The usual narrative about moviemaking in Minnesota is that projects don’t shoot here because we can’t compete with the tax credits offered by several other states. But a look at the list of movies that do get made here reveals this silver lining: A high percentage of them are good.
Shooting movies in the Land O’Lakes often comes down to snow, because it’s one thing a moviemaker can’t find in Hollywood. Whether it’s a blizzard threatening to shut down travel in “Airport,” Charlize Theron traipsing through slush in “North Country,” Natalie Portman throwing snowballs in “Beautiful Girls,” Swedish immigrants in “The New Land” racing to build a shelter before winter sets in or Arnold Schwarzenegger walking past piles of fake freeze in “Jingle All the Way” (which was filmed in the spring), a snowman is one way for a movie to instantly say “Minnesota.”
It is not, however, the most reliable way, and “Jingle All the Way” wasn’t the only movie that had trouble finding snow. Crews for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Fargo” were constantly forced to make their way northward, because the native sons hated the look of artificial snow but the real stuff kept disappearing during the mild winter of 1995. The Coens learned their lesson. The next time they shot a movie here, it was “A Serious Man,” set in summer and fall.
Same thing happened with the “Grumpy Old Men” movies. Stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon disliked the cold weather of the first one so much that they agreed to do the second one only on the condition that it take place during fishing season. And not ice fishing season.
Snow also figures in one of the great Minnesota movies that misses my list of streamable favorites only because it’s so hard to find: Oscar-winning “American Dream,” Barbara Kopple’s impassioned documentary about the 1985-86 strike at the Hormel plant in Austin.
It’s tricky to discern other common themes in Minnesota movies, although it’s true that many of them have to do with crimes, from fake murder (“Feeling Minnesota”) to actual murder (“You’ll Like My Mother”) to multiple murder (“I Am Not a Serial Killer”). Maybe decisionmakers on the coasts think it’s adorable to see folks in flyover land do terrible things to each other?
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of at least three of my favorite Minnesota-made movies.
The opening titles promise that the kidnapping comedy-drama is a true story that happened in 1987, which is a lie you’ll discover if you try researching it. If you seek out the Twin Cities filming locations, you’ll also have difficulty since many have disappeared, but you can still visit Stockmen’s Truck Stop in South St. Paul while pondering whether the movie would have been as big a hit if the Coens had stuck with the original title, “Brainerd.” (They changed it because nobody in Hollywood believed them when they said Brainerd was an actual place.)
‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ (2014)
“Fargo” is the gift that keeps on giving, pop-culture-wise. Not only did it inspire three seasons of the same-named TV series, with a fourth on the way, but it spawned this melancholy gem. Based on a true story (maybe? see above), it’s the work of another pair of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, about a Japanese woman who, believing “Fargo” was factual, went on an ill-fated search for Steve Buscemi’s buried money.
Largely filmed at Owatonna High School, this gem from the mid-’90s glory years of Minnesota filmmaking should be better known. A misfit coming-of-age story, it’s distinguished by a cast that includes Oscar winners George C. Scott, Rita Moreno and Kathy Bates, and clever touches like a bit where the OHS marching band’s performance morphs into Love Spit Love’s catchy “Am I Wrong.”
‘A Simple Plan’ (1998)
Scott Smith’s bestseller was one of those page-turners that seemed like a movie already, so it seemed like there was nowhere to go but down for the film version, especially after director John Boorman bailed at the last minute. But substitute director and Coen pal Sam Raimi handled the rueful tone beautifully in the tragedy of friends whose lives fall apart after they discover a pile of money. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is a stunner and the Delano locations look suitably grim.
‘Purple Rain’ (1984)
It’s no mystery why fans continue to “purify themselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.” The gender politics may be regrettable, but anytime Prince is singing, which is almost always, the movie electrifies.
‘Sweet Land’ (2005)
Filmed in small towns west of the Twin Cities, Ali Selim’s sentimental drama stars Elizabeth Reaser as a German/Norwegian mail-order bride who finds love and community after initial rejection. Fun fact: St. Paul native Selim read the Will Weaver short story that inspired the movie in the Star Tribune’s old Sunday magazine.
‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ (1999)
Sorry, “Grumpy Old Men” fans. The stars of that movie are charmers and it’s fun to see the Twin Cities locations, but the most quotable comedy from Minnesota is this one about a disastrous teen beauty pageant. Mostly shot around Waconia and Carver County, it features Kirsten Dunst, Allison Janney and Amy Adams, who made her movie debut while she was a regular at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.