'Sanctified' movie filmed in Badlands features a nun and outlaw; Fargo red-carpet premiere set
"Sanctified” will premiere at the iconic Fargo Theatre with two showings on Friday, Oct. 14.
LOS ANGELES – In preparing for the new western film, “Sanctified,” Tiffany Cornwell sought to live with a community of nuns in an abbey. Anticipating her role as Sister Hildegard, a fictional Benedictine nun in North Dakota, she desired a full-immersion experience.
But it was early 2020, and an unexpected pandemic thwarted her plans. “There are quite a bit of nuns on Tik Tok, so I started messaging them, asking them questions,” Cornwell says.
It was fruitful, along with additional research about North Dakota in 1890. This helped Cornwell discover Hildegard’s parents likely would have immigrated here from an area of Europe fresh from a religious schism. This wave of immigrants “had strong beliefs about freedom and treating humans well,” she says, and many became part of the anti-slavery movement in America, bringing beliefs that had formed them here.
It gave Cornwell a well-rounded picture of Sister Hildegard, allowing her to settle into the role. “You do the work, then you allow the work to exist in you.”
Second film for Canticle
“Sanctified,” the second North Dakota film produced by Canticle Productions based in Bismarck, follows “A Heart Like Water,” which premiered last winter. In it, Sister Hildegard meets a wounded outlaw while traveling through the Badlands, and nurses him back to health in exchange for being guided to Williston. The two develop a deep and unlikely friendship.
“Sanctified” will premiere at the iconic Fargo Theatre, as did the other, with two showings on Friday, Oct. 14.
Cornwell, who played the main character in “ A Heart Like Water ,” also stars in the company’s forthcoming movie, “The End of the Rope.”
But playing Sister Hildegard was a special gift, she says. “She’s got a spine to her,” and though basically “a nobody,” she was "an incredibly strong, justice-driven woman of God.” The tension builds when Sister Hildegard confronts Shaw, “the opposite side of the coin,” who “chooses strength through violence and hate, while she chose strength through love and sacrifice.”
She credits Nick Swedlund, the director and one of the writers, for creating such “a complex, multilayered human character.”
Like Cornwell, who relocated from the Twin Cities recently to Hollywood, Swedlund spent time in Los Angeles, ultimately obtaining his master’s from the American Film Institute Conservatory. His growing family lured him back to the Midwest, where he’s co-founded Lost Forty Studios , a film studio in northern Minnesota.
Around 2016, Matt Roy, one of the producers of “Sanctified,” introduced Swedlund to Dan Bielinski, founder of Canticle Productions, and another writer-actor of “Sanctified.”
Strengthening the storyline
After reading the script of “Wes and Hildy,” nicknames for the main characters, and the original title, Swedlund tried some rewrites of the film, “an unofficial application to direct,” which became the final script for “Sanctified.”
“Westerns are like to America what Shakespeare is to England,” he says, that genre being “very quintessential American,” with a long history of one-word titles. “Sanctified” seemed to work better for a story about a Catholic nun and an outlaw, along with assisting the “thematic spiritual, Biblical concept,” on which to hang the story.
Swedlund also increased the tension between the two characters, helping drive the storyline in “forcing them to stay together,” and asked questions, such as, “Why does one become a nun?”
“I wanted to explore why people not only choose faith, but that level of devotion to faith,” says Swedlund, a non-Catholic Christian. “With this being 1890, it felt more compelling to give (Sister Hildegard) a very traumatic reason” for turning to faith. So, he concocted “a horrible tragedy” that made the character have to choose between “either God or the grave,” and “she chose to devote her life to God.”
Swedlund says the process allowed him to “wrestle on the page and screen with the two halves of my own self; the part that still believes and has faith, and the other side that is full of doubt,” and can become frustrated and even angry at God.” “I get to have my conscious internal battle play out on a western canvas.”
Like Bielinski, Swedlund didn’t want the story to be didactic. Thankfully, “The (western) genre lends itself to grandeur, to larger-than-life ideas about faith and doubt,” he says, without becoming preachy.
Ultimately, he says, it took the whole crew to make it all come together in a way Cornwell describes as “magical.” “It’s cool to hear reports that the set of ‘Sanctified’ was one of the best they’ve ever worked on,” Swedlund says, noting that directing a film crew is akin to directing an orchestra, leading “with strength and compassion.”
‘We’re here to stay’
Bielinski says he considers the release of these first trio of films Phase I of Canticle’s work, conveying, “We’re here to stay.”
“I want people to know that making North Dakota films, like we’re doing, is not just a one-off thing, but it’s going to be happening for years to come,” he says. “There are still lots of North Dakota stories to be told.”
For those who viewed “A Heart Like Water,” which included little to no dialogue, Bielinski says everything with “Sanctified” will be bigger.
“It will be a more traditional running length of 90 minutes, and the scale will just be much larger, with a bigger cast of characters,” he says, along with the “value on the screen” being higher. “‘A Heart Like Water’ was successful, but modest in its purposes.”
Bielinski says Covid forced a delay of the film’s production, so it’s been a long time coming. “I’m excited to get this in front of people,” he adds. “It’s been quite a journey for us.”
He describes “Sanctified” as an “exciting, action-packed film” that conveys a beautiful friendship of two people who normally would not be in the same company. “It’s the story of redemption, through this outlaw’s interaction with a good nun, who is unlike anyone he’s ever met before,” he says, “but her care and goodness really redeem him by the end of the movie.”
The storyline stands out in our modern world, he says, where many old forms and customs seem to have disappeared. “For some reason, we have become proud of chucking tradition and formality, but there’s something really beautiful and mysterious about it,” he says. “In a way, it mimics the beauty and mystery of who God is.”
‘It took some guts’
In his own research, Bielinski discovered the Benedictine nuns who came to Dakota Territory were “really tough.” “It was the Wild West in Bismarck—there were gunfighters and outlaws. To come here and establish a school and hospital and interact with the colorful characters in this town, at this point, it took a lot of guts to do that, and that’s reflected in Sister Hildegard.”
“Sanctified” was filmed in the spring of 2021 at the Badlands Ministry Bible Camp, just two days after a major snowstorm. “Thankfully, it warmed up and the snow melted by the time we were shooting, but it was scary to see it piling up” right before, Bielinski shares.
The set included guns, horses, and a lot of stunts, he adds, but everything went smoothly, with no accidents.
Bielinski says that no matter the content or crew, he strives to give glory to God in his work, and honor the good, true and beautiful.
“It also has to be good storytelling to engage people,” he says, noting that a successful Christian film will appeal to all, regardless of faith or tradition, by drawing the audience deeply into the characters, which he believes “Sanctified” accomplishes.
The upcoming premiere will be “beefed up and as classy as we can make it,” he says, with some folks coming from Minneapolis. “It should be even more of an experience this time around.”
IF YOU GO:
What: “Sanctified” film premiere and red-carpet event; Q&A with filmmakers
When: 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
Where: The Fargo Theatere, 314 Broadway, Fargo
Contact: Tickets, $20, sold at https://www.sanctifiedfilm.com/ (tickets) or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.