Seeing Knife River through new eyes, Minneapolis-based filmmaker Justin Ayd had been passing through the unincorporated village with a big personality for years. On the route from his Twin Cities home to his aunt’s resort (Ayd’s aunt owned Dodges Log Lodges from the 1970s through the 1990s) on Lake Superior’s North Shore, Ayd began to see the individuals who lived there, and their stories, in a new light.
Making a film happen in the harsh light of economics has been another matter, and one that is a constant challenge to small filmmakers who see northern Minnesota as an ideal backdrop.
Ayd says the genesis for his current documentary started 10 years ago when he and a friend were scouting a film location and stopped for a treat in Knife River. The kind of treat he got was utterly different than what he expected.
Stepping into Mel’s Fish, since made over into Great! Lakes Candy, Justin fell in love with the story of transformation from fish shop to candy shop. It made him want to find out more about the personal stories of the residents, and he filed the idea away, until now.
His documentary is a look into the intersecting lives of the people in Knife River, focusing on the close knit nature of the place that Ayd finds so fascinating.
“These are ordinary people but unique people that form an extraordinary community that is interwoven in a way that you don’t find in the cities,” Ayd said.
He and his wife, Jennifer, are working together on the project under the auspices of their own company: H8C Productions. He is the producer/director for the film, and Jennifer is the supervising producer. In his “regular” job, Ayd is a film specialist and projectionist at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
“Very slow progress” is how Ayd describes the process of creating a film at a distant location while fitting it in between full-time jobs, especially for small film productions where funding typically has to come piecemeal through donations, crowdfunding platforms and grants.
The couple launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to pay for travel and time away from day jobs, and a myriad of other costs like equipment rental and hiring local cinematographers.
Working in the arts community could give Ayd the flexibility to take time off in the spring to be on location, however, he will have to score more grant money to make that happen. Meanwhile, Ayd knows that he has to be on site to capture daily life as it happens.
Creative folks struggle along through the toughest of times, but Ayd acknowledges that it often comes down to dollars and cents whether a project gets legs. Even with Minnesota’s film rebate program still tentatively intact, “Snowbate” can’t help the mom-and-pop segment of filmmakers.
Snowbate will reimburse 20 percent to filmmakers post-production with a minimum budget expenditure of $100,000. Once a budget goes over $1 million, rebate reimbursement goes up to 25 percent.
“A lot of people talk about growing the film industry in the state, but a cash rebate is the only thing that’s going to stop people from moving to California or Atlanta, where film production is really supported,” Ayd stated.
A short film called “Everyone Goes in the Lake” is scheduled to begin shooting near Bena, Minn., during the summer of 2018, bringing an Iron Range kid back north. Rudy Pavich, raised in Hibbing, wrote and will be starring in the film.
Pavich, also a partner in production along with In The Moment Films, says that the unique landscape is unbeatable for filmmakers.
“It’s a cool tip of the cap to northern Minnesota with all of its amazing landmarks where you can have fall colors or a giant ore pit as the backdrop for filming,” Pavich said.
The setting is the strongest draw to northern Minnesota for filmmakers, but Pavich says the people and the “vibe” are pretty irresistible, too. He says that the small communities he has worked in up north embrace movie-making, often going out of their way to help out in many small ways from storing gear to sharing food.
“They love it when someone shows up with a film crew. They really rally around all films, big or small, and make it so much easier despite the greater abundance of resources in the cities,” Pavich said.
Nonetheless, shooting at a remote location does throw up extra barriers, like higher travel costs.
“I have to find people for the crew who are willing to travel, and pay for that time, but what an amazing place,” said Pavich, whose enterprise is funded through donations and personal debt.
Kjell Kvanbeck is working on an extended version of his short film that won “Best Minnesota Made Short” at the 2013 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. The feature length “Golden” will be set at a cabin on Burntside Lake near Ely, and will cover a one day meditation on life, love and loss, “and how we process through those moments of change,” according to Kvanbeck.
In the middle of finalizing the script for filming next summer, he hopes to land a big enough actor name to draw in a larger budget that will allow him to take advantage of the Snowbate opportunity.
While Kvanbeck is dreaming big in the casting department, hoping for big names to bring a big budget that will put him in the running for Snowbate, he has a back-up plan, one that he calls “being realistic.” That reality would mean working with local actors, possibly from Duluth, and funding the film himself.
Filming up north presents its share of challenges to Kvanbeck, who says that extra costs show up in the travel. Paying for transportation and lodging for a crew is only part of the concern when filming out in the woods.
“Logistically, it’s a lot harder to film at the lake with a road that isn’t real good, a heavy truck with equipment and a cabin where the electricity and water are not meant to handle a whole crew,” Kvanbeck said.
Producing this film under his company, True Norse Films, Kvanbeck’s steady job is making commercials. “This film is one of my passion projects. It’s what I love to do,” he said.
Despite the obstacles of making a film on the edge of Minnesota’s northern wilderness, Kvanbeck says the flip side is an authenticity that creates a richer production value and the opportunity to have location become a character in the story.
“I could film this close to the cities for less money, but it wouldn’t be as beautiful and it wouldn’t reach people in the same way,” Kvanbeck said.