ON AN ORDINARY SUNDAY in February 1989, Ali Selim was at home in St. Paul, reading the morning newspaper. As he turned the pages of the Star Tribune’s weekend magazine, Selim came across a short story by Bemidji author Will Weaver. It was a captivating tale called “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” about the slow-growing love between a Norwegian immigrant farmer and his mail-order bride.
“It was one of those stories that made the earth move, or stop, or shift,” Selim recalls. “When I finished it, I felt really touched.” Selim was in his late twenties. He’d been married for a few years, and the couple had a new baby. He’d been producing commercials and was just starting to get into directing. And he’d been looking for an idea—characters, setting, conflict—that he could turn into a movie.
As he put down the paper, Selim’s mind ticked through the logistics of turning Weaver’s story into images on a screen: all it would take was a small cast and an old farmhouse—he could shoot using mostly natural light and wouldn’t need a big crew. “I thought, ‘Boy, this will be really easy,’” he says.
OPEN ON WINTER 2005. Selim and his wife, Robin, have just celebrated their 20th anniversary. They’re standing in the kitchen of their home—a different residence now, but in the same St. Paul neighborhood. Their oldest child is 18, and they have two others, 14 and 10.
Selim is 44, but he could pass for younger. Dressed in jeans and a fleece jacket, he looks the part of a REI employee. When a FedEx truck pulls up outside, Selim excuses himself and returns carrying two heavy, octagonal metal cases, one in each hand. They contain reels of his film, Sweet Land, based on Weaver’s short story. “It’s here,” Selim murmurs, something he’s been waiting to say for 17 years.
FEW ART FORMS ARE as resource-intensive, multifaceted, and complicated as filmmaking. The typical Hollywood flick works on roughly a three-year production cycle. The first year, the script is written and pitched. Financing is secured. The second year, the film is planned and designed (pre-production) and shot. During the third year, it is edited (post-production), marketed, and released to theaters.
Independent filmmakers such as Selim, whose films are produced without the support of a major movie studio, navigate this process on their own. That’s why an independent film can take much longer to finish—if it’s completed at all. And even though Selim obtained financing on his own from private investors, managed to attract A-list talent (including Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty), and directed a film that, when it debuted this past October at the Hamptons International Film Festival, earned the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, there’s no guarantee it will be picked up by a distributor, or that you’ll ever get to see it.
So why don’t independent filmmakers stick to their day jobs and let Hollywood studios make all the movies? Why sink your heart, soul, and reputation (not to mention finances) into a project that may never see the dark of a theater? Because the world is bigger than palm-lined Santa Monica Boulevard and the taxi-clogged streets of New York City. And it’s populated by characters who aren’t superheroes or stereotypes. And there are stories—like that of a farming community out on the Minnesota prairie—that can’t help but rise up like sturdy stalks of wheat.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, AND CREW surround the historic train depot in Montevideo, a small town about 130 miles west of the Twin Cities. Actors don bow ties and derby hats. Todd Johnson, who grew up in Montevideo, has taken time off from his job as a cell phone salesman in Richfield to come back and play an extra—he believes this is the first time he’s ever worn a three-piece suit. A curious crowd has gathered around the depot to watch. Cops block traffic on the town’s main drag. The wait at a stop sign is said to be 10 minutes.
For four weeks in October 2004, Selim’s cast and crew worked 12- to 15-hour days, six days a week, shooting Sweet Land in Montevideo and the surrounding area—and giving locals a crash course in the logistics of filmmaking. The process goes something like this: first, create an authentic world—in this case, one of fields and farmhouses, furnished with everything from horses in the barns to china on the tabletop. Then, bring in the actors, whom you are responsible for feeding and housing. Finally, move the actors through the world and have them tell the story, capturing it all on film from dozens of different angles.
Montevideo residents helped Sweet Land’s crew create the film’s setting, an insular Norwegian American farming community where Inge (Elizabeth Reaser), a German refugee of World War I, struggles to understand her would-be groom, Olaf (Tim Guinee), and find acceptance in the community. Locals pulled Model Ts and buggies out of their garages and barns and gave up rooms in their homes. (Since it was hunting season, most of the area’s hotel rooms were already booked. It took some creative thinking to accommodate Sweet Land’s 100-plus cast and crew.) A local nonprofit shared its working 1913 steam thresher; a farmer plowed up his soybeans and planted barley instead; a restaurateur coached Alex Kingston (Dr. Elizabeth Corday on NBC’s ER) for a scene in which she makes a pie.
Most moviegoers aren’t aware of the long hours that go into honing a film’s details. But a year later, back in St. Paul, Selim hasn’t forgotten what each shot of Sweet Land required. He stands at the kitchen counter and opens a four-inch-thick binder that contains an annotated copy of the script, and, starting to sketch, explains how a typical scene is filmed multiple times, with the camera set up in different positions, so the editor can splice various shots together. The script supervisor, he says, tracks everything in this script “bible” and makes sure all the necessary shots have been filmed. Selim points out straight and squiggled lines marked on the script that indicate whether or not dialogue was picked up on the microphone and neatly printed notes that explain the reason for a second take, such as “Olaf and Inge have trouble with Norwegian.” The number of details a director must manage often goes unappreciated. Selim tells an anecdote about a man who asked him, “Why should it take any longer than 30 seconds to make a 30-second TV commercial?”
Directing feature actors, who must reveal their characters and how they’re changing slowly, layer by layer, differs from directing actors in commercials, Selim found. “You’re like, ‘Look at the ceiling, look at the floor, turn and bite the potato chip,’” he says of commercial work. “Directing feature actors is more like doing theater. You’re constantly talking about the arc.”
And during those precious minutes when a director is talking to his actors and discussing the nuances of teasing out the narrative arc, the sun is setting and the wind is picking up—it’s a constant battle to get all the shooting in, given the parameters of budget and schedule. Yet Selim says he wasn’t fazed by the production’s logistical challenges. Instead, the most difficult aspect of the shoot was being the only person who could actually see the film coming together in his mind’s eye. He recalls: “I looked at the 135 people standing there, believing me, freezing their asses off. There’s my wife and three kids, looking at me, and I think, ‘Is this going to work, and is it worth it? Because I’m dragging all these people through a lot of crap.’”
WHILE THE CAST AND CREW slogged through some trying days of filming, Selim had already shouldered Sweet Land’s artistic burden for years. He grew up in south Minneapolis, attended St. Thomas Academy, and earned a degree in English and philosophy at the University of St. Thomas (where his father taught economics) before deciding to devote himself to the celluloid arts. In his early twenties, Selim took filmmaking classes and started at the bottom of the industry, working as a production assistant, doing things such as scouting locations and bringing doughnuts. “I realized pretty quickly there’s no path,” he says. “If you want to direct, you direct. I just had to cook up a way to become a director.”
So Selim convinced St. Thomas Academy to replace its outdated 1950s recruiting film and hire him to make a new one. After producing and directing it, Selim was no longer just a guy who talked about making films, but a guy who actually made films—a guy who could be trusted to do so again. Selim, as they say in the industry, had a little “heat” on him.
Selim spent most of the 1990s making commercials for New York and Los Angeles production companies. About half the year, he was away from home, directing everything from a stadium full of football fans to a trained turtle for such companies as Coke, McDonald’s, Blockbuster Video, and Citibank. He estimates he has directed about 800 commercials throughout his career, earning recognition from Ad Week magazine as one of the industry’s most sought-after U.S. directors. “It’s very exotic in some ways and like being a carny in others,” he says of the work. During this time, Selim started a production company with Robin, who still handles much of the business related to his filmmaking operations. (For Sweet Land, she served as producer Jim Bigham’s right hand.) Between commercial jobs, Selim spent his free time developing a script based on a story he’d optioned, Will Weaver’s “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.”
Sweet Land’s path from the page to the screen came about through a combination of hard work, serendipity, and, of course, connections. Selim showed the script to actor Alan Cumming (The Anniversary Party), whom he’d met years earlier in Los Angeles while screening a short film, and Gil Bellows (The Shawshank Redemption, Ally McBeal), whom he’d once directed in a steak sauce commercial. Both wanted to help: Cumming offered to play Olaf’s best friend (a role Selim had written with Cumming in mind), and Bellows set up a series of readings in Los Angeles for Selim to workshop the script. Workshop participants loved the story, but they didn’t think it was the sort of project a Hollywood studio would fund. How do you market a film, they asked, with a gradual pace, a historic setting, and, of all things, Norwegian dialogue? Selim would have to find his own financing.
After talking to a high-school friend who had raised a lot of investment capital during the dot-com boom, Selim met up with Bellows, who was shooting The Weather Man, in Chicago, in the spring of 2004. “Bellows said, ‘If this guy can raise a dollar, go make your movie for a dollar,’” Selim recalls. “If you shoot it in your backyard with Styrofoam sets, it might not be a very good movie, but Alan and I will come. And if your friend can raise two dollars, then don’t make Styrofoam sets, make wooden sets.”
Selim went home and garnered his first chunk of money the very next day—from the couple who financed the St. Thomas film nearly 20 years before. Through a network of private investors, mostly Minnesotans, Selim and his executive producers (and lifelong friends), Ed Driscoll and Tom Lieberman, gathered enough money to get started (the figure $1 million has been previously published, but Selim declines to comment while he’s talking to distributors). By July 15, 2004, they were ready to roll. The film needed to be shot during fall harvest, and Selim wasn’t prepared to wait another year. Although the pre-production schedule would be extremely tight, he gathered his cast. “I think everybody thought I was insane,” he says.
SELIM IS CURRENTLY in the process of screening the film for distributors and discussing the possibility of bringing it into theaters. Enthusiastic audiences at screenings in Montevideo (two showings were planned, but more had to be added to accommodate the crowds) and in Minneapolis have been encouraging, and the Hamptons award bodes particularly well. (Open Water, the Blair Witch of shark-infested waters, premiered at Hamptons in 2003 and went on to gross $30 million at the box office.) Sweet Land is poised to be what Selim says Minnesota needs: a film that makes money, one that shows “there’s a business side to show business.”
Jane Minton, executive director of Minnesota’s Independent Feature Project (IFP), an organization that assists local independent filmmakers and other media artists, agrees. “I think this community really needs a breakout film,” she says. She compares Minneapolis to Austin, Texas, with its lively arts culture, and says that just as Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused put Austin’s filmmakers on the map, Sweet Land could do the same. “Ali has a really great shot,” she says. “This film has everything. It’s beautifully executed. It has a known cast and a great story. It’s won an audience award. Distributors have to look at that.”
Selim’s success could produce a ripple effect throughout Minnesota’s filmmaking community, Minton says. Investors take out their checkbooks, and Selim makes another film and brings new cast and crew talent up through the ranks. New filmmakers are inspired to tell their stories—and when they call an L.A. agent or production company, they won’t get the blowoff, “Minne-where?”
Once a sought-after filming location (during the 1990s, the Minnesota Film & TV Board shepherded such movies as Fargo, Grumpy Old Men, and The Mighty Ducks, to the state), Minnesota has fallen off Hollywood’s hot list in the past half-decade or so. The state became less attractive, financially speaking, after the Pawlenty administration’s decision in 2003 to eliminate the state’s rebate incentive, “Snowbate,” and to reduce funding for the state film board. Hollywood filmmakers found they could stretch their budgets further in Canada (due to its favorable currency exchange) or in other states that offer lucrative tax incentives. Local production crews left town to follow the work, causing the industry to further stagnate.
But a confluence of events in 2005 seems to indicate that things may be getting better. IFP moved to a new, larger facility. The film board had its funding reinstated in the last legislative session and hired a new executive director. North Country, Factotum, and the forthcoming film based on A Prairie Home Companion were all shot in Minnesota, bringing money and attention back to the state. While filmmaking injects money directly into the local economy (the film board estimates North Country’s economic impact to be $2 to $3 million), it also spotlights the state in a way that enhances tourism and attracts job applicants. So, too, can a vibrant independent film community reveal a community’s artistic side. “People will be really proud of our literary and filmmaking traditions once they’ve seen Sweet Land,” says Minton.
One of Sweet Land’s executive producers, Gill Holland (an indie icon who has produced more than 40 low-budget films, including the recent Sundance Film Festival hit Loggerheads), has high hopes for Selim. “He is as talented as a director can be,” Holland says. “If things go his way and with a little luck, I believe he will be an A-lister in five years and an American master in 30 years.”
Whether or not Sweet Land fits in with a distributor’s “product strategy,” as they say in the biz, Selim believes the film has already been a success. “I think I’ve already done what I set out to do,” he says. Which is to make a film that takes us inside someone else’s world—one where love can overcome cultural barriers that seem as wide as the prairie skies—and makes us better understand our own.