This was one of the films I most anticipated films at this year’s MSPIFF. Of course the fact that it was shot here in the picturesque Lake Superior coastline, but the story about fragmented friendship immediately grabbed me. So imagine my delight when I get a chance for a one-on-one interview with the director/writer Daniel Stine.
We’ve connected via Twitter already (thanks Helen Stine!) so we arranged to meet at the Filmmakers Lounge at MSPIFF office (one of the major perks of also being a filmmaker this year with Hearts Want as well as a press pass holder). It’s definitely one of the most fun interviews I’ve had and certainly a highlight of my MSPIFF37 experience!
Two young women, torn apart by a childhood tragedy, unexpectedly reunite and embark on an illuminating 24-hour journey, where they unlock memories of long-forgotten innocence and what it means to truly believe.
Sometimes a place in a film can be a character in and of itself. That’s certainly the case here in Virginia Minnesota, captured in such an evocative way by writer/director Daniel Stein. It’s obvious he fell in love with the northern Minnesota coastline, and it shows in the film. But he also filled this road-trip, coming-of-age drama with wonderful human characters who are fun to watch but also relatable.
It opens with Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) driving to the North Shore of Lake Superior, accompanied only by Mister, a robotic suitcase that’s amusing but makes for an unreliable GPS system. She’s heading back to Larsmont Bluff Home for Girls (with troubled families) for a reading of the owner’s will. When one of the four former residents refuses to come for the reading, Lyle chases after her and we find the rebellious Addison (Aurora Perrineau) in Grand Marais. That’s when the real adventure begins.
I’m always skeptical whenever I see films where a lot of things happened in a single day. One could argue perhaps too many things happened in a 24-hour-period here, but yet the two leads managed to keep me engaged and curious to find out what’s happened between them. There are laugh-out-loud moments but overall the humor is not over-the-top and is organic to the story. In his directorial debut, Daniel Stine is able to weave a charming story that’s sweet, poignant, mysterious, and even surreal at times (that theatrical troupe bit comes to mind). The story certainly benefits from the talented cast.
Of course a Minnesota-based film critic can’t review this film without mentioning just how gorgeous the scenery is here. The cinematography by Pedro Ciampolini is absolutely stunning and it can be said this is a love letter to Northern Minnesota. Even the lovely animated sequence that bookend the film is a nod to the Minnesotan folklore and myth in which the plot is heavily rooted in. The music is also wonderful and adds much to the atmosphere of the film. I really enjoyed this movie and I hope Daniel Stine continues to make movies!
Ruth: I’m always curious about what inspires filmmakers in creating their work. Virginia Minnesota especially seems like a personal story, and I love that the story was female-driven. Where did the inspiration stem from?
Daniel: I’m always inspired by locations first and foremost. When I’m inspired by a place I imagined what kind of characters I can drop into there and what kind of stories come out of that. My grandparents ran a home for troubled boys for about a year or two. It was in a big mansion and my grandfather was a strong lieutenant colonel type. So there were always telling me stories about these kids growing up in this mansion, some of the stories were sad, some were funny, but they’re all inspiring. As a kid I wanted to expand on those stories or tell something that’s kind of similar.
As far as the female-driven thing. I hadn’t thought about my characters being male or female. In the first outline or maybe even earlier drafts, Lyle (Rachel Hendrix) was a guy and Addison (Aurora Perrineau) was a girl, but for some reason it just wasn’t interesting to me, I don’t know why. But then when I saw Grand Marais for the first time, I fell in love with that town immediately. It was in the dead of Winter too so nothing was open. I wanted to do something like Short Term 12, where it was about a person and shot in a single location. So the more I kept driving around Lake Superior, the more I saw of all these incredible places that Minnesota has… Split Rock Lighthouse, Duluth, Silver Bay, and learning about the legends, the folklores…
R: And there’s also a mansion, Glensheen, in Duluth.
D: Indeed, Glensheen. So when we saw that all the pieces kind of come together. Then the story kept getting bigger based on the location. It kind of morphed into a road trip movie, even though it didn’t start that way.
R: Having done shorts in various genres. Is drama the genre you set out to make for your first feature?
D: Actually I had a thriller lined up. It was a bed and breakfast thriller. We had big name cast, we even had a location locked up. I moved out of my place in L.A. to South Carolina to get ready for it. But we sort of got a bad deal, some of the money fell short. So we went back to our investors, some of them stuck with me. I said, well, we could wait a few years to get the thriller going. Or I have this other idea that’s simpler, a little bit more in the vein of stuff I’ve done with the short films and some of them ended up putting their faith into that idea. So Virginia Minnesota sort of accidentally became my first feature.
R: So it turns out to be a ‘happy accident’ then considering how well-received the film has been.
D: Yeah, that’s true. And now the thriller script now has a chance to develop. Looking back now I imagine if I had done that one, how badly I’d have screwed it up.
R: I’m curious about the beautiful animated scene that’s in the film. Did you set out to have animation be a part of the film given the plot having something to do with the characters’ childhood?
D: It’s always been in the back of my mind to do something like that, even though it wasn’t in the script originally. I initially wanted to do chapter headings, so perhaps to introduce a certain segment there’ll be an animated chapter heading. But it made it far more whimsical that way. So I did the film without the animation bits and see if the story could stand on its own without it. I think the story does work without the animation but having the film bookended by the [animation of a] childhood drawing it’s a nice way to introduce a child’s perspective and reminds you of what’s important that’s revealed at the end.
R: Now, there’s an amusing bit of a theatre troupe in the film. I learned that you have a theatre background. How has that helped you as an actor and writer/director?
D: I started out doing theater before I started doing film stuff. I almost went to a theater conservatory but I also wanted to do films so I didn’t want to be limited to that. But having done a lot of theater and directed plays, that gives me a bit of a shorthand with actors. They’re very much in the forefront of my mind when I’m making a film, making them comfortable and feel connected to the material, because I know how important that would be for me if I were doing that role.
On the downside, I think I tend to over-write, especially dialog. I’d say the theater background makes me want to write so much dialog. When I saw the final script, I’d say ‘Whew, that’s a long movie!’ So I’ve learned to shave things off. Some of my favorite movies are things like Before Sunrise by Richard Linklater which is just two people talking…
R: Oh I love that one. I mean, I love dialog-heavy films and the dialog is sort of the special effects of the film.
D: Yeah, but of course it depends on the films you want to make. But back to the question about my theater background, I think it definitely helps me with the actors and what I want them to convey the story.
R: I have to ask you about filming in Minnesota. What’s your favorite aspects about filming here?
D: The people, hands down. I mean, I know there’s the term ‘Minnesota Nice’ but I think it goes beyond that. People here are so proud to be from Minnesota, it makes you want to be a Minnesotan. I might have to move up here and become one. I think the pride is quite infectious. But then there’s the scenery. You can be up on a lighthouse one second and then you can drive inland, like Bemidji, I mean there’s so much variety of locations. Even in Minneapolis, I don’t feel like I’m in the United States here. I went to school briefly in Monheim, Germany, and it reminds me of that. And I love that it’s a big city with a lot of art. I mean, if you look at the Top 10 things to do while in Minneapolis, so many of them are the different art galleries!
So really it was the people and the great support that we got. It makes me want to come back and do another film, maybe that thriller that I was telling you earlier.
R: Yeah, well there’s a lot of bed and breakfast around here. Especially in the Winter time…
D: Yeah definitely.
R: Let’s talk about casting, particularly the two leads Rachel Hendrix and Aurora Perrineau. How did you find those two actors?
D: Rachel and Aurora are definitely the heart and soul of the movie. We had a lot of submissions came in, we used a casting company in Atlanta. There were about two thousands submissions for each of those roles. Rachel we cast pretty early on based on her audition. She was so much like what’s been described on the page that it was like, ‘yep, that’s her.’
As for Aurora, she came at it from a different angle. Actually, from both of them I learned more about my characters than what I’ve originally written. With Aurora, I had worked with her father, Harold Perrineau, one of my favorite actors. We had done a boxing film together (The Championship Rounds) so I was talking with him about the film and so then I talked with Aurora about it and it just seemed like a perfect match.
R: There’s a certain scene involving a boat in the movie (I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it), but can you talk a bit about filming that day? That must’ve been quite challenging to shoot.
D: Well, we originally was going to have a rolling, trash can that was burning. But when we got to the set, I was like, no that’d be too subtle, it’s not going to be enough [of an impact]. So we told the producers that we need a bit of spike in the movie, so we had to [spoiler alert (highlight if you want to read it): blow the boat up]. So yeah, we had to do it in one take but we had the fire department there and everything for safety.
R: Your production company, Rushaway Pictures, is a family business. How was working with your parents on this film, the fact that they weren’t in the film business previously?
D: Well, my dad is a retired army colonel so he handled logistics for 27+ years so it’s a natural progression for him on a movie set. It’s as if he’s meant to be doing that. My mom is a writer. In fact she’s got a book that I’m looking to adapt into a film one day. So both of them are just good with people, they’re good with numbers and all that. So working with them have been such a pleasure. I mean, I don’t really see them as my parents when we’re working together. We’re collaborators and they’re people I obviously can trust.
R: Ok last question. What’s next for you?
D: Well, I have the thriller I mentioned earlier. But there’s that chicken and the egg dilemma you know. Between getting the actors attached and getting financing, which one you do first. Sometimes you just have to figure out who the investors are before you can start committing to the story that you want to do. So I’ll just see where the wind blows, and we’ll see how this movie does, hopefully it’ll make its money back. So far it’s been well received at film festivals, we’re thrilled about that. Whatever happens, happens. We’re keeping the faith.
Check out the trailer below:
Thanks so much Daniel for chatting with me.
VIRGINIA MINNESOTA is the Opening Night Film of Duluth Superior Film Festival
Wednesday, May 30th
Clyde Iron Event Center
Doors: 7 PM / Film: 8 PM
Director Daniel Stine and lead actress Rachel Hendrix in attendance!
Saturday, June 2nd
9 PM at Zinema