In April of last year, actor Matthew Amendt found himself living a double life. By night he walked the boards as Guildenstern in the Guthrie's Hamlet, the final production before Dowling's army decamped for its cobalt palace on the Mississippi. By day, he plied his trade under less exalted conditions.
"I spent 12 hours at a time being chased around a cave by orcs," Amendt recalls. "There were booby traps everywhere. I thought, This is the most absurd thing to be doing for money."
Amendt and a sizable cohort of Twin Cities actors were out in a field in Wisconsin filming Midnight Chronicles, an independent fantasy film that swept up some very familiar stage names for its cast, including Guthrie mainstays Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens. Independent theater stalwarts such as Matt Sciple, Carolyn Pool, Chris Carlson, Shá Cage, and Stephen D'Ambrose can also be found toiling away in the dusky netherworld of Aryth.
The film has its roots in the nerdy arcana of the gaming world. Christian Petersen founded Fantasy Flight Games in 1995, in Roseville, and he continues as CEO today. In 2003, FFG released the role-playing game Midnight, which takes place in a realm where evildoers have already won all the major battles.
"The bad guys are the ruling class," Tod Gelle, operations manager at FFG, says of the backstory. "And the heroes are beaten down. It's the story of Mag Kiln, who works for evil. But on his journey he starts to wonder if this is the right thing to do."
Theater vet Steve Sweere plays a fellow named Morrec. "I was a bad guy who saw the light and became a good guy," says Sweere. "Now I lead the insurgency."
Midnight Chronicles is itself a strike against the status quo—a speculative project made without the backing of a studio or a committed buyer. In post-production now, the film still has some re-shoots and soundtrack work to be finished. FFG hopes to complete it by this fall. After that, Petersen will shop the project to cable networks in hopes of getting it picked up as a series. At the moment, the project's entire budget has yet to top a million dollars.
"It's kind of a punk-rock aesthetic," explains Sweere. "But these guys are very ambitious. They know exactly what they want, and they're pushing the level of independent television in a way that I haven't seen."
Indeed, a look at preview clips on the film's website reveals that a good deal of the budget has been sunk into computer effects. Rich-hued landscapes rise to the horizon, while in the foreground orcs torment unfortunate villagers. Heroes flash past on their thundering mounts.
"The first week in Wisconsin was horse week, and I'm kind of terrified of horses," says Sam Landman, who plays Kruce. (Landman describes his brute of a character as "the only guy who doesn't do exposition.") "They're big animals with no brakes. You can't put one into park. But I had a guy, Lewis, who built all the weapons. He kept mixing me vodka-cranberries in a plastic bottle. I was loosey-goosey enough to get on a horse, but I had to make sure I wasn't too drunk to deal with all the new pages [of script] getting thrown at me."
While the Midnight actors speak glowingly of the experience, everyone seems aware that the finished product could be a tough sell. FFG headman Petersen wrote and directed the film, and was rigorously committed to creating a work that would satisfy gamers.
"The fans are going to make or break at least the early efforts for the film," says Dawn Brodey, who shuttled back and forth between shooting it and working in the interactive theater show We Gotta Bingo. "The people who play this game know this world, what it looks like. They want to know how we handle this thing that they hold really dear."
The hope is to have the next Xena, without the campy overtones. Sweere remembers a moment when the cast found itself imaging such a lucrative life in syndication.
"We had been shooting all day, a location shot, and it was really cold," he says. "We had orcs and thieves, chickens and sheep, 50 extras and horses charging through. There was a lot of standing around, end of the day, and nobody was talking anymore.
"Richard [Ooms] was standing there in his wizard robes, and he starts giggling to himself. I asked him what was so funny, and he turns around and goes, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if this was our job?'"