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Finding cinematic inspiration in Northern Minnesota

As a science leader, I write about the need to base public policies on the best available evidence. 

As an artist, I embrace mystery, and sometimes it embraces me.

Something like that happened over the last few days.  Three friends, the producers Steven Pearl, Christine Walker, and Mary Frances Budig, flew in from parts afield to meet me at a gig I was doing at the Crooked Pint in Minneapolis.  I was to be questioned by Stephanie Curtis, Minnesota Public Radio’s “Movie Maven.”  The subject was adaptation—the differences between fiction and movies, and the process of how one successfully or unsuccessfully becomes the other.  After the show, my three friends and I joined Mike Berg of the Minnesota Film and TV Board.  We all piled into a huge black SUV and headed North to the Iron Range, that rugged tract of North country that stretches Westerly from the Arrowhead region by Lake Superior half way across the state to Leech Lake.

The purpose was a location scout for a movie which has certain movie stars attached that I’m not going to name yet.  I have learned not to make too much of these things after having to share credit with someone who didn’t deserve it on one project, and having a few others slip away after years of work, like handfuls of dry silica.  There is no cocktail party question more tiresome than being asked about a project that has a movie star attached but is still, despite Herculean effort, going nowhere.  The mix of high expectation, disappointment and the descent into unhotness, happening over and over, party after party, is something akin to living a hellish version of Groundhog Day. 

Nevertheless, the simple truth is that an artist must make art.  Like many Happywood survivors I know, after a point it seems to become a battle of attrition.  We sometimes simply seem to continue because we are addicted or hopelessly romantic and possessed by a deep need to believe, against all odds, in an enormously happy ending, instead of the more usual one that more closely approximates the process of aging into decrepitude. 

Promoting a movie—your movie—when it is just coming out… the red carpets, the parties, the special hotels, the drivers and limos, the famous and fun-loving friends, the giddy fans, the service… it’s all quite heady and truly is an enormously happy experience, one that I would wish on anybody.  It’s a new baby.  It’s a wedding.  But it is also all a bit of show to help sell the movie, and one has to remind one’s self that it’s not quite real.  It’s the movie biz of the movie biz. 

All of which made heading North to the Range and the good people of the Bois Forte Indian Reservation an experience I wasn’t quite ready to emotionally participate in even as I was directing the process.  But getting there, something began to change. 

As we pulled into the Fortune Bay Casino on Lake Vermillion sometime after eleven, I was struck by how similar the place and its parking lot looked to the casino I had imagined when writing the screenplay.  Describing a dream sometimes crystallizes it in a way that misses all the important bits, and sometimes chases it away entirely, so this was good.

The next day and the next, it happened over and again.  The hospital and the bank in Cook.  The school gymnasium at Nett Lake.  None of them exactly as I’d pictured when writing, but more or less, like a slightly altered reality.  Then there were the eerily similar experiences of many in the Bois Forte band to what I had written. 

The movie is about a white banker and an Indian banker, both broken but hopeful, who get into a terrible struggle over the various possible futures of their community.   It deals with the delinquency of a native boy, the son of the Indian banker, who struggles under the weight of expectations and institutional racism. But these people have already lived it and I had the bizarre experience of feeling like I wasn’t so much a novelist or a screenwriter of the story—when I arrived I had thought of myself as both—but a stenographer.

Photo by Shawn Lawrence Otto

At one point in the story, the white banker is reduced to living in a trailer home.  We searched for days to find the right setting.  Nothing was quite like I pictured it.  This is important to get right because it’s the core setting of both the novel and the movie.  But then, after two days, we got onto the reservation, and found a location that could work.  Directors adapt movies from their screenplays in much the same way a screenplay can be adapted from a novel.  They are the telling of an approximately parallel story in a different medium, which presents its own opportunities and limitations.  I was trying to get my mind around whether I could accept the limitations of this location for the opportunities it presented, and get more out of the choice than it cost.  This is always the tradeoff you make as a film director: when improvising, choosing locations, casting, shooting.  Somehow you direct something that takes on a life of its own and if you can be open and guide the process with good choices that give the film more than they cost, it will become better and more alive than anyone could have imagined.

I pondered these questions as we all turned to leave the spot where the white banker’s trailer may or may not eventually be parked—the spot that would contain the heart of the story of these two broken but hopeful men from different races, struggling for the same ground.  By chance I turned back, and from the wider perspective I noticed the location’s most predominant and unusual feature: looming over the spot were two trees: an Oak and an Elm, growing intertwined with one another, both broken but both still living.

This post was written by Shawn Lawrence Otto and originally published on Neorenaissance. Follow Shawn on Twitter: @shawnotto  

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