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Persistence pays for Fargo filmmakers

On a tranquil Sunday morning in 2005, unsuspecting south Fargo residents chanced upon a disconcerting scene on their way back from church: In a front yard, 15 men with varying degrees of resemblance to former U.S. presidents were practicing the g...

Fargo actor Scott Horvik

On a tranquil Sunday morning in 2005, unsuspecting south Fargo residents chanced upon a disconcerting scene on their way back from church: In a front yard, 15 men with varying degrees of resemblance to former U.S. presidents were practicing the goofy dance routine known as the Electric Slide.

That day, churchgoers got a taste of "Mercedes Ray," a locally made pirate-themed movie that hits the Fargo Theatre tonight in time to vie with the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean."

A labor of love by 22-year-old Fargoan Tucker Lucas, the film has a massive volunteer cast, an intricate plot blending comedy, sci-fi and presidential lore - and a tiny budget.

Perhaps the filmmakers' startled neighbors didn't get the memo about the arrival of the YouTube era of digital video, when everyone can be a filmmaker. But if they stuck around that day, they also learned that you still need oodles of resourcefulness and staying power to make a movie.

That, and a little help from your friends.

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"A lot of people put a lot of heart into this movie," says the movie's star and art director Amber Rae Bernhardt, "and that's the essence of the creative Midwest."

Coming together

It all started when Lucas' friend JJ Gordon thought of opening Fargo's first oxygen bar a few years back and casting a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike in the TV ad. Lucas fell for the president-in-incongruous-surroundings idea, but decided to throw in 14 extra heads of state for good measure. Inspired by his Shakespeare in the Park costar Bernhardt, he also dreamed up a redheaded, time-machine-piloting pirate who raids the past for antiques.

That's how Lucas, last year's winner of Fargo's movie-in-a-rush 48 Hour Film Project, got himself into a venture that would take two years and a small bank loan.

The 40-plus-member cast and crew seems a radically disparate bunch plucked at random from across the city. The lineup includes weatherman Steve Poitras, North Dakota State University professor Lori Horvik and recent Fargo mayoral candidate Gordon, whose bid infused the set with dose of political intrigue.

But in fact, Tucker quickly assembled the "Mercedes" team without a single audition, drawing on connections in the tightly knit local acting community. More of a challenge was working around day jobs, family time and other acting gigs - especially since the crew had to share a borrowed Concordia College camera with film students.

"When you have a shoot with 15 to 20 people, to coordinate their schedules is just impossible," says the movie's Calvin Coolidge, Matt Burkholder.

Presidents multitask

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Lucas' actors not only showed up but also brought relatives along to fill small parts and rummaged in their closets for anything recyclable as presidential period gear. Brad Delzer, costume designer, producer and Teddy Roosevelt, filled in the gaps with borrowed digs from the NDSU costume collection and a $200 purchase of various types of facial hair.

"It's about 90 percent historically accurate," he says. "There are some people who are 20 percent off. There are some who are obviously wrong."

Props and locations were similarly team efforts. Gordon's family opened up their front yard for the presidential electric slide. Lucas' dad, Bill, then a Ben Franklin drama teacher, let the team convert a corner of the school's theater into Lincoln's Ford Theatre lodge. Prop wiz Ree Seminole fashioned the time machine out of wire and cloth, spruced up with some digital magic. A few handy souls designed a 6-foot-tall PVC pipe device with a plunger to spray blood during a gruesome injury episode.

When all was said and done, Lucas, the editor on the movie, had to dig from under 17 hours of raw footage.

"It sounds hysterical and looks hysterical, and Tucker always has a twist that's unbelievable," says Fargo Theatre Director Margie Bailly, who let the filmmaker and Fargo Theatre projectionist screen his movie in exchange for producing a Fargo Film Festival trailer.

Bailly says she'd happily let young local filmmakers rent the space for very little money. Based on the more than a dozen teams in this year's 48 Hour Film Project and frequent advice sought by area film students, she expects more movie buffs to take her up on the offer.

"Our state keeps looking away," Gordon says. "'Come here and make a movie.' But there are a lot of filmmakers here. In the past few years, we've seen a boom in filmmaking."

If you go

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- What: "Mercedes Ray"

- When: 7 tonight

- Where: Fargo Theatre

- Info: Free, donations welcome. (701) 239-8385

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Fargo actor Scott Horvik

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