Filming in the Field of Dreams
Its a difficult taskrecruiting moviemakers
to Iowa to film their productions. But folks at the Iowa Film
Office have, over the course of 16 years, managed to lure
some big-name films to the state, bringing with them a burgeoning
industry across Iowa.
Story by Larry Fruhling; Photographs by Paul
In 1989, an amazingly lush image of Iowa was imprinted on
millions of minds all around the globe. It was an unforgettable
snapshot, composed in deliciously green hues and glittering
moonlight and accompanied by a perfectly celestial dialogue.
On a baseball diamond that has just been built on a plowed-under
field of corn, the shimmering ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson
materializes to ask: "Hey, is this heaven?" "No,"
replies farmer Ray Kinsella. "Its Iowa."
It was a line nearly as memorable as Rhetts telling
Scarlett that frankly, my dear, he didnt give a damn
(Gone With The Wind, 1939) or Ricks asking Sam to play
it again (Casablanca, 1942). It was also the point at which
people, particularly Iowans, with their overly developed sense
of humility, started taking seriously the idea of making motion
pictures in the state. "They laughed at us when we started,"
says J. Douglas Miller of Davenport, who helped secure establishment
of the Iowa Film Office as a state agency to promote Iowas
role in the motion-picture industry. "They stopped laughing
after Field of Dreams. They found out that this is real business."
Field of Dreams did indeed make Iowa look downright heavenly.
The movie presented to the rest of the world an image of the
state that no amount of money could ever have purchased. More
than a decade later, tens of thousands of visitors come to
the Field of Dreams baseball diamond at Dyersville. Iowas
newly minted state slogan, "Fields of Opportunities,"
relied on the movies lasting imprint on the American
And the movies today are real business for the state. Wendol
Jarvis, manager of the Iowa Film Office, says that in recent
years, spending in Iowa for film projects has been averaging
about $15 million annually. In a normal year there are one
or two or three major productions made in Iowa and a couple
of hundred smaller projects such as commercials, television
segments, and training and educational films, Jarvis says,
adding that about 500 Iowans make a living in the business.
Jarvis launched the film office, pretty much out of his back
pocket, in 1984. He was working at the time for the old Iowa
Development Commission. Among his other duties, he took on
the task of helping people who might be interested in making
movies in Iowaa job that did not have a high priority
within state government. "My boss said, Dont
spend too much time on thisits not very important,
" Jarvis recalls, adding that when he asked permission
to do some research on starting a state film office, his boss
replied: "Do it on your own time."
Ultimately his boss bought into the idea. So did the governor
and the Legislature. The Iowa Film Office was launched on
July 1, 1985. Since then, Jarvis says, the industry has spent
more than $125 million in Iowa. "Theres no multiplier
effect or anything like that," he says. "Thats
Over time, Iowa has become home to a number of movie-making
skills, from gaffers (electricians) and grips (stagehands)
to makeup artists and casting assistants. Jarvis says that
about 280 Iowa companies, with anywhere from 1 to 60 employees,
now play one role or another in the making of movies, television
productions, commercials, and other kinds of films and videos.
That, he says, is four times more companies than existed in
the state when the Iowa Film Office opened.
The three-person Iowa Film Office runs on an annual budget
of $265,000 and provides what Jarvis calls "a huge return"
on the investment of public funds. When the cast and crew
of a feature movie land in an Iowa town, Jarvis says, they
make a major economic splash. Expenditures of around $750,000
for construction and building materials are typical, and caterers
might pull in another $200,000, he says, adding that motels
in the area might take in upwards of $500,000 if 100 movie
people spend three or four months in one spot, not an uncommon
happenstance. Additionally, crew members get $90 a day in
expenses, part of which ends up in local restaurants, taverns,
clothing stores, and other businesses.
A town in which a movie is made can get a lot more than money,
too. Says Jarvis: "Ive watched what happens to
a small town when a film is shot there. When Hollywood chooses
a town, that creates a tremendous amount of pride that maybe
wasnt there originally. The whole texture of the town
changes. The people there are going to be part of something
that lasts forever.
"Its a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot
of people," Jarvis says.
Witness the tavern in the little eastern Iowa town of Worthington,
where actor Richard Gere liked to have a frosted mug of beer
when he was starring in the movie Miles from Home, filmed
in the area in 1987. Jarvis said that when he stopped in the
tavern a year and a half later, the proprietress reached into
a freezer, pulled out an icy stein, and announced: "I
always keep a frosted mug handy in case Richard Gere comes
In 1998, director David Lynch, known for his twisted, gloomy
portrayals of the human condition, surprised everybody by
making a sentimental, G-rated movie about an old mans
riding a lawnmower across northern Iowa to Wisconsin to see
his brother. The movie was based on the real-life, five-mile-an-hour
ride of Alvin Straight, who lived in Laurens in northwest
Iowa. Much of the filming was done in Laurens and Clermont
in the northeastern part of the state. The critics mostly
loved The Straight Story, whose star, Richard Farnsworth,
was nominated for an Oscar, and William Chaffee, co-publisher
of the Laurens Sun newspaper, loved having the cast and crew
The movie brought about 150 people to the area for a six-week
stay, says Chaffee, who followed the filming closely. "They
spent a lot of money, probably $750,000 in the area, and this
was not a high-budget movie," Chaffee says. "We
also had a great time. A lot of people really, really enjoyed
the people who were here. You learn a lot about the way movies
are shot, and you learn that the people who make movies are
not much different than the people here." (There were
also dissenters, Chaffee acknowledged, who felt that the moviemakers
were determined to make Iowans look like a bunch of hicks.
That was neither the intent nor the way the movie turned out,
in Chaffees opinion.)
Chaffee says he thinks The Straight Story will pay dividends
to Laurens for years to come. The town has gotten tremendous
publicity from the movie, he says, including long, glowing
accounts of Laurens and the movie on French television and
in high-circulation newspapers in France and Seattle, Washington.
"I see people pulling up every few days to take pictures
in front of the [Alvin Straight] house," Chaffee says.
Several people from the Laurens area got bit parts in the
movie. Nancy Lampe, a Laurens dental assistant, was at a high-school
football game when some friends told her "the movie people"
were looking for her. Lampe ended up with a four-week job
as a stand-in for actress Sissy Spacek. Lampe stood in Spaceks
stead while the crew worked out lighting and camera-angle
problems and while Spacek rehearsed her lines and consulted
with Lynch on how to deliver them. Lampes backside also
was filmed as a substitute for Spaceks. Lampe watched
The Straight Story premier in Pocahontas, but didnt
see herself. She allows, however, that she was too nervous
at the viewing to concentrate much. "I was afraid wed
be portrayed as hicks in Iowa and that the music would be
some twangy country stuff," she says. "I shouldnt
have worried. The movie was great and the music was beautiful."
Even if her image ended up on the cutting-room floor, Lampe
said she had a marvelous time and learned a lot during her
months employment in the movie industry. Her late father
ran the movie theaters in Pocahontas, she says. "That
made it all so cool for me. If only my father could have been
here. This was like a dream come true for me."
Jarvis, the Iowa Film Office manager, says he seeks movie
locations for Iowa primarily by going to trade shows to see
what is being filmed and what projects are on the horizon,
to make contacts, and to be available in case someone in the
industry needs his help. The competition, he says, is keen.
"Even if someone wants to do a movie with an Iowa setting,
hell look at 20 other states and Canada," Jarvis
says, noting that movie magic can make a lot of places look
like Iowa just as Iowa can be made to approximate a lot of
For example, A Thousand Acres, the story of a northern Iowa
farm family, was filmed mostly in Minnesota, and Twister,
a wildly popular movie about chasing tornadoes, was shot mostly
in Iowa. Jarvis says The Bridges of Madison County was almost
lost to Texas before the final decision was made to film the
movie in Madison County, the setting of the book on which
the movie was based. "They could have spent $35,000 to
build a covered bridge in Texas," Jarvis said.
If a production company is interested in making a film in
Iowa, Jarvis gets the script and begins thinking of places
that might work out. Often, local chambers of commerce make
pitches for their communities. Jarvis narrows the field to
the locations he thinks might fit best as the emotional substratum
for the film, and, if a low-budget television movie is the
prospect, he starts thinking about where the film might be
made with a minimum of time- and money-consuming travel.
If an Iowa location beckons, the director and his crew arrive
to scout out the potential site. Jarvis, having tried to gauge
the movies mood from the script, says he tries to make
the setting seem like a hand-in-glove match. He plots to have
the bus roll in on the towns most attractive side and
to arrive at a time of day when the light is likely to appeal
to the director and what he is trying to achieve. If possible,
he tries to acquaint the director with the local sheriff,
whose cooperation might be vital if a road must be closed
temporarily for the sake of filming or if other accommodations
need to be made.
A key element in Jarviss recruiting effort is to make
the director confident of succeeding in the Iowa location
thats under consideration. "These guys are all
freelancers," Jarvis comments. "Nobody has a full-time
job. They mess up, theyre out of work. People are putting
millions of dollars in their hands."
Longevity in office can also have its benefits. In 1985,
when the states efforts to attract movie business were
in their infancy, a production company had almost decided
on making the movie Amerika in Iowa, but changed its mind
and shot the film in eastern Nebraska. But during that process,
Jarvis became acquainted with a moviemaker who was steadily
moving up the studios ranks. Ten years later, Jarvis
got a call from the man, who said the company wasnt
getting the cooperation it needed from the state film office
in Oklahoma. The company ended up shooting more than half
of Twister in and around Ames, Boone, Nevada, Eldora, and
Jefferson. "They shot 60 percent of this movie in Iowa
because of a relationship that began ten years ago,"
Jarvis says. "Thats what this business is all about.
Your number one job is to make sure your client is successful.
Thats going to pay dividendsmaybe not immediately,
but the dividends are going to be there for you in the long
Twister, incidentally, was one of the 12 highest-gross-income
movies in history. As a motion picture and as a video release,
it grossed $870 million. Jarvis says, while Midwestern states
may compete fiercely for movie business, "we wont
cut each others throats."
A film made anywhere in the Midwest helps develop the industry
in the region and makes it more competitive with other parts
of the United States and with other countries, Jarvis says.
In Davenport, Doug Miller, president of the Two Rivers &
Associates production company, notes the importance of the
motion-picture industry to the economic health of the entire
nation. At $250 billion a year, movies and other entertainments
are Americas biggest export, Miller says. The importance
to Iowa, he says, is also enormous, even if it doesnt
calculate so easily in dollars and cents. "What was the
value of Oprah Winfrey doing a show live from Winterset because
of The Bridges of Madison County?" he asks. "You
cant buy the kind of tourism and image Field of Dreams
generated. Field of Dreams became part of the American culture.
Its an icon. I dont know what its worth."
Miller says that about ten years ago, he developed a new
strategy for explaining just where Davenport is located. "I
tell people I live on the Mississippi River, west of Chicago,
and south of the Field of Dreams."
Larry Fruhling wrote about electronic
deregulation in the February/March 1999 issue of the magazine.