Sunday, June 2, 2013

Iron Will Extras Gather Today For 20 Year Reunion

The original screenplay for Iron Will
Where are they now? Where are the men, women and children who assembled here 20 years ago to re-create a World War I era sled dog race from Winnepeg to St. Paul? The film I'm referring to is Iron Will

I know where a few of them are. McKenzie Astin, the boy-hero of the film, will be arriving on a train late this afternoon to join a reunion celebration of the film in a culmination of the Fourth Annual Duluth Superior Film Festival.

Kevin Spacey, the cynical reporter, became the surprising superstar of the pack, rising to win Oscar gold for his roles in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. Currently he is Francis Underwood in the TV series House of Cards.

Riki McManus, who headed up the local casting for the film's extras and bit parts, is still active in the film business, using her connections to attract films here by making film makers aware of our abundant natural beauty.

And Chuck Frederick is the Opinion page editor for the Duluth News Tribune who wrote a fun editorial yesterday inviting the public to welcome Astin back to our Northland home for a special airing of Iron Will at the Depot's Underground. Astin will arrive at 5:30, Mayor Ness makes a proclamation at 6:00 and after the film we're all invited to a reception in which two of the train cars used in the film will be open for mini-tours.  

Frederick's piece, titled Film fulfills dreams, and not just those of the extras, pretty much summed it up. 

"For a taste — even for just a small taste — of fame, of stardom, of being discovered by Hollywood, we took time off from work and from family, we stuffed ourselves into antique clothing, and we waited hour after long grueling hour, sometimes in frigid cold."

As for me, I got so mesmerized by this experience that I seriously imagined a future in screenwriting. I'd been an extra in The Ballroom Scene, which meant three days of dressing up and dressing down and waiting and killing time in order to obtain fifteen-tenths of a second of fame on the silver screen. I'm a featured silhouette at a table with John Heino, if you know where to look.

This shared experience of being herded like cattle put us in contact with a lot of new and interesting people and many new friendships were formed. I know today precisely how long John and I have been friends. We met there in the holding area. He told stories about his life and dreams, as did many others in that space.

On the third and final day of shooting The Ballroom Scene I met one of the producers of the film, Robert Schwartz, who was formerly from the Twin Cities before breaking for Hollywood. The experience of being in and behind the scenes of a Hollywood films generated an idea for a film, which I pitched to Mr. Schwartz right there on the set.

He and the two men he was standing with laughed, poked fun at me because since I am a nobody it is hard for producers to take any idea serious, but if I were Spielberg the same producers would be all over the idea. I told him my idea of how a Hollywood film in a small town changes the lives of everyone... the title being "The Extras." He said he would read my treatment if I put something together.

Two days after the filming was wrapped, he went back to Hollywood while catching up on two months of mail he called me at my home and told me he'd be interested in seeing the screnplay if I wrote it. He suggested Syd Field's book Screenplay to learn how to write in the screenplay format... and how to think in terms of scenes, etc. (Hot Tip: You want to write a great screenplay? Study Chinatown.)

Long story short, my brother was a film major in college and he agreed to join me in a collaboration. All of his ideas were improvements on my original storyline, and had I listened to him more it would have been a better product in the end, I am certain.

We finished the manuscript by October 1, my deadline, and Mr. Schwartz called me a couple days later. Said it was a very good first effort. Said he wanted me to write a second screenplay but in a different genre this time. I wrote a movie script about a crippled man from Estonia during WW2, a drama with close calls, and lots of nail-biting for the audience. Within a week of submitting this second screenplay Mr. Schwartz called me on the phone, read various passages from my manuscript and said it was quite good, that if I went to Hollywood he would introduce me to people.

The Duluthian piece addressed film's local economic impact.
I've never been that kind of risk taker, had a job here and a family, and reluctantly let go of this role I was aiming for, allowing the pages of my inner script to fly off with the wind. 

I also appeared in the start of the race scene, which was shot on a crisp sunny day while it was twenty degrees below zero. Those kilted bagpipers were quite red-faced after seven takes to "get it right."

Here's a thought I had afterwards. Next time you see a Hollywood film, pay attention to the people who are not the stars. Have you ever noticed them? Not usually, but after being an extra myself, I am always noticing.  Without these "extras" it would be impossible to make most of the movies we see and enjoy.

Extras don¹t have any spoken lines. They simply fill up the set and give the Stars a context. Yet they are indispensable and without them you certainly couldn't have a crowd scene.

One payoff in being part of the film was that for a brief space of time we were all part of something that felt bigger than ourselves. There's a sense in which one extra's presence or absence might appear to make little difference in a film, but we all know the cumulative impact if all the extras were suddenly missing in action.

This feeling of being part of something bigger doesn't have to end when the film is a wrap. We live in the context of a community that has needs and our part is to "show up" and do our part to help make this a better place. We don't have to be stars. From battered women's shelters to food shelves, the need for "extras" is greater than ever. Your role is important, even if you don't have any lines.

Forgive me for moralizing at the end, but this was a Disney film. Maybe I'll see you at the reunion.

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