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Filming in the Field of Dreams

It’s a difficult task–recruiting 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 Gates

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. "It’s Iowa."

It was a line nearly as memorable as Rhett’s telling Scarlett that frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn (Gone With The Wind, 1939) or Rick’s 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 Iowa’s 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. Iowa’s newly minted state slogan, "Fields of Opportunities," relied on the movie’s lasting imprint on the American psyche.

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 Iowa–a job that did not have a high priority within state government. "My boss said, ‘Don’t spend too much time on this–it’s 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. "There’s no multiplier effect or anything like that," he says. "That’s real money."

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: "I’ve 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 wasn’t there originally. The whole texture of the town changes. The people there are going to be part of something that lasts forever.

"It’s 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 back."

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 man’s 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 in Laurens.

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 Chaffee’s 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 Spacek’s 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. Lampe’s backside also was filmed as a substitute for Spacek’s. Lampe watched The Straight Story premier in Pocahontas, but didn’t see herself. She allows, however, that she was too nervous at the viewing to concentrate much. "I was afraid we’d be portrayed as hicks in Iowa and that the music would be some twangy country stuff," she says. "I shouldn’t 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 month’s 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, he’ll 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 other places.

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 movie’s 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 town’s 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 Jarvis’s recruiting effort is to make the director confident of succeeding in the Iowa location that’s under consideration. "These guys are all freelancers," Jarvis comments. "Nobody has a full-time job. They mess up, they’re out of work. People are putting millions of dollars in their hands."

Longevity in office can also have its benefits. In 1985, when the state’s 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 studio’s ranks. Ten years later, Jarvis got a call from the man, who said the company wasn’t 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. "That’s what this business is all about. Your number one job is to make sure your client is successful. That’s going to pay dividends–maybe not immediately, but the dividends are going to be there for you in the long run."

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 won’t cut each other’s 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 America’s biggest export, Miller says. The importance to Iowa, he says, is also enormous, even if it doesn’t 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 can’t buy the kind of tourism and image Field of Dreams generated. Field of Dreams became part of the American culture. It’s an icon. I don’t know what it’s 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.

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©2001 Iowa Commerce, Des Moines, Iowa

Spending in Iowa for film projects has been averaging about $15 million annually.

"Field of Dreams became part of the American culture. It’s an icon."
—Doug Miller