'Valley of Bones,' a feature film produced in ND, hits the big screens
FARGO—Jon Wanzek is familiar with building things, having worked in the family's construction business. After he sold the company a few years ago, he still had the desire to create, but now he's using his imagination instead of heavy machinery.
Wanzek co-wrote and produced the North Dakota-based feature thriller, "Valley of Bones," with Fargo natives Dan Glaser and Steven Molony.
The film made its regional premiere Thursday night, Aug. 31, at a private screening at Fargo's West Acres Cinema. The 90-minute movie opens at West Acres and in 299 other theaters nationwide Friday, Sept. 1.
The independent noir drama stars Autumn Reeser as a paleontologist and single mom who fights to keep her son safe and dig up a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the North Dakota Badlands as a violent drug cartel threatens to take everything from her.
The idea came to Wanzek after hearing stories from a paleontologist in southwestern North Dakota. Wanzek has a ranch near Amidon, so he was taken by tales of digging up ancient history in his home state.
He wrote a rough story in 2012, then gave it to a screenwriter to create a script. He was encouraged by the results, but knew it needed the right team to put it together.
"I've got to find some guerilla filmmakers, some hungry, undiscovered talent," Wanzek recalled thinking.
Little did he know the opportunity would literally knock on his door.
Glaser and Molony were in Wanzek's south Fargo neighborhood in 2014, preparing to shoot a movie and going door to door to let residents know what they were doing. When they told Wanzek they were filmmakers, he told them he had an idea for a movie and they agreed to meet later and discuss the project.
"I had a sense they had some talent and I decided to take a chance," Wanzek said earlier this week from his downtown Fargo office, where he keeps a real Tyrannosaurus tooth and larger film prop of one.
Glaser signed on as director/editor and Molony took the role of the drug-addled oil worker.
Wanzek oversaw the work Glaser and Molony did on the script and the three of them drove around western North Dakota scouting sites.
The bulk of footage was shot over three weeks in late 2015 in Marmarth, Bowman and at Wanzek's Pitchfork Ranch. He also used his horses and some of his equipment to create an authentic look.
A few shots were filmed in Los Angeles.
"It's easier to rent an oil pad in Los Angeles than in North Dakota," Wanzek said.
He funded the low-budget film, but he's just as proud of the other work he did to get his story up on the big screen. The film was eventually picked up by Smith Global Media for theatrical distribution.
"It's a lot of moving gears to put a movie together. It was like being a project manager on a construction project, using the script as the blueprint. It felt familiar to me in a strange way," he said. "I wanted to be involved in shaping the story and picking the songs. I wanted to bring my creative energy to the project, not just a checkbook."
"He's a great idea man. He's a very story-driven producer," Glaser said.
"It's so nice to meet someone who wants to be hands on," Molony added as he sat with Glaser in a Fargo coffee shop, back in their hometown for the opening.
The two are a team, with this being their third feature film together, including 2011's "Pinching Penny" and "Oxenfree," which was just released on streaming services on Tuesday.
While they've lived in Los Angeles for the past seven years, they share Wanzek's appreciation for the Peace Garden State, even if Wanzek's company, Bad Medicine Films, is named after the Minnesota lake where he has a cabin.
The three have another film in the works together and each individually has other projects lined up.
For Wanzek, just seeing the story he helped create on the big screen is an accomplishment.
"The fact that I made a film and being the first time, got this far, no matter the reviews it gets, it's a success in my mind," he said.
If you go:
What: Q&A with the filmmakers
When: After the 7:30 p.m. and 9:50 p.m. screenings Friday Sept. 1
Where: West Acres Cinema, 4101 17th Ave. S., Fargo