Free Range co-founder discusses acclaimed documentaryFree Range Film Festival co-founder Mike Scholtz is covering the life of notorious Willow River criminal/businessman Bill Cooper for his latest documentary.
By: Matt Perrine, Budgeteer News, Pine Journal
We all have our hobbies, but Mike Scholtz’s consumes just about every spare moment he can muster. The former Fargoan’s first love is film, and it keeps him quite busy.
Not only is Wrenshall’s Free Range Film Festival — the buzzed-about event he founded with a couple of friends six years back — a few short months away, but he’s also been entering his documentary “To Moscow with Love” into a number of competitions.
“I’ve seen it with an audience a couple of times now, and people tend to think there’s something funny about six middle-aged guys from Minnesota just getting on their snowmobiles and trying to drive to Moscow,” Scholtz said of the piece, which recently took home the first-place prize at the Play Ground’s annual Short Shorts Film Festival. “It’s good to know there’s a little comedic possibility there.”
“Moscow” revolves around Willow River bar owner Bill Cooper and his pals’ attempt to circumnavigate the globe on their “snow machines” in the ’70s.
Scholtz got the idea from his pal Paul Lundgren, who did a feature on Cooper for Minnesota Monthly in June of ’06 (see attached link).
"Dick Lucken, Cooper's brother in law, called me after the Minnesota Monthly story ran and told me he had all the film from the big snowmobile expedition in which they tried to get to Moscow," Lundgren told the Budgeteer. "I didn't know what to do about that, as a writer, but a few weeks later I saw Mike Scholtz's Facebook status, which said something like 'Mike Scholtz is looking for good ideas for a documentary film.'
"And the rest is cinematic history."
While we’ll leave the ill-fated details of the Moscow trip to Scholtz’s video, which is available to view free online (see “News to Use” below), what wasn’t touched on in “Moscow” was Cooper’s run-ins with the law upon returning to Minnesota.
“I only got to a sliver of the story in that five-minute documentary. … He came back and he started running marijuana in 17 airplanes, from Mexico to Minnesota,” Scholtz said. “He may have robbed a bank, and people started accusing him of being D.B. Cooper [an airplane hijacker whose identity remains unknown to this day].
“So he sort of became this notorious criminal in the area, just after doing this sort of peace-loving exploration up to the Arctic. The dichotomy, or the dual nature, of Bill Cooper fascinated me.”
As such, “Moscow” is actually part of a much larger documentary project for Scholtz.
“I put together this five-minute piece — just about the expedition — just to sort of give myself a little motivation to keep working on it,” the Fargo-raised filmmaker said. “… When you’re working on something like that, it helps you to just do a little chunk — almost like a movie trailer — to get yourself motivated more than anything else.
“And, as long as I had that, I thought I’d enter it in a couple of festivals here and there.”
Aside from taking home the grand prize at the aforementioned Short Shorts Film Festival, “Moscow” was also recently recognized in the Men as Peacemakers film contest.
Also rewarding for Scholtz are the “accidental discoveries” he’s made during the making of the feature-length documentary, like the song that can be heard during “Moscow,” Larry Lee Phillipson’s so-fitting-it’s-unbelievable “Wild Bill and His Ski Mobile.”
“One of the guys from the expedition just showed up at an interview and said, ‘Hey, look what I found.’ It was a 45 record [of the song]. He said it used to be in his bar on the jukebox, that he had had it all these years,” Scholtz said. “It was nice for a five-minute piece, because it sums up the whole story.”
On top of Cooper’s pals from the Moscow trip, Scholtz has also been lucky enough to meet up with four of the late outlaw’s children.
“I flew out to Kelowna, British Columbia, and talked to most of his family,” he said. “While Cooper was accused of a lot of things, they admire and love him. It was an interesting interview.”
Forging the Red River
Scholtz didn’t stray far from his hometown when it came time to pick an institute of higher learning. The Fargo native chose to study cinema at Minnesota State University Moorhead. There his classes helped him delve into the art of movie-making.
Upon graduating from that school, he took a job at a video production business; with miscellaneous film equipment lying around, he and his friends took advantage of the situation.
“We started making documentaries — again, as a hobby on the side,” said Scholtz, who now works full-time as a creative director for Duluth’s H.T. Klatzky & Associates. “We’d enter them in film festivals, or trick the Walker Arts Center (in Minneapolis) into playing them — nothing that made any of us any money, of course.”
One notable piece from that period — Scholtz relocated to the Northland roughly a decade ago — was “The Angela Marie Gibson Experience,” about a woman in the 1920s in rural North Dakota who started making silent films “in the middle of nowhere.” It was, of course, another documentary.
When asked about his genre du jour, Scholtz said documentaries are on the up and up.
“It’s a great time to be interested in documentary films, because they’re finally coming into their own,” he said. “... I think my favorite film ever is ‘The King of Kong.’ I love films like that, or ‘Anvil!’ — you just can’t believe that they’re documentaries. Those kill me.”
Putting Wrenshall on the film-festival circuit
Despite Scholtz’s propensity for non-fiction narratives, the Free Range Film Festival is similar to other film festivals in that its featured films cover a wide array of topics. In fact, the festival is becoming almost indistinguishable from its peers — as far as quality goes, that is. It’s still held in a barn outside of little ol’ Wrenshall, after all.
“We’ve had filmmakers who’ve come to visit who say that the presentation is as good as you’ll see in a lot of movie theaters at other festivals,” said Scholtz, who is beginning to prepare for this summer’s running. “The sound and picture are comparable to what you’d see in a movie theater, but you’re in a giant, wooden barn. I think that’s really the appeal for people: You look up and you see the rafters.
“It almost feels like you’re in a giant, overturned viking ship or something.”
The idea for Free Range came when friends of Scholtz’s along Highway 23 decided it would be fun to screen “Ghostbusters” in their barn.
“It was shortly after that that we thought, Man, we could really clean up this barn and get a real screen, which we did, and actual speakers and some chairs, and turn it into an actual movie theater,” Scholtz said.
What started as a way to screen distributor-less films his friends had made soon blossomed into a buzz-worthy event: Free Range now features three screens scattered throughout the barn (including one up in the hay loft, no less).
“Now we can talk to filmmakers who have shown stuff at Sundance or South by Southwest,” he added. “I doubt they’ve heard of us, but they at least check us out online and realize we’re not just trying to get free movies.
“We’ve been able to show a lot of great, great stuff in the last couple of years.”
NEWS TO USE
Watch Mike Scholtz’s acclaimed documentary “To Moscow with Love” at www.menaspeacemakers.org/filmentries. To learn more about Wrenshall’s Free Range Film Festival, visit www.freerangefilm.com.