It’s easy to feel a certain ambivalent nostalgia about all those studio-financed Hollywood movies shot in Minnesota during the 1990s. They were hardly models of craftsmanship (Feeling Minnesota and Jingle All t he Way, anyone?), but they brought loads of money to the state, proved invaluable training for local cast and crew, and conferred a certain prestige on a film community that has always been rich in talent but casts a decidedly low national profile.
The Hollywood-to- Minnesota production pipeline eventually dried up as the studios followed the tax incentives and cash rebates to Canada and overseas, but in recent years those films have been replaced by a handful of more modestly budgeted Minnesota-shot indies (Factotum, A Prairie Home Companion, Sweet Land), many of them with local financing, high-profile casts, and scripts that we can actually be proud of. I take it as a sign of good things to come that Minneapolis native and Guthrie Theater alum John Carroll Lynch (left), a character actor who started his prolific film career with small roles in many of those decade-old productions (he played Marge Gunderson’s duck-stamp-painting husband in Fargo), was back in town last night, directing a staged reading of his first screenplay, Remember Minnesota, at the Ritz Theater.
The screenplay, which Lynch co-wrote with his writer/producer friend Tess Clark, already has a director attached (Mikael Saloman, who helmed the Band of Brothers miniseries) and an executive producer (Twin Cities lawyer John Stout) who is meeting with potential investors for (we can hope) a Minnesota-filmed production sometime in our near future. Last night’s reading, part of the Screenwriter’s Workshop’s excellent ScriptNight series, was a first public look at what that film may one day be and a chance to offer the filmmakers some anonymous feedback. Set against a stripped-down Ritz stage (just a couple of oars on the floor and an oversized screen projecting nostalgic rowing images), the intimate scene positioned twelve local actors (including Sally Wingert, Steve Yoakam, Jonas Goslow, Maren Bush, and Sara Marsh) on stools for a surprisingly animated reading that would have been well worth the $10 ticket price even if Lynch wasn’t attached to the project.
The script condenses into one year the two-year saga of the University of Minnesota men’s crew team's improbable journey to the 1987 Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s Championship Regatta. Remember Minnesota works in the reassuringly familiar tradition of Hoosiers, Rudy, Miracle, and a host of other feel-good sports melodramas. This time, the underdog is Brad Melby, an underachieving stoner from Bismarck, North Dakota (the real Melby, now a respectable Ameriprise Financial adviser, was in the audience last night along with the rest of the winning four-man, one-woman crew). In the script, Brad runs into his childhood crush, Vanessa, on the U of M campus and follows her to a recruitment meeting for the rowing team for which she is varsity coxswain.
There’s enough talk at this meeting about how rowing is a metaphor for life (“It turns followers into leaders, mediocrity into greatness”) that we can safely assume, even in these early moments, that our slacker protagonist will not only make the team but be transformed by the experience. Part of his motivation for attending the blistering early morning practices, of course, is the proximity to Vanessa, who is oblivious to his feelings—just as Brad is unaware of his growing romance with Lottie, the endearingly jaded musician who works in the school cafeteria and smuggles Brad post-practice meals.
If you’re a seasoned viewer of sports films, there’s not a lot that will surprise you in Remember Minnesota (the script's got everything from the father whose grudging respect the son has to earn to an unexpected turn of events that positions our unlikely hero for his big moment), but this is a genre that is so familiar and so satisfying in its familiarity that it would be a disaster to tinker too much with the formula. Lynch and Clark, to their credit, keep the narrative moving forward at a brisk pace, with lots of laughs and a host of characters that are, frankly, impossible to dislike.
It’s too early, though, to predict what kind of film this will be. Director Saloman is a two-time Oscar nominee for cinematography (The Abyss and Backdraft), which could translate into some thrilling rowing sequences. But casting is key. Sports films are ruined by boneheaded casting—think Rob Lowe as the pretty boy rower of Oxford Blues. Lynch has already agreed to play Brad’s father in the film, and I’ll cast a vote for Guthrie vet Wingert to reprise her role last night as Brad’s mother. But even more importantly, I'm crossing my fingers that we continue to nurture films and film events like these that put the focus back where it should be.