The Kettle River Film Project, an award-winning film company consisting of local producers and actors, has dabbled in several genres of film including horror, documentary and local film adventures but is not harnessed into any one particular type of film, according to co-founder Nate Johnson of Moose Lake. They chose their name, not just based on geography, but on a certain kind of “feel and sound” which allows them freedom in genre.
They are excited about future projects and reflect upon their time in operation. “We have only expanded and grown phenomenally in the last nine years,” says Johnson.
The partners and players
Johnson says of the early days of the project, “I approached him (Kirk Eckstine, the other co-founder of project) in 2010, and I had a story and an idea. I knew Kirk had the same interests. We got a group together, had a three-page script and started putting out feelers and fliers and built a volunteer base.”
Eckstine, originally from Kettle River and resides in Moose Lake, does a “lot of the nitty gritty special effects” and has a special recipe for the “blood” used in spatter effects. He has also loaned out his house for many of the film settings.
Doug Engie, also of Moose Lake, specializes in prop work and has written six of the films. “He helps a lot with lighting and has been indispensable,” says Johnson. He recently built a killer ghost platform —no pun intended.
Michael Hertenstein, a native of Newfoundland and current Giese resident, came to the project during a call for headshots and bios. “His was so completely professional that I wasn’t sure we would land him,” recalls Johnson. Hertenstein comes with a wealth of acting experience at venues such as the Guthrie, Twin Cities’ Fringe Festival, commercials, History Channel, and locally in many East Central School and community plays.
“He has added such a depth and eloquence to what we have created,” says Johnson.
Hertenstein helped pull in local actors such as Alex Finch, Emma Shae Telker, Josie Barstad, and Liz Van Heel into the movies “Leech Lake” and “Lady Elle”.
“It was cool to get kids that you work with on stage involved,” says Hertenstein. “And they did a really good job.”
The initial film “Our Killing Time” was written by Nathan Johnson in early 2012. “Waiting to Scream” was the next film. “Everyman: The Raid” was undertaken in the summer of 2014. As that movie was being finished, the script for “Girl Alone” was being written by Kirk Eckstine and his daughter Autumn Eckstine. This was intended to be a stab at creating something closer to feature length. Giving a local flair to the films, the community center in the City of Barnum and locations in the City of Kettle River were used as sets.
After a brief hiatus to reflect of how to improve production, “Conscience” was written by Kirk Eckstine in the summer of 2016. This film featured Morgan Eckstine and Austin Horton as the principal cast and was filmed in a single afternoon by newcomer, Joe John, and Eckstine. It was released in late August and was accepted in the Highway 61 Film Festival and another film festival in Canada.
Invigorated by its success, Johnson created the script for “The Fallows” which was filmed in the winter of 2016 and featured Horton. He also started the script for his newest passion project, “Leech Lake”, which was when Hertenstein came to the group. The summer of 2017 was when Doug Engie threw his hat into the ring with the script for “Minnesota Nature” featuring Engie, Cindy Blanding and Eckstine.
Other films were made including “Z-Producer”, “Doppelgänger” (released the spring of 2018 and accepted into the $2 Dollar Film Festival and the Medff Film Festival in Italy), and “Lady Elle”. “Lady Elle” is currently being edited, and an original music score is being produced for the film.
Zombies are a main element of some of the films they create. “Kirk and I are zombie lovers, and it’s an easy medium for plot. There’s not a lot of expectations, a natural get-out-of-jail-free card,” says Johnson. “We can then add a little depth and some creativity from there.”
“There is a huge difference in slasher type films,” says Hertenstein. “But you watch a zombie movie, and you know this isn’t really happening. And with the slasher type films, it’s easier to wrap yourself up in a character. With the zombie films, there is some violence, but you know it’s coming and it’s not real.”
“It’s wonderful creating visuals of zombies walking up over a hill,” says Johnson, “or the symbolism of a little girl in the corner of the set and later tie into the lost daughter of the main character.”
The film “Z-Producer” is a comedy play on zombie films and is shot in the old Moose Lake school. This is a favorite of Engie’s. Johnson appreciates “Leech Lake” with how the writing and vision for the project came together, as well as the acting that Hertenstein contributed. Hertenstein also appreciates “Lady Elle” and the fact that he got to work with his wife, along with the feel of the movie. “What starts as a folktale changes into something that the characters start to really believe,” says Hertenstein.
“I think it’s an outlet and something we’re compelled to express and being who we are,” says Johnson.
“Bottom line: it’s fun,” adds Hertenstein.
Johnson, having grown up in New Orleans and graduating with a BA in English and literature from the University of New Orleans, has an affinity for beauty in words and things and is hoping to begin filming in Duluth, which has areas reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter.
Past movies have been filmed in a variety of locations, the most brutal of all being “Leech Lake”. “We ran into some obstacles,” recalls Johnson. “It was a hard shoot on a ice-covered lake in the middle of January.” The film was shot on Mille Lacs Lake and Engie added that they “almost froze to death many times over.”
Another challenge has come in the form of creating special effects. “We have a wire attached to actors’ bodies to create an effect of getting shot. Kirk’s son was once ‘shot’, and you could see flames coming up inside his shirt. He wasn’t injured,” quips Johnson. “It has been difficult to get gun shots to work like they do in big time movies; it is the most challenging special effect. We’re now using pumps and hoses that squirt.” He adds that the gore isn’t any any kind of goal they have but just happens periodically when they need to add a touch of realism that might be necessary at the time.
“The project has been fulfilling in many ways and innately creative people are often working in a sometimes non-creative environment,” added Johnson.
The crew plans to get involved with more community projects such as the documentary they filmed at Pa and Ma Kettle Days. Eckstein and Engie are working on a couple films together because of the lack of ability to collaborate and work together with the producers’ work schedules. “Kirk and Doug are handling things right now,” says Johnson. “I’m on a hiatus and working on Lady Elle and some other films.” Both Johnson and Eckstein work for the State of Minnesota as their day jobs.
The group looks forward to the release of “Lady Elle” which features Hertenstein being interviewed about Lady Elle folklore and takes a surprising turn for the macabre. Another project is the “Fallows” which features the local lure of Sasquatch.
More information about the various projects can be found on The Kettle River Project Facebook page.