Directed by Edd Benda, the movie "Superior" was filmed in the U.P. and now is making its way around the festival circuit, including upcoming Michigan showings.
If you want to make a movie set on Lake Superior, you gotta leave Hollywood.
Maybe there's one magic location on the California coast where the Pacific kind of looks like the Gitche Gumee. But there'd be no place with the same uninterrupted wild beauty on its shoreline, the authentic Yoopers who'd happily volunteer as cast members, and the authentic black flies who'd happily volunteer to make your stars feel that special something in the air of the Upper Peninsula.
Edd Benda left Hollywood for his native Michigan to direct "Superior
," the story of two young friends who go on one last adventure before adulthood, a 1,300-mile bike ride around the lake.
It's the 25-year-old's first feature, shot mainly on the Keweenaw in the summer of 2014.
"It was just an incredible experience to come back to Michigan to make this film," he says. Having lived for the past six years in LA, learning filmmaking at USC and hustling up work in TV and movies, "gives you a whole new appreciation, for sure."
He even appreciated the biting flies? He says they did add a "very realistic daily problem. And our two lead actors are wearing short-shorts for the entire film--that certainly didn't make it easier on them."
Benda is on the road with his "Superior Roadshow," showing the indie film on the festival circuit from Hollywood to Florida to the U.P. Upcoming screenings
for November include cities in the Mitten, plus it'll return to the U.P. Nov. 13 in Negaunee.
Set in 1969, friends Derek (Paul Stanko) and Charlie (Thatcher Robinson) are just out of high school. Charlie is set to go to Michigan Tech, and Derek will be headed to the Army recruiter and, likely, Vietnam.
So they do the only thing that makes sense; hop on two-speed Schwinns to see what's on the other side of the big lake.
The story is based on the Lake Superior circle ride Benda's uncle, Karl Benda, and his cousin Dan "Dudza" Junttila did in 1971, on the exact same Schwinns used in the movie. It was a 10-day ride, at 130 miles a day. "Quite the undertaking on a two-speed bicycle. And they're heavy, too. Not a lot workin' for them."
Benda grew up in Birmingham, in the Detroit area, but spent many summers in the Keweenaw, where his father's family lives. When he heard his uncle's story, he knew it had to be a movie.
"I was so fascinated, and I fell in love with this idea of just waking up and going on an adventure."
Benda thinks of what he'd do in that situation in the 21st century--his ride would likely involve a GPS and constant iPhone contact with the outside world, not to mention a light-weight 21-speed road bike, helmet and Lycra wear.
"There was a time when if you wanted to go for a ride and get lost; if you did want to just vanish off the grid for ten days on a journey, you could.... That's what I found so fascinating, and really loved about this story, and that time."
Benda fictionalized his uncle's tale, added dramatic and comedic scenes, since a care-free adventure wouldn't make the most engrossing movie. Careful to avoid spoilers, he says that things just don't go well for the adventurers. They run into a "posse of northeastern Minnesotans... a funeral home director with a dry sense of humor," etc.
But he knew he had to be honest with the setting. "I knew that, in order to tell this story, to do it justice, it needed to be made in the U.P."
There are shots of the guys on bikes, in the middle of a paved road, with no traffic and miles of forests running alongside. Sets include old taverns, weathered buildings, and of course, the big lake.
"It's just the great wide-open," Benda says. It wasn't difficult at all to do a period piece set 45 years ago, since not much in the U.P. has changed. "And I say this with the utmost respect and love for that."
The two leads are actors from California--did they have any culture shock?
"A little bit, but in a good way," Benda says. "They fell in love with it very quickly."
The rest of the talent were genuine Yoopers.
The main feature previously set and filmed in the U.P. that comes to mind is the 2001 Jeff Daniels comedy "Escanaba in Da Moonlight." That played up the Yooper caricature for laughs.
The last thing Benda wanted was a film full of bad accents by Hollywood actors wearing bomber hats flaps-down in the summer.
"We do it right. It was important and wonderful to be able to have the local people give a little bit of themselves to the film," he says.
It was a bit magical, he says, "working with the local community, in that people wanted to help and be involved."
U.P. attitudes were the exact opposite of what a filmmaker would find in L.A. "People would leave a restaurant open for us so our crew could eat at the end of a long day. People would be quick to loan us their truck or to invite us into their homes to be able to film. Just the willingness to find a way to help first, instead of to quickly say 'no' was wonderful," he says.
And the scenery worked its magic on film.
They were to shoot a scene in Eagle Harbor, but it was too windy to record dialogue. "We just continued to drive up the coast, and we ended up in Copper Harbor, with the Copper Harbor lighthouse. It was such a beautiful place for filming. That doesn't happen, where you go from one beautiful location and then you need only drive ten miles up the road to find another absolutely beautiful location. And that happened in every direction; every which way we went was perfect for this film. That doesn't exist in most places in the world."
It makes one wonder why filmmakers in need of a specific type of wild beauty don't swarm like black flies on the U.P. shores.
Is this just an ignored part of the country, surrounded by water, with few connections with the outside world? Maybe the state could promote the peninsula to the movie industry. (Though, since Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill ending state film incentives last July, pretty much all the Michigan Film Office
can offer is scenery.)
But then, "they're very isolated and the people there kind of like it that way," Benda says. Yoopers are friendly, but the attitude behind the unofficial U.P. tourism motto, "come up here, spend your money, and leave" is real, he says, laughing.
Audience reactions to "Superior," from Hollywood to the U.P., have "exceeded anything I could've imagined," Benda says.
"What warms my heart the most" is the response of the '60s-'70s generation. It was a challenge for him to capture 1969, but Boomers have "been so complimentary and supportive of the film."
After its U.P. premiere in Calumet, his grandmother's hometown, he took it to Sault Ste. Marie, Escanaba, Negaunee, and Marquette, "and the audiences were just getting bigger and bigger," he says.
Benda hopes to spread a bit of Yooper pride with his movie. Sometimes people take it for granted that they live in a land where they've got unspoiled waters to their right, deep forests to their left, and eagles, as common as robins, soaring above.
"We wanted to share with the U.P. what a wonderful place it really is, not for any sort of stereotypes or cliches, but just because it really is magical and gorgeous. And everywhere we pointed the camera we knew we were getting exactly that."
Upcoming "Superior" showings are Nov. 7, East Lansing; Nov. 9, Bloomfield; Nov. 13, Saginaw, and it returns to the U.P. Nov. 13 in Negaunee. For more on upcoming shows, visit the film's website
Mark Wedel is a Kalamazoo freelance writer who wrote about his own U.P. bike ride in June. He is working on a book on long-distance biking in Michigan.