Mankato, Iraq

The Minnesota city stands in for the Middle East during filming of the new war movie “Souvenirs.”

Filmmakers record the sights and sounds of the Iraq War in a limestone quarry in Mankato, Minn.

Image by Jules Ameel

Filmmakers record the sights and sounds of the Iraq War in a limestone quarry in Mankato, Minn.

by Tony Libera

MANKATO, MINN. âÄî When one thinks of the ideal place to film an Iraq War movie, Mankato does not generally come to mind. But last week, in the heart of a limestone quarry, filmmakers began production on âÄúSouvenirs,âÄù a war movie focusing on two generations of a Minnesota family.

The producers of the film wanted to keep it local, turning down chances to film in spots like New Mexico and hiring Minnesotan workers. Fifty-six of the 60 crew members are from Minnesota, and of the 55 members of the principal cast, just two are non-residents.

âÄúWe have chosen to stay in Minnesota because we really wanted to support the local film community,âÄù producer Craig Christiansen said. âÄúItâÄôs challenging to do film in Minnesota right now, and we decided to go up against those obstacles, fight through and really make sure that we can make a nice film.âÄù

âÄúSouvenirsâÄù began in the mind of producer Jeff Traxler. After hiring Sam Fischer, who would become the director of âÄúSouvenirs,âÄù to film a military history day reenactment, Traxler found himself entertaining the idea of making a movie. They had the equipment and they had the actors, so he asked Fischer, âÄúWhat happens if we script this thing?âÄù

Fischer and Traxler teamed up with ex-Marine Kyle OâÄôMalley and wrote up a broad concept. The resulting story focuses on a young Minnesotan boy named Kyle Vogel who finds his grandfatherâÄôs WWII footlocker. Kyle is curious about the items inside and his grandfather, Bud (played by James Cromwell , widely recognized as farmer Arthur Hoggett in âÄúBabeâÄù), decides to tell the story behind three of the souvenirs, hoping Kyle would never experience the same horrors. Years later, Kyle finds himself in Iraq as part of the Minnesota National GuardâÄôs Red Bulls, mulling over what he learned from his grandfather.

To flesh out an actual script, the producers hired Marc Conklin âÄî an odd choice considering Conklin writes romantic and dark comedies, giving praise to Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest. Ultimately, Conklin was drawn to the emotional aspect of âÄúSouvenirsâÄù and the chance to do something different.

âÄúI just totally immersed myself, watching every single war movie I could get my hands on from every era, so I wasnâÄôt doing anything that had been done before or that was too cliché,âÄù Conklin said. âÄúBut it really is more of a family movie than it is a war movie. The structure of this movie, what takes place on a porch between a grandfather and his grandson, is at least as important if not more important than what happens in all these battle scenes.âÄù

Many of the actors and producers mirrored ConklinâÄôs familial sentiment.

âÄúI think being able to tell the stories of these soldiers and their families is what really drew me,âÄù said the filmâÄôs star Jonathan Bennett, who has friends fighting in the Middle East. Bennett is probably best known for his role as Lindsay LohanâÄôs crush in âÄúMean Girls ,âÄù but he hopes that this film can help him move into more serious territory.

âÄúIn [âÄúSouvenirsâÄù] I get to carry a gun, be a badass and I donâÄôt have to sit in a classroom with any teenage girls. IâÄôm pretty excited about this, to branch out and show people I can do more than just ask for pencils.âÄù

âÄúSouvenirsâÄù may be a film centered on family, but there are still a number of battle scenes that require military vehicles and weaponry, which would presumably bankrupt any independent production. So, the producers looked for help from the National Guard.

âÄúIâÄôm not Michael Bay ; we donâÄôt have a $100 [million] or $200 million budget and canâÄôt afford to just rent those things,âÄù Fischer said. âÄúWe asked for [the National GuardâÄôs] support in this, they read the story, they were really behind the story and they agreed to give us what we needed to accomplish this on the budget that we have.âÄù

The National Guard submitted the script to the Department of Defense for approval. Upon authorization, the Guard began providing military assets like Humvees and helicopters, but they also provided experience, giving the filmmakers insight into war mentality and helping with the script to make sure the scenes were depicted realistically. The Guard saw this as a novel opportunity.

âÄúItâÄôs new for [the Minnesota National Guard] to do this,âÄù said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, director of public affairs for the Minnesota National Guard. âÄúItâÄôs the first time, certainly in my tenure, that weâÄôve done anything like this, but itâÄôs a very good way to tell the story of our citizen soldiers.âÄù

At this point, âÄúSouvenirsâÄù does not have a distribution deal, so itâÄôs hard to say when it will hit theaters. The producers and the Guard think this film is significant enough to earn backing upon its completion, but only time will tell if distributors feel the same way.