Shooting for Dollars

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

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$25,000 apiece--was initially funded by the McKnight Foundation and Blockbuster Video, although the latter has since been replaced by Northwest Airlines.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.

"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.  

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?

"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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