Shooting for Dollars

Can this year's Minnesota Independent Film Fund winners marshal their scripts to the screen?

The biggest laugh at the recent Minnesota Independent Film Fund Awards came when the Edina-based twentysomething director William Kruse--who'd just won a $25,000 production-development stipend for a proposed feature based on his screenplay Two Harbors--took the podium at Walker Art Center to accept his prize and make a confession: "I currently live in my parents' basement." The laugh was clearly one of recognition--albeit not necessarily that of shared experience, for the bulk of well-wishers at this cash-bar ceremony appeared too well composed and advanced in years to have lived "at home" of late. Rather, the chuckles came from the upscale audience's collective understanding--owing equally to truth and cliché--that the desperate means of indie production often require desperate measures.

Which, of course, is why this particular awards program came into being in the first place. Billed as "the only state sponsored fund that supports the development of projects by indie filmmakers in the U.S.," the Minnesota Independent Film Fund (or MIFF, for short) was established four years ago by the Minnesota Film Board in conjunction with the local-indie advocates at IFP/North. Designed to stimulate the production of feature films by people who might live in their parents' basements, for example, the program--whose three annual winners are awarded $25,000 apiece--was initially funded by the McKnight Foundation and Blockbuster Video, although the latter has since been replaced by Northwest Airlines. Recipient filmmakers are selected by a trio of coast-based industry pros on the basis of screenwriting prowess and the feasibility of production--with the stipulation that all monies be repaid upon the start of principal photography.

Alas, this proviso has been a moot point for the most part, since the vast majority of MIFF winners haven't yet been required to settle the tab. Of the 12 filmmakers awarded during the program's first four years, only two--Wendell Jon Andersson (With or Without You) and Garrett Williams (Spark), both graduates of the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers' Lab--have completed their features. (One of the remaining 10, writer-director Mary Katzke, recently finished shooting her project on digital video.) Not surprisingly, the Film Board has devised a more flattering interpretation of the data: In the five years since MIFF was established, according to a recent press release, there have been 14 indie features shot in Minnesota--compared with the five made between 1990 and '95, before the program began. In other words MIFF has ostensibly catalyzed the culture of local indie production, if not the production of winning projects per se.

From top to bottom: William Kruse, J.D. Dunlop and Kate Lehmann
Teddy Maki
From top to bottom: William Kruse, J.D. Dunlop and Kate Lehmann

"I think we can take some credit for the increase [in features]," says Minnesota Film Board executive director Randy Adamsick, who offers that all 14 of those recent indies were at one point submitted to the MIFF program--which is to say, apparently, that the MIFF process helped to bring some fuzzy projects into focus. Nevertheless, he adds that "scriptwise, at least some of them probably shouldn't have been shot." Adamsick's candid confession helps explain this year's significant MIFF addendum: a screenwriters' mentorship program, funded by the Jerome Foundation, whereby each of the three winners is invited to workshop his or her script with a nationally renowned screenwriter over the course of a year. The implication is that the artistic deficiencies of made-in-Minnesota indies have been more on the page than on the set. As an example, Adamsick cites the 1997 comedy-drama Homo Heights, which he believes "had wonderful performances and production values--everything that was wrong with the movie was evident three years prior to filming."

As it happens, Homo Heights producer Kate Lehmann won a MIFF award this year for her proposed production of The Silent Shill, a "circus story for grown-ups" penned by Heights writer-director Sara Moore. Nursing their morning-after-MIFF conditions at a Warehouse District watering hole, the laid-back Lehmann and the ebullient Moore admit to having learned some hard lessons from their still-undistributed debut. Yet they appear as wizened vets by virtue of having completed a feature--unlike either Kruse or J.D. Dunlop, the latter of whom was awarded this year for his Seed Corn Symphony script. "Frankly," says Lehmann, "until you've gone through the process of actually making a feature, you won't have a clue about what it really takes. Some people never want to do it again after they finish. Sara and I are crazy enough to want to do it again."


So what does $25,000 buy an indie filmmaker these days? Well, not much, actually, if one considers that this year's MIFF-winning projects have all been tentatively budgeted in the $1 million-to-$2 million range. Yet 25 grand and the credibility it lends can make the difference between a stillborn project and a viable one. Lehmann and Moore, acknowledging the star-driven nature of the "indie" industry, are planning to put their MIFF monies toward the hiring of a coastal casting director. Kruse concurs that "the number one priority is attaching talent"; he hopes to interest international star Lena Olin in the Two Harbors role of "a sexy World War II widow who has a relationship with a 17-year-old boy named Seamus." And the Venice, California-based Mankato native Dunlop--perhaps owing to his comparative proximity to Hollywood--is fixing to spend the lion's share of his $25,000 on procuring the services of an L.A. entertainment lawyer.

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