Feed the Fish, an independent film about a down on-his luck children’s book author rejuvenated by a journey to Wisconsin’s northwoods, is filming in Door County this winter.
Two-time Emmy winter Tony Shalhoub is locked in for a prominent role in the film written and directed by Mike Matzdorff, a movie industry veteran with strong Door County ties.
Matzdorff was in the county capturing second-unit footage at the 23rd Annual Jacksonport Polar Bear Plunge on New Years Day. I spoke to him about the project and his career in the film industry by phone before he headed to Lambeau field to watch the Green Bay Packers defeat the Detroit Lions Dec. 28.
He pointed to reasons both scenic and practical for doing the film on the peninsula.
“First of all, it’s a beautiful area,” Matzdorff says. “But it’s also a very low-budget film, and we’re looking to pull in some help from the local community. Everyone’s been gracious and generous to us. We wouldn’t be able to do it without all their help.”
Wisconsin in general, he says, is an untapped resource for filmmakers.
“You’ve got big cities, water that looks like an ocean, industrial areas, hills, and small towns,” he says. “There’s so much you can use.”
The 43-year-old is no stranger to the area. Born in Green Bay, his mother has been coming up to Door County since the 1940s, and his grandparents met at the Gordon Lodge in Baileys Harbor. He visits the peninsula each summer, and a couple times every winter to see a Packers game courtesy of his grandfather’s season tickets.
Mattzdorf drew on his experiences on the peninsula to write the script about a “guy who’s a burned-out kids book writer. He’s a one-hit wonder with a rather controversial kids book, but his career has fallen apart and he’s at a sort of personal crisis.”
A friend invites the author to come to Northern Wisconsin to do the Polar Bear Plunge, and he takes the opportunity to get away and find his writing again. The friend gets incapacitated in a vicious badger attack, and the protagonist is left alone without a car or heat, and is eventually befriended by a local fisherman.
The movie will be filmed almost entirely in Door County, and though there are elements of local culture in the film, Matzdorff says the film is not a Wisconsin parody.
“To go out of the way to do a Midwest accent is insulting and overdone,” he says. “Plus, the vast majority of people I know from Wisconsin are highly educated, gentle, kind, generous people. We will try to portray that kindness and generosity, and we’ll poke a little fun as well.”
Initially, Matzdorff hoped to start filming in the winter of 2008, but family issues and financing problems forced him to push it back. This is his first crack at directing a full-length feature (he has directed two film shorts) after 18 years in the industry spent primarily as a film editor.
Matzdorff got into photography shortly after his parents moved to Los Angeles when he was in middle school, going on to pursue the art further in his college years. That’s where he was inspired by a couple of professional film editors who visited his school, turning him onto a niche in the back rooms of the film industry that became his career.
“I enjoyed editing, I thought it was fun,” he explains, “but it also came a little from laziness. I remember one morning people were getting up to shoot at sunrise and I said ‘go ahead, I’ll edit it later,’ I may have been hungover.”
Matzdorff considers his experience as an editor a vital learning experience for his eventual step into the director’s chair.
“In the editing room you get to see first hand how everything goes together and what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “You get months and months to work with the director putting together the puzzle, and you learn a lot along the way.”
The film editor is a funnel for the mass of creativity that goes into putting a story on screen, he explains.
“There may be 50 camera angles that make up a scene,” Matzdorff explains. “The editor’s job is to go through and pick the best takes. You can alter timing, take a piece from one place and put it somewhere else. Movies are essentially one big puzzle, and your job is to put together the puzzle.”
The final product may only be judged by what makes it to the screen, but filming is but a fraction of the production process.
“We’ll shoot for about a month on Feed the Fish,” Matzdorff says, “and edit for about five months. That’s pretty close to what the ratio is on most movies.”
Though the film is “ultra low-budget,” it’s not low workload. The seemingly simple task of filming in quiet Door County in the dead of winter requires a lot of legwork. Matzdorff has secured permission and clearances from property owners and local government, and has had conversations with administrators, mayors, and several business organizations just to lock down locations.
“You have to get the roads plowed, get police when needed, and generally assure a safe working environment for the crew and actors,” Matzdorff explained. “You have to talk to property owners, you can’t just go sneaking around on people’s or public property.”
In addition to publicity, the community will benefit from the influx of crew during filming. The movie will employ a crew of about 20 – 30 people, Matzdorff said, who will be going to bars, restaurants and stores in the area during their stay, bringing a few extra dollars to the area.
Matzdorff has most of the cast lined up, and says he’s close to locking down his leading man, but the role of the leading lady remains in the air.
The biggest name on board so far is Shalhoub, Matzdorff’s uncle and a long-time peninsula visitor. Shalhoub went to high school in Green Bay before embarking on an acting career that took off with a role as a quirky cab driver on the early 1990s sitcom Wings and culminated with the critically acclaimed Monk, now in its seventh season.
Oscar nominee Seymour Cassel (Faces) and Kadeem Hardison (A Different World) are also on board.
Matzdorff captured some footage at the Polar Bear Plunge to use in editing for a pivotal scene in the movie, and recruit 50 – 100 people to commit to re-plunge in late February or early March.
Feed the Fish is scheduled for completion in August or September of 2009, after which Matzdorff will line up distribution and enter it into some festivals. The first screening, however, will be in Door County.
“I want to show it here first,” he says. “Hopefully we can secure the theater in Sturgeon Bay and bring in everyone involved in the film and anyone who wants to see it.”