Week 36 – North Dakota
Wooly Boys (2001), directed by Leszek Burzynski, written by Max Enscoe, Annie DeYoung, Glen Stephens, George ‘Buck’ Flower and Ed Hansen, with Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson, Joseph Mazzello and Keith Carradine
There are not a lot of major films made in North Dakota. Despite being an extremely stunning state, there’s not a lot of incentive for film crews to want to shoot there when they could just as easily film some place else and call it North Dakota — somewhere less in-the-middle-of-nowhere. That’s the route most taken, since history has proven that most people probably don’t have any idea what North Dakota looks like. Probably the most well-known film with North Dakota as its setting is 1993’s Leprechaun — and that was actually filmed in Southern California. To the average moviegoer, playing off SoCal as NoDak is no big deal. But don’t ever underestimate North Dakotan pride.
I wish I could say that a backlash from angry North Dakotan film nuts stemming from Leprechaun was the start of a series of a great events that would turn North Dakota into “Hollywood North.” Wouldn’t that have been a great story?
It was actually the success of Dances With Wolves, which resulted in a rise in tourism to South Dakota upon its release, that inspired future North Dakota governor and U.S. Senator John Hoeven to try and do the same thing for his own state to the north. All it took was the cooperation of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, of which he was president, and almost $4 million in taxpayer money.
Best case scenario, the resulting film — Wooly Boys — would result in millions flocking to North Dakota to witness the birth of the new American Western.
Worst case scenario, the film would be a bust.
Guess which scenario came true?
Wooly Boys wasn’t the first film to be set and filmed in the state of North Dakota. There have been countless independent and no-budget films to have come out of the state, including 1978’s Northern Lights, a critically-acclaimed film about the founding of the Nonpartisan League, a Socialist political movement which began in the early 1900s. As far as mainstream movies, however, Wooly Boys was the first.
In 1999, the Bank of North Dakota approved a $3.9 million loan to make Wooly Boys, which would be filmed in the beautiful scenic Badlands. Hoeven was president of the bank at the time. He would serve as North Dakota’s governor until 2010, when he was elected U.S. Senator. Hoeven is also a Republican, which is odd considering that Republicans aren’t known for their generous funding of the arts — but we’ll return to that subject.
Although never before had public money been used to fund a motion picture, Hoeven and other state officials were willing to take a risk with the hope that Wooly Boys — a family film about a grizzled sheep rancher trying to reconnect with his family — would help promote North Dakota as a tourism destination in the same way Dances With Wolves did for South Dakota.
What they failed to realize is, for a film to be effective as a promotional tool, people outside of your state have to see it. I suppose they were thinking that wouldn’t be a problem, because Wooly Boys would be a hell of a good film and it would just be a matter of getting some good word-of-mouth before the whole country caught “Wooly Fever.” Such blind optimism.
Even before filming commenced in 2000, there were signs that this wouldn’t be the Citizen Kane of sheep ranching movies. On one hand, you had a fairly talented — if somewhat washed-up — cast in Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson and Keith Carradine. (It also stars Joseph Mazzello, the little boy from Jurassic Park and, more recently, The Social Network. It’s also worth noting to 50 Movies for 50 States readers that the teaming of Fonda and Carradine makes Wooly Boys an Idaho Crossing reunion of sorts.) However, it took five people to write the script to Wooly Boys — a light-hearted family film. Five people.
To be fair, at least they brought on a good director … or not. Ever hear of Leszek Burzynski? I didn’t think so. Burzynski’s prior credits included one feature-length film, Trapped Alive, a horror movie from 1993.
Let’s recap. We’ve got an inexperienced director, a script written by an army of writers and the little kid from Jurassic Park?
Wait, Matt. Before you continue, what about Fargo? Isn’t that a North Dakota film?
Fargo is a town in North Dakota. It’s located south of Grand Forks on the border of Minnesota. It’s the largest city in North Dakota.
Fargo (1996) is a totally awesome movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, but despite sharing a name with the North Dakota town, Fargo is almost entirely set in Minnesota, mostly the town of Brainerd and the surrounding area. The only connection that Fargo, the movie, has to Fargo, the town, is when Jerry (William H. Macy’s character) travels to Fargo and hires Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsmud (Steve Buschemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.
It’s not the worst film I’ve seen – but I’ve seen some really awful films. It’s not a good film. To tell you the truth, I actually had hope for Wooly Boys – and this was my mentality going into this – when an early scene had Kris Kristofferson’s character taking a shit in the middle of a field, complete with fart sound effects. (I wonder which one of the movie’s five writers came up with that one?) There are a few things that save Wooly Boys from being utterly forgettable. The occasional fart joke is one of them. The pairing of Kristofferson and Fonda (and to a lesser degree, Carradine) is another. The amazing scenery is another. Someone should consider making a good movie in the Badlands one day, because it’s a really beautiful part of the country.
So what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else. Wooly Boys really feels like a movie that’s been written by five people – or more accurately, five different movies written by five different people combined into one disjointed screenplay. One moment Kris Kristofferson is taking a dump. The next, Fonda’s character, Stoney, is suffering a stroke. Uhm … haha? Cue dramatic music. The next scene, Fonda and Kristofferson are carjacking a hearse and holding its driver gunpoint while being chased by probably the most incompetent federal agent ever. Cue Keystone Cops-style chase music. Then something bad happens to Stoney’s horse. Cue sad music. Then Stoney’s grandson helps a sheep give birth in a major bonding moment for grandson and grandfather. Cue inspirational music. Then a pair of no-goodniks show up along with the blundering federal agent and get locked in a trailer. Cue zany music. And so on. And so forth. Are you feeling a little sick to your stomach yet? Some directors juxtapose comedy and tragedy for effect, to make you feel uncomfortable. This movie does the same thing, but only because the person who assembled the script had no sense of how to mix the two moods. It’s bipolar filmmaking.
The story is just ridiculous. Stoney is dying of some disease (I can’t remember what it was or if they even specified). Since he’s a “Wooly Boy,” however, he doesn’t trust doctors and refuses to go to a hospital. His daughter, played by Francis McDormand look-a-like Robin Dearden, tricks him into seeing a doctor by having her teenage son tell him that she’s sick in the hospital. When Stoney shows up at the hospital, his daughter tells him why he’s there. Stoney is pissed. Meanwhile, Kristofferson’s character, Shuck, is on his way to Minnesota.
I can’t help but think what happens next is a little bit of an overreaction. Stoney and Shuck hold a nurse at gunpoint and steal her clothes so that Shuck can dress up as a nurse and sneak Stoney out of the hospital. This leads into the hearse carjacking. Somehow, Stoney’s grandson Charles winds up coming along with them – okay … he’s kidnapped. This is all kinds of illegal. Ultimately, the feds go after Stoney and Shuck for – get this – transporting a dead body across state lines. Not kidnapping or attempted aggravated assault or threatening to kill another person. It makes no sense. Nothing makes sense in this movie, which would be fine if this was a start-to-finish farce. But it’s not. You’re expected to take the movie seriously. How can you take a movie seriously with this kind of premise?
Wooly Boys was promoted at several film festivals including Cannes, but failed to find a distributor until 2003. It had a decent run in North Dakota theaters, but didn’t find an audience outside of the state. I blame the name of the film for starters. Wooly Boys? What the hell is that? It sounds like a gay furry fetish video. Can you imagine a family at the video store on a Friday night: “Let’s see here … Where The Wild Things Are, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory … Oh! Wooly Boys! This looks good!” Amazingly, the film was picked up by Lionsgate for distribution on video. Today, you can watch it for free on Hulu.
After the movie went out with a fizzle, the Bank of North Dakota initially told taxpayers that the Wooly Boys loan was being repaid. I guess it wasn’t repaid fast enough, since the bank wound up writing off $1.66 million from the loan. Eventually, they had to admit they weren’t getting a return on their investment – oh, I’m sorry, the state’s investment. When a local filmmaker recently contacted the Bank of North Dakota about funding a film project he was working on, the bank responded that they were “no longer in the film business.” So I guess that’s that.
I’m all for funding of the arts, but when a public entity gets their hands too deep into any creative project, they’re bound to fuck it up. I mentioned before that John Hoeven, the bank president who had a big hand in the decision to fund Wooly Boys, was a Republican. Wooly Boys definitely comes from a Republican perspective. Stoney and Shuck are simple self-made men, poor but proud (you’ll never see them collecting a check from the guv-er-ment). Stoney’s daughter is a working women – a single mom – whose busy life leaves her little time to forge a real relationship with her son, so Stoney and Shuck kidnap the boy, take him away from his beloved Internet connection and teach him all about what it means to be a man … by teaching him to be a boy – a Wooly Boy. While the local law enforcement are pretty much good guys, the primary villain is a federal agent doing what the feds do best – intrude on the lives of good, decent, local folks. Did I mention the constant gun play? Guns pretty much solve all problems in this movie. If any movie gets the NRA seal of approval, it’s this one. I’m not saying that Hoeven had any influence over any one of the five screenwriters who penned this movie, but do you think the Bank of North Dakota would have financed Wooly Boys if it were less Secondhand Lions and more Brokeback Mountain?
“Shears” hoping that states like Louisiana that are thinking about attempting something similar to what North Dakota tried have better luck, but — between me and “ewe” — I wouldn’t count on it.
Other movies shot in North Dakota: A number of documentaries including Northern Lights and most of Jesus Camp. Also, Fargo has a budding indie scene which is chronicled on this Wiki.
Next week: I can’t think of anything witty to say about Ohio.