First a book and now a feature-length movie? The U.P. is getting put in the spotlight

"It's no hunting tale of the backwoods of the Upper Peninsula," says actor and director Steven Wiig about the book U.P., a top-10 best seller for more than 90 weeks for publisher Ghost Road Press.

Wiig knows the difference between backwoods and urban grit, having worked with the band Metallica, and acted in the award-winning films Into the Wild and Milk. Most recently, Wiig played a role in an upcoming HBO film, Hemingway and Gellhorn, with Nicole Kidman.

However, he is still tied to his U.P. roots. Wiig is the founder of Two Eyes Productions which is committed to turning the novel U.P.--not coincidentally, written by a fellow Negaunee native--into a feature film. After reading the book during a European tour with Metallica, Wiig was hooked.

Ron Riekki's book explores the lives of four teenage boys growing up in the northern mining towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee. Set in the late '80s, the four cousins--each bringing their perspective to the table--narrate a series of events that are at times dark and gritty with heavy metal music and the Upper Peninsula as the backdrop. When Wiig visited the set of Into the Wild in Alaska, his mind began to race with visions of the book in cinematic form.

"Alaska is like the U.P. on steroids," he says. Riekki wrote the first draft of the book in about a week of 12-15 hour days with no intentions for the book to become a movie until Wiig proposed the idea.

"We hadn't seen each other in about 20 years, but we hit it off like it was yesterday and began this whole process of writing the screenplay," says Wiig.

"I think it was when Sean Penn was sitting right next to me at a bar, talking to him about the book, I realized this might really happen," recalls Riekki. With Penn's involvement and Riekki's commitment, the work really started.

Riekki has studied writing for more than a decade, with a PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University preparing him to transform the book into a screenplay. Meanwhile, with a photographer and cinematographer, Wiig shot footage of specific locations in the Negaunee and Ishpeming area described in the book. Wiig has combined the footage with music prominent in the novel as part of the sales pitch for potential producers.

To get the word out, Riekki and Wiig did a book tour throughout the U.P. last September, making 14 appearances to get people interested in the book and share what was going on with the movie. During the tour, Riekki and Wiig talked about how they want to share a side of the U.P. many people don't realize exist.

"I want to explore the U.P. culture in a non-cliche sense, not like rednecks of the north," Wiig explains. So far, the response has been one of support from U.P. residents.

"There were lines and it sold out quick," says Riekki of last year's tour. The tour was a success with fans getting involved by shooting podcasts of the tour and making t-shirts to support the cost of the project. Today, the project has over 3,400 fans on Facebook.

"I think it shows that there's an audience up there that's hungry for culture that includes them," Riekki says.

This summer, the duo will bring movie updates to the audience, but they've decided to invite a few others. A few invites turned into 60 award-winning Michigan authors saying "yes." "It's an incredible response," says Riekki. U.P. The Book Tour will be the biggest literary event in the history of the U.P. with more than 60 authors attending 40 events in 30 days in 20 U.P cities, including smaller towns like Paradise, Mackinac Island, Calumet and Copper Harbor.

The tour dates and locations are on Riekki's website and run through the end of July.

All the participating authors have ties to the U.P. and Michigan, and include Steve Hamilton, Matthew Gavin Frank, Catie Rosemurgy, Phillip Sterling, Patrick McGinnity and Lew Klatt, among many others. Readers and writers alike are welcome at the tour events, which include book signings, writing workshops with the authors, readings, and discussion panels.

Having left the U.P. to pursue their careers, Riekki and Wiig have come full circle. "I would love nothing more than to bring opportunities back home," Wiig says. Working all aspects of film production such as assisting the film crew, catering, playing extras and acting, Wiig wants to hire people in the U.P. as much as possible.

As the producer, Wiig is insistent the movie be made where the book was inspired. "It's about time we update our cinematic contribution in the U.P.," he says. "I don't need to get the movie made in the next three months and sacrifice by having it made in Vancouver or something."

This is what Riekki wants to hear. "You want a producer that believes in what you believe. Steven has been absolutely phenomenal for that. He's a guy who has a love-love relationship with the U.P."

Riekki handed Wiig a revised version of the screenplay just a few weeks ago for Penn to review. Wiig says he and Penn have a number of people standing by waiting to read it and that are excited to be involved in some level. U.P. still has some hurdles to get past before being seen on the big screen. Wiig describes the process like campaigning for public office. "You're out there trying to gather up money to get it made or convince people to support you and that you're going to make it." Wiig says, "We haven't won the election yet, but we've announced that we're running for office."

Raised in historic Calumet, Victoria Peters always dreamt of pursuing a career in journalism or to become an "ABC girl" as she referred to the profession in her Kindergarten days. A graduate of Michigan Tech, she now resides in the eastern Upper Peninsula in Sault Ste. Marie. Victoria currently works as a receptionist, freelance writer and copyeditor. She can be contacted via email.
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