Giving the romantic fable “Smitten!” its world premiere Friday at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival brings it to the final destination of a long, winding round trip. And a homecoming back to its starting point.
An impish updating of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” filmed in Italy, the film stars “Glee’s” Darren Criss as a fashion exec who is kidnapped in Milan, hidden in a small Alpine village that is under a romantic spell and becomes an extremely happy hostage in the company of the local beauty.
The film is the feature directing debut for Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow, who also wrote the script. Born in Austin, Minn., and raised in St. Paul, the St. Olaf alumnus has maintained close local friendships throughout four decades in Hollywood. Several of those old friends, having successful careers of their own, helped provide funding for the independent film.
“We did pitch this to the studios, but they were looking for home runs, not singles. We ultimately went to outside the Hollywood system and went to our friends,” said Morrow’s Minneapolis-born producing partner Julia Rask, an associate producer of TV’s “The Mindy Project.” Others from the Twin Cities with theatrical and musical backgrounds provided their talents.
With key financial and creative contributions to the film coming from the area, a local debut screening was a given.
“What else could we do with it?” Morrow said by phone last week. Showing it to an audience packed with friends and relatives will be a sort of homecoming, just as returning to the area for a weekend will reconnect Morrow to the birthplace of his film career.
It was at Minneapolis’ Minikahda Club in 1970 that Morrow, then a dead-broke 22-year-old rock musician who hadn’t quite managed to graduate from St. Olaf, met Bill Sackter, beginning a warm 11-year relationship that changed both their lives. Sackter, a sociable 51-year-old with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, inspired Morrow’s first dramatic work, his Emmy-winning teleplay for the 1981 TV movie “Bill.” That in turn led to Morrow’s best-screenplay Oscar for 1988’s “Rain Man” and his following decades as a screenwriter and producer.
While “Smitten!” is scheduled for later regional debuts in Italy, “in the meantime we’re premiering it in our hometown, which we’re really proud of,” said Rask.
“This movie is kind of Minnesota-financed and Minnesota-made, which is kind of amazing. We really feel there’s a lot of that Midwestern heart in it,” she said.
“And you know, the Alps aren’t so different from going up to the cabin in summer.”
Morrow, 69, wrote the script based on an Italian newspaper’s obituary of a woman who “died and left a small fortune to, of all things, a cottage where, as a young maiden, she made love for the first and last time” with a handsome soldier at the beginning of World War I. The bequest funds the small town’s annual “festival of love.”
“I was smitten with the idea of turning this into a movie somehow,” Morrow said.
“Where we actually shot is not far from the actual village. We were able to find this 500-year-old village of 46 buildings that have been there since the bubonic plague, I guess. It’s up in the Dolomites, which is so unlike your typical image of Italy, and yet it was this magical, timeless place.”
He developed the story by giving it a note of magic realism, which is a common feature of his work.
“I like to feel that like almost every other thing that I’ve had success with, there is this human being somewhere who has lost a dream or lost their freedom or is misunderstood, just this notion of unrequited life that I, Barry Morrow, can satisfy,” he said.
He realized early in his career that “I can’t change the world, but I can make Bill Sackter’s life better.”