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Former KARE journalist tries hand at film in 'Cedar Rapids'

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Tim Lippe
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) is a very unworldly insurance agent who goes on a life-changing trip to Iowa in "Cedar rapids." The movie was written by Phil Johnston, a former Minneapolitan who threw up a career in TV news in the Twin Cities to follow his film dreams.
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

The new movie "Cedar Rapids" is about a naive Midwesterner whose life changes when he is sent to Iowa for an insurance convention. The movie, which opens in Minnesota this weekend, is actually the result of a real life-changing experience on a couch in Minneapolis.

Phil Johnston used to work for KARE-TV in the Twin Cities as a journalist.  He might still work there had it not been for one pivotal night.

"I was sitting with my wife watching TV in Uptown, 1999, and I said, 'If I am doing this in 10 years I just don't think I am going to like myself. The stories I want to tell are really not news stories,'" he said. 

And that's when Phil Johnston decided to follow his passion, which was movies, and apply to film school.

"We up and moved to New York three weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, and started film school on the 10th I think," he said. "And so life in every conceivable way has changed for me since my days at KARE." 

And again, that might have been that, because many people dream of a career in the film business, but not many make it. However it turned out that not only could Phil Johnston write, he had an eye for talent. He pitched a comedy to a then relatively unknown actor called Ed Helms, who was working on "The Office." He liked Johnston's idea and signed on.

Phil Johnston and Jim Burke
Writer Phil Johnston and producer Jim Burke are both from Minneapolis. They say as a result while they wanted to make a funny film about the Midwest, they wanted to do it with respect.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Then 'The Hangover' came out, and Ed was now an international star, and so  all of these things just sort of snowballed and here were are," he said.

Cedar Rapids is the story of Tim Lippe, an insurance agent living in small town Wisconsin. 

He's so wet behind the ears that when circumstances lead to him being sent to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it's the trip of his lifetime. 

He's never flown before, and he's so excited to stay in a hotel he narrates his arrival down his cellphone to his girlfriend.

"I just did the whole check-in rigamarole, and I'm on my way to my room, " he says.

"I was sitting with my wife watching TV in Uptown, 1999, and I said 'If I am doing this in 10 years I just don't think I am going to like myself. The stories I want to tell are really not news stories.'"

"Have you seen the pool yet?" she asks.

"Yeah, it's incredible. I mean there's like palm trees and stuff, and the whole place smells of chlorine. It's like I'm in Barbados or somewhere."   

Tim learns the hard way that sometimes business and life are not entirely fair, and Johnston says often things are not what they seem. 

"It's about a guy who sells insurance who learns that the only real insurance in life is love and trust and friendship," Johnston says. 

"It's a little subversive too, in it's own way" says Jim Burke, another Minneapolitan, who worked as a producer on "Cedar Rapids" in partnership with director/producer Alexander Payne. Payne created such indie favorites as "Election," "Sideways" and "About Schmidt."

Burke said the reason the story caught their attention, and of stars such as John C. Reilly and Anne Heche -- who also star in the film -- was Johnston's writing.

"The script was just hilarious," he said. "On the page, you can't read this without just howling with laughter." 

The Midwest comes in for some real ribbing in Cedar Rapids, with small town politics, social mores, drinking and even drug taking all playing into the plot, but Burke insists it's done without condescension.

   "This is where we are from," he said. "We wanted to make a funny movie, but we also wanted to honor where we are from, too," he said. "I've seen so may movies that are set in other places, but not that many that accurately portray the Midwest." 

Party in Cedar Rapids
The capers at an insurance industry conference are the backdrop for "Cedar Rapids" starring (left to right) Isiah Whitlock, Jr, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Ed Helms.
Image courtesy Fox searchlight

Movie critic Roger Ebert recently compared "Cedar Rapids" to the Coen Brother's "Fargo" at least in the way it portrayed the people from small towns. He then stressed Cedar Rapids is much more of a madcap comedy. 

The film opened before a packed house at the Sundance Festival in January. For Phil Johnston it was surreal.

"When you are sitting in a theater with 1,200 people who are laughing, it's a little but surreal, just because I spend so much of my free time going to the movies, and then all of a sudden I'm at the movies, but -- oh wait, that's right. I wrote this one!" he said. "But at the same time it was sort of like just being at the movies, because I really enjoy this movie. I like watching it." 

It seems likely Johnston will get to repeat that experience. He's working on several projects. 

One is a film called "Reply All," about a man who disastrously hits the wrong email key on the night before his wedding, and has to deal with the unfortunate consequences. 

Awkwardness, he said he's learned, is comedy gold.