Shooting for Dollars

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

Such plans aren't the only acknowledgment that independent filmmaking in Minnesota is a relative term. The MIFF program itself makes eligible those out-of-state auteurs who've lived previously in the Land of Lakes for at least seven years (i.e., the Coen Brothers would qualify), in addition to those who've moved here at least 12 months prior to application--an apparent concession to the need for filmmakers to establish those all-important coastal connections. Moreover, and perhaps most oddly, MIFF winners aren't required to shoot their films in-state.

This "unique eligibility process," per the fund's IFP/North-employed administrator Rebecca Bachman, has inspired some skepticism even within the winners' circle. "The eligibility thing seems to undermine the whole idea that what this is doing is fostering the creative talents of Minnesota filmmakers," opines Lehmann, who has worked locally over the years at KTCA-TV, the defunct Film in the Cities, and the formerly St. Paul-based ITVS. "It's possible for somebody who really has no connection to the Twin Cities--other than maybe growing up here--to qualify, get the money, shoot someplace else, and never come back here again."

Or, perhaps, not to shoot at all. While the barriers to producing a film are legendary--staggering expenses, tricky equipment, capricious backers--the seemingly lackluster batting average of the MIFF winners invites an uncomfortable question. Given the MIFF repayment guidelines, might some of the "loan" recipients have made only marginal efforts to produce their scripts, choosing instead to pocket the money and perhaps move on to other projects?

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

"The basic thing is that we've decided to invest in careers," Adamsick replies. "We proceed in good faith under the assumption that the recipients will proceed in good faith." Moreover, Adamsick doesn't necessarily think the success rate is bad. Assuming the completion of just three more projects in the next two years would bring the ratio up to five out of fifteen--"which would surely rank with or exceed any development program at any major studio," he says.

At least this year's crew seems determined to bring their scripts to the screen--and to do it here. The transplanted Dunlop intends Seed Corn to be fully homegrown: He plans to use locations in Jordan and New Prague for the tale of a farmer who plays classical music to nurture the development of his corn crop. As further proof of his project's regional authenticity, the 36-year-old screenwriter conceived it while listening to an MPR story about how Czech composer Anton Dvorák composed portions of his 1893 "New World" symphony during two summers spent in what Dunlop calls "this pissant town in Iowa." The author (who got his M.F.A. in screenwriting from Loyola Marymount University) ended up dropping Dvorák, but the basic concept of classical music in the cornfield remains well rooted. "I wanted to juxtapose something as basic as farming--tilling the ground, growing things--with something as 'cultivated,' as they say, as classical music," says Dunlop, who cites Field of Dreams as an inspiration. "I've always wanted to show--maybe even more so now that I live in California--that the middle part of the country is more than what they call 'fly-over country.'"

Similarly, Kruse's Two Harbors--which Adamsick hails as "maybe the best script we've ever had"--originates in his personal connection to the Iron Range, where his dad, the son of a mining superintendent, met his social-worker mom in the 1950s. Set in 1947, the film (whose script will be read at the Jungle Theater on January 17) seeks to place its coming-of-age tale against the backdrop of postwar economic decline in a town dependent on its export of steel. "It's a resurrection story," says the 28-year-old Kruse, "and I wanted it to mimic what's happening in the town, which is a character in and of itself." The Notre Dame and Florida State film major's audacious plans to shoot a frugal period piece on location will be aided by the fact that Two Harbors still retains the industrial appearance of its past. "The old rail cars are still there unloading taconite into chutes and ore boats," observes Kruse, who hopes to begin shooting on the Iron Range next fall.

At first glance, the odd-one-out of this bunch appears to be the Jersey Shore-set Silent Shill, although its tears-of-a-clown tale of the tender relationship between two circus partners completes a trilogy of MIFF scripts whose interests lie less in commerciality than characterization. In addition, Shill, which Lehmann and the Bay Area-based Moore would like to film in the Twin Cities next fall, extends the Homo Heights makers' preoccupation with an affectionate variety of subcultural satire.

"Circus people," says Moore, "have all these quirky behaviors that are almost inbred, having been passed from generation to generation. That creates a very weird kind of human being--people who have no concept of the real world because they live in this tent, doing these tricks. So I want to skewer that--but with love."

At the Film Board, Adamsick expresses his own love for all three projects, while reiterating his coastally cultivated view of script development as crucial to the process. "The old adage in Minnesota," he says, "has been that there are plenty of good scripts but no money to make them--and in L.A., it's that there's plenty of money but no good scripts. Five years ago, I would have held the former view, but now I feel the opposite. It's all about the quality of the script."

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