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Film shot in southwest North Dakota wraps production in-state

Autumn Reeser and Mason Mahay are shown on the set of “Valley of Bones.” Reeser portrays Anna in the film, shot in North Dakota, with Mahay portraying her son Ezekiel. (Photo courtesy of Jon Wanzek)

Though dinosaurs and oil have always had a scientific kind of connection, a new movie set and filmed in North Dakota will add a dramatic angle to that multimillion-year relationship.

"Valley of Bones," a feature film shot mainly in and around Bowman, Amidon and Marmarth, will star Autumn Reeser, an actress maybe best known for her work on television programs "The OC" and "Entourage," as an ex-con paleontologist hunting for dinosaur bones in the badlands on the verge of the oil boom.  

Reeser, a native of the San Diego area, said she’d found North Dakota to be both beautiful and secluded through her three weeks of working in the state.

“This is more remote than I’ve ever been to shoot a film,” she said of her location Friday on the Pitchfork Ranch outside of Amidon. “ … It’s a very isolated experience, which is actually great with filmmaking because you can live in the world of your character, and my character lives quite an isolated life.”

Reeser said she took the part after it was offered -- without the need to audition -- because she liked the script and appreciated the character she would play.

She added that the movie was the kind of project she wanted to be doing at this point in her career, which she qualified as “deeper emotional work.”

“They’re stories of bigger universal themes than I’ve been working with,” Reeser said. “It’s hard for me to explain why certain scripts hit me, it’s instinct.”

The final stages of filming in North Dakota include the film’s finale and, as a result, Reeser said the cast had been working late the previous night, head-to-toe in mud, as they put together scenes of “gunfire, rain, cars and stunt falls.”

Working with the Fargo duo of the film’s executive producer, Jon Wanzek, and director, Dan Glaser, has been “lovely,” she said, noting the excitement the team had in telling the story at hand.

Glaser said Reeser’s "Valley of Bones" character, Anna, spent time in a federal prison for illegally prospecting on government land.

The film’s narrative, Glaser said, is largely a story about Anna reconnecting with her son after her long absence from his life.

“At the heart of it, it’s about her and him trying to reconnect, and trying to find a place for both your passion and your responsibility and your love for your family” he said.

Anna’s effort to restart her career in the badlands takes her into conflict with some of the more dangerous elements of the oil boom, setting much of the drama of the tale.

Glaser said the movie plays like a “very classic adventure,” which he described as a cross of sorts between a modern western such as “No Country for Old Men” and more traditional genre fare like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

Getting equipment out to set proved to be a worthwhile challenge, he said, and allowed the crew to make use of scenery that “highlights North Dakota” with its setting in the state’s badlands and ranch territory.

Filmmaking in North Dakota

This will be Glaser’s third narrative feature, all three shot in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“I’ve shot things in (Los Angeles), like shorter things and really what I love so much about here is the people,” he said. “North Dakotans are so excited about the process of filmmaking, there’s not a jaded attitude about it. … There’s still this magic, this excitement about moviemaking.”

Glaser said the nature of independent filmmaking is conducive to less traditional -- non-Hollywood -- settings and hopes "Valley of Bones" can serve as a trendsetter in bringing the movie industry to North Dakota.

He cited TV programs set in North Dakota but actually being filmed elsewhere to make use of tax credits and other incentives as examples of projects where “there’s nothing like the real thing.”

Those included the "Fargo" series, shot in Canada, and "Blood and Oil" -- a program also set in the Bakken but filmed in Utah.

Glaser said Wanzek, who owns the Pitchfork Ranch featured extensively in the film, was the engine driving the project into existence.

A Fargo businessman and founder of production company Bad Medicine Films, Wanzek met Glaser in a way he described as “serendipity.”

Though his background in construction and real estate meant he was not originally involved in the film industry at all, Wanzek had been working on a script drawn from his friendship with a commercial paleontologist who came to his ranch during a dig about four years ago.

Eventually, after revising the script with the goal of shooting in southwest North Dakota, Wanzek received a knock on door of his Fargo residence and promptly made the acquaintance of Glaser and his co-screenwriter Steven Malony.

The two were filming a project in Wanzek’s neighborhood and were informing the residents of their presence.

“I said, ‘Oh, you’re filmmakers, eh?’” Wanzek remembered. “So I gave them my business card and started working with them about four weeks later.”

Wanzek would form Bad Medicine and the two filmmakers would go on to use their connections to draw together a crew to make "Valley of Bones" a reality.

Malony, an actor, would become the film’s antagonist.

According to Wanzek, and in what will surely become a piece of trivia for the film, The Dickinson Press is used as a prop paper in the film -- complete with plot-appropriate headlines.

Wanzek said the film’s North Dakota wrap will likely happen early Saturday morning, after three weeks of filming on-site

After that, he said, there will be a week of work in L.A. before post-production begins.

Reeser said she’ll be off to resume her work on a Clint Eastwood feature, "Sully," which has been an ongoing engagement for her.

Glaser said he and Malony began working with Wanzek on about Nov. 1 of last year and that the team hopes to finish the film entirely by March, after which they’ll take it to the film festival circuit and, in what Glaser described as a “bare minimum,” to a limited theatrical release.

As for the quality of the film itself, the director said he believes it will exceed any expectations.

“I’m a little blown away by what we’re seeing everyday,” Glaser said. “It’s a big moment for everyone and I hope it’s a big moment for North Dakota."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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