Minnesotans make movie exploring the price of war

Veteran actor James Cromwell plays Bud Vogel, a grandfather who is forced to talk about his World War II experiences after the discovery of his old footlocker.
Image courtesy Perspective Films

It's kind of muggy in the farmhouse near Northfield.

"All right. Here we go. Everybody ready?" yells a voice.

The humidity isn't helped by the press of humanity, the lights, and the fog machine, all crowded around the actor-filled dining porch.

"Audio set? Camera set?" director Sam Fischer asks. Crew members respond they are ready.

"Roll sound," Fischer says.

"Rolling," says the recordist.

"Roll camera," Fischer continues.

The frenetic activity around Fischer comes after an hour's setup. For the past few weeks his film crew has been shooting "Souvenirs," a movie which includes battle scenes from both World War II and the Iraq War.

Fischer peers into a monitor, watching the Vogels, the family at the center of his film, eat a Memorial Day lunch.

Farmhouse set
The farmhouse near Northfield, used as a set in "Souvenirs."
Image courtesy Perspective Films

Much of "Souvenirs" revolves around this farmhouse, but it also ranges all over the world, and across six decades. In the movie, Kyle, one of the visiting Vogel grandsons, finds a World War II footlocker and brings it out to his grandfather, who's sitting in a rocking chair on the porch.

"And the grandpa says, 'You go put that back, that doesn't belong to you.' Because it's the age-old story of guys remaining silent," said Fischer.

But eventually the grandfather, Bud, opens the locker and reveals some of his experiences as part of an Airborne Division in Europe after D-Day.

The story becomes more poignant when Kyle -- several years older -- goes off to his own war as part of the Minnesota National Guard Red Bull deployment to Iraq.

For the World War II and Iraq War scenes, the crew found several Minnesota locations to fill in for Europe and the desert. Yet Fischer says the film isn't really about war, but the human wreckage it can leave in its wake.

"I get choked up thinking about it," he said, his voice thickening slightly. "For me it's the wellness issue. What happens on the porch here is just as important as what happens on the battlefield.

Iraq set
The "Souvenirs" crew also used locations around Minnesota to shoot scenes set in Iraq and World War II Europe.
Image courtesy Perspective Films

"You gotta tell those stories. You can't keep that stuff inside, no matter how painful it is. You need to get to somebody and talk to them about it, and get that stuff off your chest."

Fischer believes the story is particularly timely because so many World War II veterans are now passing away, and a new generation of veterans is returning from war with its own traumatic memories.

Working on the film has been an emotional experience for many of the cast and crew.

Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding plays Bud's wife, Betty. The story is particularly devastating for her character, because she has never heard any of her husband's war stories. Fortier-Spalding says as she has told people outside the production about the storyline, she's heard the same response time and again.

"They'll say, 'Oh my grandfather, he never would talk about his experiences, or my father would never talk about the experiences,' or my family, we could tell the same story," she said.

This is very much a Minnesotan production, with much of the cast and crew coming from within the state. The one major exception is Oscar-nominated actor James Cromwell, who plays Bud the grandfather.

Sam Fischer
Director Sam Fischer on the set of "Souvenirs."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

A veteran of more than 100 movies, he's about to direct his first film. He's using this experience to learn how an independent production makes the most of a small budget.

In Hollywood, even a run-of-the mill movie costs $30 million, Cromwell said. He's been impressed how Sam Fischer and the "Souvenirs" crew have done with so little.

"You think, 'Wow, there's three wars, and full battles, and tanks, and airplanes, and guns, and squibs, lots of actors, and time taken in the scenes -- and you can do that for $650,000?' That's what's really interesting," said Cromwell.

The Minnesota National Guard helped out a lot by lending its support for the battle scenes.

Cromwell says he's also been studying the way the "Souvenirs" script makes an audience look inwards.

"The nuances are the really interesting part of this work," he said. "As Shakespeare said, it's to hold the mirror up to nature so the person observing can see -- they see the actor, but they identify and therefore see themselves."

After shooting for several weeks around southern Minnesota and in the Twin Cities, the crew will now wait until fall and early winter to shoot the final World War II battle scenes. Fischer hopes to have the film ready for release for Memorial Day 2011.

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