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Scott Wente, Forum News Service, Published February 11 2013

Independent film shot in Minn. plays off 'Fargo' plot

The Zellner brothers nearly retraced the Coen brothers’ famed filmmaking footsteps in south Washington County in Minnesota.

A movie crew led by Austin, Texas, filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner spent several days recently filming in local communities for an independent film whose plot plays off a scene from the 1996 Joel and Ethan Coen hit movie “Fargo.”

Filming for the modest-budget indie film “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” quietly brought a roughly 30-person crew to a number of local areas: Afton Alps ski resort; a farm field in Cottage Grove; Bailey School Forest Park and the Boyd Motel, both in Newport; and other sites.

They also shot at Newport Drug and the North Pole Restaurant, both just across the highway from Tinucci’s Restaurant, where a scene from “Fargo” was filmed nearly 18 years earlier.

Crew members released few details about “Kumiko,” saying recent shooting involved a cast member whose name might generate unwanted buzz during filming. However, some plot details trickled out as the crew made its way through south Washington County.

The film is based on a scene in the fictional “Fargo,” in which a bumbling crook played by actor Steve Buscemi hides nearly $1 million of ransom money near a fence in a snowy Minnesota field.

The ransom money is never found in “Fargo,” which sets up the plot for “Kumiko.” In the independent film, Kumiko is a young Japanese woman who travels to Minnesota convinced the money-stashing scene from “Fargo” is in fact real and searches for the unclaimed loot.

“It’s funny,” said Ann Thompson, a production office staffer on the project. “It’ll be a really good movie.”

‘This is perfect’

Minnesota-based film location manager Anne Healy said “Kumiko” is a few years in the making. Healy said the Zellner brothers were in Minnesota about two years ago scouting locations for their film, including Afton Alps. They had decided on Minnesota because they needed snow and then discovered other local sites where they eventually would shoot.

The brothers passed through Newport and on a whim decided to stop for coffee at North Pole Restaurant in the Newport Center shopping mall.

“We walked into the diner and they were like, ‘this is perfect,’” Healy recalled.

The Zellners, who write and direct independent films, liked the vintage 1960s-looking diner and adjoining drug store, both owned by the North family, and added them to the list for shooting.

The “Kumiko” project was then delayed due to funding but resumed recently.

Shooting in Newport started late last month. The crew shot at the North Pole and the adjacent drug store the night of Jan. 27, arriving late that Sunday afternoon and packing up before the diner’s Monday morning breakfast rush.

“It was neat to see how much work goes into a movie,” said Brian North, who negotiated the crew’s use of his family’s businesses and was on scene during the filming.

North said the filmmakers were gracious. They shot when the restaurant was closed, provided insurance to cover any potential problems during filming and paid the Norths to use the businesses.

“They had a limited budget because it’s not some Hollywood blockbuster like the Coen brothers (films),” North said. “They didn’t have that deep of pockets.”

The crew did use some of the North Pole’s regular diners as extras in a scene, after distributing a flier seeking locals to be in the film. North said that in the scenes shot at their location, Kumiko walks through the restaurant and into the adjacent drug store, where she looks at a postcard rack and buys cigarettes.

North enjoyed the experience.

“It was great to have something outside of the mundane wintertime here in Minnesota,” he said.

The crew also shot scenes along 70th Avenue in Cottage Grove and for a time two weeks ago rented out the nearby United Church of Christ in Old Cottage Grove.

Last week they wrapped up shooting a scene on farm land along Manning Avenue at 100th Street. Filming took place near a section of barbed-wire fencing in a snowy field -- a scene resembling the fictional location of the ransom money in “Fargo.” The crew also used snow-making machines to create a blizzard in the area.

Healy said they chose that location because it is an alluring rural landscape of rolling hills and open land.

“It just needs to look like it’s out in the middle of nowhere and it’s (snowy),” she said.

A 2014 premier

The few plot details that were released are similar to an actual incident in 2001 in northern Minnesota. According to news reports, a Japanese woman had traveled to Minnesota and North Dakota late that year and died near Detroit Lakes, Minn. Circumstances around her visit and death led to a theory that she had been searching for the fictional “Fargo” ransom money, a tale later debunked.

“Kumiko” officials were coy when asked about the similarities.

“It’s based on an urban myth,” Thompson, the production staffer, only would say of the new film.

Production is expected to be complete in late 2013, with the goal of premiering it at an international film festival in early 2014, Thompson said.

Healy estimated the film’s budget at around $1 million. That is far below the cost of most films backed by large production companies and distributed widely. Independent movies debuted at film festivals sometimes are picked up by larger companies that can finance wide distribution.

If the film is released, it’s not clear how many of the scenes shot in south Washington County will end up in the movie. Many hours spent filming doesn’t always translate into lots of screen time.

Mark Tinucci learned that when the Coen brothers shot a scene for “Fargo” at his namesake Newport restaurant.

“They filmed for 12 hours and we got about 30 seconds (in the movie),” Tinucci joked recently.