Filmmakers turn Minnesota into a war zone

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2011 - 7:14 PM

A snowy woods near Le Center stood in for a World War II battle zone as an independent movie called it a wrap.

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It looked like a classic midwinter hunting accident. Two men in woolen coats and carrying rifles helped a third through snowy woods to a waiting jeep. The man in the middle limped awkwardly, his left pant leg stained red.

"You're gonna be all right," said one man to the wounded man as they laid him across the back seat.

"Cut," yelled the director. "That's good."

The scene on Friday afternoon was Traxler's Hunting Preserve, a game lodge in Le Center, 90 minutes south of the Twin Cities. The landscape was chosen for its resemblance to the Ardennes in France, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought in the winter of 1944-45. The three actors, John Cromwell, Aaron Courteau and Reed Sigmund, dropped character and returned to shivering in their World War II Army infantry uniforms as they awaited the next setup.

It wasn't a Hollywood scene by a long shot. Fishing shanties formed a tiny village where extras and crew members could shake off the sub-freezing chill. Production assistants dragged supplies to and fro on toboggans. The director's traditional folding chair was perched in a snowbank and its occupant, Sam Fischer, made snow angels between takes.

Locations both hot and cold

"Souvenirs," a $1.2 million independent production featuring a Minnesota cast, crew and financing, was entering its last days of principal photography. The film is the story of a generation-spanning Minnesota military family. James Cromwell, the kindly farmer in the film "Babe," joined the production from Los Angeles to play a taciturn World War II veteran. His lookalike son, John, who lives in St. Paul, plays the character as a younger man. The only other Hollywood actor in the film is Jonathan Bennett, Lindsay Lohan's boyfriend in "Mean Girls." He plays the old veteran's grandson, who is deployed to Iraq as a member of the Minnesota National Guard's Red Bulls. Production of the film began in July, with a limestone quarry near Mankato standing in for the Iraqi desert.

The movie, slated to wrap filming this past weekend, doesn't have a release date or distributor yet, but producer Craig Christiansen said a number of parties have expressed interest based on the footage shot so far.

For a low-budget production, "Souvenirs" boasts impressive production values. Last summer the Cokato limestone pit rumbled with the sounds of two Black Hawk helicopters and five battle-ready Humvees. The vehicles, along with a squad of National Guard personnel on a training weekend, were lent to the film by the Department of Defense, which approves of the script's pro-military and pro-family themes,

During the World War II scenes, rare U.S. military planes fly overhead, while one of the few surviving Ford-built jeeps clanks across the battlefield alongside German halftracks.

"There hasn't been a P-38 fighter featured in a film since 1946," said Christiansen. "There's only a handful of them in the world, and three can get airborne."

Those vehicles were also lent to the production, by local collectors of military antiques. In effect, a movie about battlefield souvenirs is being made with battlefield souvenirs. The troops in the World War II scenes are military re-enacters volunteering their time.

Despite production challenges including large-scale explosions, bullet squibs, and hauling bulky handheld video cameras through unstable ankle-deep mashed-potatoes snow, the filming has gone smoothly.

Armorer John Brindley, who provides the film's guns and oversees their safety issues, did get some curious stares when he brought 30 machine guns and a briefcase with "explosives" warning labels into Bloomington's La Quinta Inn, however.

"As you pass through the continental breakfast area, well, people were interested," he said.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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  • Rehearsing a scene from "Souvenirs."

  • Actor John Cromwell

  • SOUVENIRS

    What: An independent feature film about how military service played a part in three generations of a Minnesota family.

    Budget: $1.2 million.

    Stars: James Cromwell ("Babe"), Jonathan Bennett ("Mean Girls").

    Director: Sam Fischer.

    Release date: Not yet known.

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