Films shot in Minnesota are scrappier now

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2012 - 11:08 AM

The moviemaking scene here has changed since the 1990s, and not entirely for the worse.

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Filmmaker Brady Kiernan, right, with “Stuck Between Stations” stars Zoe Lister-Jones and Sam Rosen. Kiernan, who said he loves living in Minneapolis, has formed a production company here with his brothers.

Photo: Kris Drake Photography,

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One of the better illustrations of how small has become the new big is the Minnesota film industry.

Back in the 1990s, what was colloquially called a "snowbate" brought Hollywood filmmakers to Minnesota for a flurry of high-profile flicks. Advertising agencies and industrial films also created work for actors and crews.

Patrick Coyle, who has made two commercial films in the past decade and is at work on a third, recalled the activity around one production company as "an actor factory. There was a stable of actors who were constantly busy."

Gov. Arne Carlson routinely went to "Ice Pack," the big Hollywood party thrown by Minnesota film community expatriates, and would come back with studio deals. Hollywood films put lots of people to work, Coyle recalled, and he was able to make a good living with voice work, including as the voice of Hamburger Helper.

After Carlson left office, the tax incentive melted away and Hollywood went to Michigan and Canadian locations when it needed snow and ice. At the same time, corporate training was moving to the Internet, and the Screen Actors Guild strike in 2000 changed the paradigm for union actors in the film business.

Coyle, however, has kept making films -- "Detective Fiction" in 2003 and "Into Temptation" in 2009. His newest is "Half at Zero," a high school football/coming-of-age story now being shot in Minnesota.

"In the '90s, we lived off corporate schlock and crappy roles that were piecemealed out," Coyle said. "There was definitely more money, but I think it's better now because we're doing what we want to do."

Coyle is raising a family in Minneapolis, so he has an incentive to stay. Brady Kiernan, who has fewer strings attached, nonetheless has also doubled down on staying in the Twin Cities. Kiernan's "Stuck Between Stations" drew attention last year at the Tribeca Film Festival and was a favorite with audiences here.

"The incentives all around the country make it appealing to go shoot in those places because you can stretch your budget so much further," Kiernan said. "I just really love the city and love living here."

Kiernan has started a production company with his brothers. Other filmmakers have made what often seems like an inevitable move to the coast. Ali Selim, whose "Sweetland" was a charming hit in 2006, went to Los Angeles to pursue TV work. Wyatt McDill went to L.A., seeking financing for two projects that he hopes to shoot in Minnesota.

"There's a time for filmmakers -- after you make a small film and before you're making films big enough to allow you to work and live anywhere -- when it's hard not to be in L.A. or New York," McDill wrote in an e-mail.

Hollywood still stops in -- such as the Coen brothers with "A Serious Man" and "A Prairie Home Companion." But the swell of optimism that fed dreams about Minneapolis/St. Paul becoming a destination has waned considerably. Independents have moved into the vacuum.

"We have some wonderful resources, but it's smaller," said Kiernan, who noted how well Austin, Texas, supports its film community, which includes veteran directors Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez.

In Minnesota, emerging film artists find support in the indie-film nonprofit IFP Minnesota and grants from the Jerome and McKnight foundations.

"Unfortunately, the same things don't exist in that magnitude in Minneapolis," Kiernan said.

Coyle essentially cited the old adage about adversity making you stronger. The departure of big money has "forced us to do our work and work a little harder," he said. "When you have to work harder, the work gets better. You get stronger."

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