DULUTH — Matthew Dressel first saw an audience watch "Daniel's Gotta Die," the dark-humored film he wrote more than a decade ago, in a black box theater last October when it premiered at the Austin (Texas) Film Festival.
It was anxiety-inducing, he recalled, experiencing the real-time reaction of the crowd's response to this quirky comedy that lived off-screen for so long. But right around the end of the first act, Dressel said he felt the room of about 100 viewers shift.
"There's that moment," he said. "They're along for the ride."
"Daniel's Gotta Die," with the built-in lure of being the late Bob Saget's final film, will premiere locally at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Zinema as part of the Minnesota Film Festival. Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia,") who stars in the movie will attend the screening and perform a stand-up show at Teatro Zuccone later that night.
The film festival, in its second year, runs through April 2 at the Zeitgeist building in the center of Duluth's Arts District and will feature more than 100 shorts, documentaries and feature-length stories. It's a filmmakers' festival, according to director Matthew Koshmrl, for those who are currently making movies and those who are film-making curious. The program has a series of indie picks, including some that were made locally using resources available through the Media Arts School at Zeitgeist and the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm, Minn.
The festival includes a pitch competition, which gives would-be creators a chance to wow a panel of professionals, with up to $18,000 in grants available.
"Daniel's Gotta Die" is the most Hollywood of the offerings. It's playing in two theaters — with one already sold out, Koshmrl said.
In this dark comedy, the four Powell children, ranging from the cold and calculating Mia (Rajskub) to the chipper and good-guy Daniel (Joel David Moore), must spend the weekend at their dead father's (Iggy Pop) estate in order to claim a piece of the inheritance. While Daniel is bent on bonding, his siblings are trying to kill him and claim his money.
Dressel, 38, is a Michigan native who made his way to Duluth via Los Angeles around a decade ago. He quickly became embedded in the local filmmaking scene, filming shorts and writing scripts. He programmed films at Zinema for a while, curating a selection of off-beat movies. His YouTube series "The Pilot is Dead" is a quirky and comedic look at the shortest of short-lived TV shows.
Dressel, whose influences range from the Coen brothers to "The Simpsons," wrote "Daniel's Gotta Die" 12 years ago — then it languished. It was optioned by production company Darius Films. Actors and directors came and went, and the title changed. It was rewritten over and over again and eventually recast in the Caribbean as opposed to a cold, northern clime. A blue iguana became a central figure. The title changed again.
In 2021, Dressel was part of a small COVID-19-conscious cast and crew in the Cayman Islands and took on a heightened role with the production. In addition to writing updates on the fly, he shot behind-the-scenes footage. Later, back in Duluth, he was involved in every step through post-production.
He's now seen the finished product upward of 10 times — but never with friends and family.
"It's been absolutely surreal," Dressel said. "Even just being a part of the process. I have been there every step of the way."
In his screenplay, Dressel initially imagined the Powell family story as whacky and slapstick. But in the hands of Canadian filmmaker Jeremy LaLonde, that got toned down, and it darkened and became serious.
"The director took influences from Hitchcock," Dressel said.
Saget, most famous for his role as Danny Tanner on "Full House," died in January 2022 before he had a chance to see his final film. But he spent a lot of time talking about the experience on episode of his podcast "Bob Saget's Here for You" with guest Rajskub.
On the episode, Rajskub, recalled getting a phone call from her agent asking if she could leave in two days for the Cayman Islands, where she would need to be for next five weeks. She didn't even know anything about the film and said accepted the role even before she read the script.
"And then I read it and thought, 'When is the other shoe going to drop?'," Rajskub said.
"Daniel's Gotta Die" has been selected at several other screenings including the LA Comedy Festival, Garden State Film Festival in New Jersey and Monte-Carlo Film Festival. Dressel, meanwhile, is working on his own event, Junk Food Film Festival, that celebrates VHS culture and not-so-serious works. He's also continuing his web series.
"I'd like to get back to writing movies again," he said. "I just need to find someone who will pay me."