The wind-swept plains of Fargo they're not. But Newport, Cottage Grove and Afton come pretty darn close, you betcha.
And much like the Red River Valley city made famous in the dark comedy "Fargo" 18 years ago, those towns and their citizens are getting their big moment on the silver screen this week in a movie drawing rave reviews at the renowned Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
It was a year ago this week that about three dozen crew members led by the Texas-based filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner arrived to film scenes for the movie "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter." It premiered Monday and has been playing all week at the festival, where it is in contention for the gold medal for best U.S. drama.
Keeping its work largely under wraps, the film crew was in the east metro area for several weeks, shooting at Afton State Park, the Afton Alps ski area, and Boyd's Motel and the North Pole Restaurant in Newport. It also shot desolate wintry scenes in rural Cottage Grove aimed at mimicking those from "Fargo," the movie shot in Minnesota by another pair of brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen.
"Kumiko" and "Fargo" are inextricably linked. "Kumiko" tells the story of a lonely Japanese woman, the title character, who is living a stilted life working in an office and who becomes convinced that a satchel holding $1 million in ransom in the movie "Fargo" is real (that film, after all, had slyly labeled itself as "Based on a True Story").
In "Fargo," the money was buried along a snowy fence line by a bumbling kidnapper (Steve Buscemi), whose jaw was shot to pieces. After watching "Fargo" over and over, Kumiko goes on a quest to the United States in search of the mythical treasure.
Such a woman did exist — in urban myth at least, furthering the movie's art-imitates-life-imitates-art-again twist.
In November 2001, a 28-year-old Tokyo woman, Takako Konishi, was found dead from suicide in a grove of trees near Detroit Lakes, Minn. Police surmised that she, too, had been looking for the fictional "Fargo" loot. It made for a good story, but turned out to be untrue. The unwinding of the myth is told in a 2003 documentary, "This Is a True Story."
Since "Fargo" is set in 1987, the Zellners — who wrote, directed, produced, edited and have roles in "Kumiko" — were looking for sites that fit the period and scenery reminiscent of the high plains, said Anne Healy, a 25-year film location veteran based in the Twin Cities. With her help, they found both in Washington County.
"They already knew what they wanted to film. When they flew up here from Texas, it was a lot like it is now — super cold," Healy said.
They were enthralled with the bleak midwinter whiteness, which she said is exactly what they were seeking. "A lot of the things in 'Fargo' celebrated that kind of imagery."
The Zellners were enthusiastic and friendly, she added, putting everyone at ease. "Kumiko" is by far their biggest project, with Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi in the title role. The film has been about a decade in the making.
"Thank God there was plenty of snow," Healy said. "They had brought a guy from L.A. to make snow, but he basically sat around and did nothing. He felt kind of bad, but we didn't need him. It snowed pretty much on cue for us."
A farm field along a lonely stretch of Manning Avenue in Cottage Grove replicated the site where the "Fargo" loot was to have been hidden. And the crew spent 2½ days filming scenes at Boyd's Motel in Newport, said owner Dhaval Bhakta. "I guess they liked the background, and they like the look of our motel sign, which is kind of older looking," he said.
A year before shooting interior scenes at the North Pole restaurant and adjacent Newport Drug, the Zellners had scouted the locations and liked what they saw, said Brian North, who operates the businesses with his sister and parents. The Norths built the shopping center housing the businesses in 1952, and the buildings hadn't changed much since a remodeling in the 1980s. The restaurant has since been expanded and upgraded again.
Older model cars were brought in and parked in the lot. The filmmakers also hired eight local extras to mingle in the background, North said. "They were looking for people aged 55 and over, except for one younger man, which is kind of what most of our clientele is."
The crew spent an entire night, from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., filming in the restaurant and the drugstore. North stayed on hand to offer help, such as making sure sounds from appliances didn't interfere with shooting.
"I had no idea how much work goes into a film," North said, describing how the restaurant was jammed with crew members and lighting and sound gear. "They did take after take after take to get everything in the scene just right."
Having seen the movie being made up close, both Bhakta and North, along with Healy, are hoping that "Kumiko" gets a screening in the Twin Cities.
Movie locations, Healy added, are where the real world meets the movie world. "If you prepare it right, there's no surprises, and everyone has a good time," she said.