up of what would become the movie's publicity poster.
The picture was of Borger, playing Pitt, who was playing Paul Maclean, enacting that transcendent won't-catch-a-trout cast atop that rock.
"It's one of those things where you go, 'I can't believe it,' " Borger says. "It's all downhill from here.
"How can you top this?"
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman