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Fargo Film Debut, Pie Day Feast & "It's Right For Me," Alice Loesch

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Today's Segments:

Toby Jones, Ben Hanson Fargo Film Festival

Fargo natives Toby Jones and Ben Hanson have a feature film, shot in Fargo, premiering Saturday, March 23rd during the Fargo Film Festival. It's called AJ Goes to the Dog Park. We learn about the filmmaking process, Jones' work with Cartoon Network and how being a politician may --- or may not have --- prepared Hanson to be an independent film producer. Check out the teaser trailer for AJ Goes to the Dog Park! It's a feature-length comedy shot in and around Fargo, ND and you're invited to the premiere at the Fargo Film Festival on Saturday, March 23rd at 3:30 PM:

Prairie Plates with Rick Gion

Rick talks about a Pi Day review (he tried 10 pieces of pie at the Sons of Norway) and discusses ice cream (Cows & Co. Dechessa gelato from Carrington, ND, and Pride Dairy from Bottineau, ND). Of course, Silver Lining near our office is also excellent.

It's Right for Me

It's Right For Me From Salt Institute for Documentary Studies | 06:46 Alice Loesch (lesh) has lived through a century that has seen some of history's most sweeping changes in the lives of women.

AJ Goes to the Dog Park Interview Highlights:

  • Film Production Journey: Toby Jones and Ben Hanson discuss the long journey of creating their film, "A.J. Goes to the Dog Park," which took several years to complete from writing to production, overcoming challenges like the pandemic and remote work.
  • Exploring Themes of Success and Routine: The film delves into themes of success and routine, highlighting the balance between contentment and ambition. It explores how dedicating oneself to a goal can affect personal fulfillment and the unintended consequences of pursuing ambitions.
  • Creative Process and Collaborations: The interview sheds light on the creative process behind the film, including the utilization of recurring gags and experimental comedy. Toby and Ben discuss their collaborative efforts, drawing from their shared passion for filmmaking and their background in animation and politics, respectively.
  • Challenges of Independent Filmmaking: The interview reveals the challenges of independent filmmaking, from managing a nano-budget to navigating post-production complexities. Despite limitations, they emphasize the importance of resourcefulness and local support in bringing their vision to life.
  • Significance of Local Film Festivals: Toby and Ben express gratitude for the platform provided by local film festivals like the Fargo Film Festival. They highlight the festival's role in fostering creativity within the community and providing exposure for regional filmmakers. Additionally, they discuss the impact of their film in inspiring others to pursue creative endeavors locally.

AJ Goes to the Dog Park Full Transcript:

Ashley Thornberg

Well, congratulations on the film.

Toby Jones

Oh, thank you very much. It's certainly been a long time coming.

Ashley Thornberg

Okay, how long of a time?

Toby Jones

How long? Goodness gracious. We started shooting it in 2021.

It was written in 2019, 2020. And so we shot for a session each year, 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Ashley Thornberg

Sure.

Toby Jones

And now in 2024, it's finally complete.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, and those were just great times to be traveling and getting together and doing things, you know, no pandemic in the way or anything.

Toby Jones

See, that was a whole part of it too. It's like, but also partly kind of helped to facilitate it happening because it's like, okay, you know, I'm in LA and I'm working in animation, making these cartoons. And at that time, it's still a lot of work from home.

And so it's like, well, if I'm working from home, I could work from home from Fargo and make a movie with my friends in Fargo. So it was both a blessing and a curse for the project. Um, so we kind of utilized that, but it's, and it was, but it definitely posed some challenges, especially those first couple of years.

Ashley Thornberg

Ben, how did you get involved?

Ben Hanson

Toby asked me to be a producer on his movie, which is not a thing I'd ever done before.

Ashley Thornberg

It's not on your business card?

Ben Hanson

It is not. So I jumped in headfirst, not knowing what I was doing. And I was very glad I did.

Ashley Thornberg

Why did you ask Ben?

Toby Jones

Well, Ben is a, I would say uniquely organized individual, especially what I've observed from his time working in politics, you know, he's, he's, he's proven to be a really good organizer. And so it felt that he would be a good, a good candidate for this. The other thing about Ben, speaking about him as though he isn't in the room with me is that he's like me, a massive film enthusiast.

And so, you know, him and I go, go back to, I want to say eighth grade at Fargo South, uh, no Discovery. Uh, and we bonded over our love of film and love of, love of funny, weird stuff. And so we've always wanted to make a movie together.

And so that's another part of it where it's just like, this is a way for us to collaborate and kind of build something together.

Ben Hanson

When you swap Requiem for a Dream and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as DVDs, when you're in the ninth grade, uh, you know, it forms a lifelong bond. Indelible, indelible bond.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, let's play a little bit of a clip from this movie. This is the opening minute and a half here of A.J. goes to the dog park and we'll talk about ideas of, of success and happiness and how they're explored in the film.

A.J. come to my office, please. A.J. you've always been one of our best performers. We'd love to promote you to technical consultant.

 

Yes. I mean, I'm flattered, but yes. Uh, sorry.

 

I mean, no, I always get those mixed up. But why, why, why do you insist on staying entry level? Don't you want to get more out of life?

 

A desk like this desk made of real Oak wood? No, right now everything's just perfect for me. I wake up at eight 30 and make myself butter toast with cinnamon sugar.

 

It's great. Then I bike to work, which is also great because I get to wave hello to the coffee kiosk lady. Work is good.

 

I like that. It's easy. And my heart rate stays pretty low all day.

 

Then I eat supper with either my married friends or my dad. After that, I go home and watch YouTube videos with my dogs until all three of us fall asleep. Sounds pretty good.

 

Oh, my favorite part is when I go to the dog park with Diddy and Biff and it's kind of just an open field. So it gets really windy there, but it is so nice. So you're not ready to take over the family business.

 

What can I say? I'm content. Weeks, months, years.

 

I'm happy to let them spread by like whipped butter. I understand, son. Thanks, Poppy Pop.

 

See you at supper.

Ashley Thornberg

I laughed really hard at that line. Don't you want a real desk made out of real wood? Like this is something that you go to school forever for and get promoted to the day shift and then they thank you with a desk made out of real wood.

So let's talk about your ideas, both of you here, of what does a term like success mean to you?

Toby Jones

Well, that's kind of something that is interesting because it both relates to kind of where the movie came from and what it became, you know, because for me, you know, success is enjoying what I do every day. And I've kind of had the privilege of doing that working in animation for this last like 10 years, you know, working on like Regular Show and OK KO and stuff. You know, you wake up every day and you're like, I have a strong purpose and I feel great about what I'm doing and I'm really happy doing it.

And what this movie, you know, this movie is a very strange, surreal, gag driven comedy, very absurd, very wacky. But, you know, it is kind of about that in a way. It is about what it means to dedicate yourself to something because, you know, AJ at the beginning of the movie loses his dog park and he chooses to dedicate his life to this goal of getting it back.

And it can be addicting to have a goal in your life, you know. And so it kind of becomes a little bit through all of its wackiness and weirdness. It starts to kind of talk a little bit about like, OK, well, what is the cost of dedicating years of your life to a goal?

Like what is the actual what is what is the unintended result of that?

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, there's a very telling line in the film substituting having a goal for being a fully formed person.

Toby Jones

Yes, exactly. Yes. And, you know, is that autobiographical?

Who's to say, you know, is that something I, you know, it is it is a thing, you know, I don't want to spoil some of the kind of kind of twists and turns that occur, but it is a thing where it's like, you know, you can really lose yourself in these goals and, you know, and things there are there are consequences. And it's like maybe you don't regret doing it, but also it's just like you have to maybe take some time to think about what it really means, I guess.

Ashley Thornberg

Ben, has that kind of attitude showed up in in your political aspirations?

Ben Hanson

You know, I don't. Unfortunately, I think the answer is probably not. But I was I was going to say, I mean, I wish I could expound more, but I don't think it does, if I'm being very honest.

I do think something that's I really like about the terms for success that the movie talks about is A.J. as a character is pretty fixated on his daily grind, which I at least for me personally find to be something that I also am more and more invested in as I get older, like having a very set, a very comfortable routine and how upset he is by it being disrupted. Something I like about the movie is that his routine and the changes to it are like fairly low stakes. And yet because it stops him from doing the thing he wants to do every day, he then makes it his entire life school to to restore that back.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Yeah. Let's talk about when habits can sustain us and when they can block us. Toby, you're smiling the biggest thing you get to go first.

Toby Jones

Well, it is something kind of funny because it's just like, you know, at the beginning of this movie, we had this character, A.J., and we heard it in the clip. He is a very comfortable person in his life. He's he's he's very he's everything about his life is perfect.

He doesn't really want to change a thing. He has this thing he says he doesn't pay attention to how time passes. He lets it pass like whipped butter.

And that's not me. You know, I've always been very goal oriented and very, very fixated on the next thing. You know, I always talk about, you know, I always have a carrot in front of me that I'm following as kind of a guiding force in my life.

And so, A.J., the character in a way becomes more like me as he, you know, through his goal, he thinks he's just trying to get his routine back. But then he kind of maybe over time, we as the audience discover that what has replaced his routine is this carrot he has in front of him that that that gives him a purpose in a different way.

Ashley Thornberg

And what did it feel like when you first realized, oh, I'm writing a movie that's actually therapy about me?

Toby Jones

Look, these things, they really sneak up on you, because I think that part of the fun of it is that it sneaks up on you. If I was fully aware when I started it of what was going on with this, I don't think the movie would be as fun to watch because you as the viewer are discovering these things as the movie kind of discovers them. And so it's one of those it makes it feel a little bit more unexpected, I hope.

Ashley Thornberg

We are visiting today with Toby Jones and Ben Hanson. They are two of the creative forces behind A.J. Goes to the Dog Park, which is premiering at the Fargo Film Festival, which has already started. You can find out more at fargofilmfestival.org.

A.J. Goes to the Dog Park premieres this coming Saturday. And we're talking a lot about some recurring jokes. And there's this thing about telling jokes where you can tell a joke until it becomes not funny and then just keep telling it so that it becomes funny again.

Talk about walking that line of a repeated gag.

Toby Jones

I think that the fun of making a project like this, where you are making it completely independently without, you know, studio resources or money or anything like that, is that honestly, you can kind of take a experimental type of approach to the comedy where it's like the guardrails are off. There's no one here to tell me no. So I'm going to try everything under the sun.

Some things might work. Some things won't for the audiences. I'm going to put every type of joke I can think of.

And the case of this movie, some of these are examples where there are certain jokes that recur and repeat and morph and come back in unexpected ways. And a lot of that is just me as a writer and director trying to entertain myself and have fun and also to test the boundaries of just like what we can do. And to the point where I don't want to say it becomes like abstract because it's always the goal is to get a laugh.

But there are, I would say, a good number of different types of laugh we're kind of going for in this movie. Ben, would you say that's an accurate assessment about that?

Ben Hanson

It definitely is. And I feel comfortable saying this because I didn't write the script. I really like that so many things that seem like one-offs or individual lines then become either repeat gags or very large plot points later on, which isn't giving away anything.

But in a lot of movies, these would be one cutaway gags or one joke that then becomes something that's integral to the plot later on. And I think it's very clever.

Toby Jones

Yes, because I think I very intentionally, when I was building out this story and writing it up, I was trying not to overthink it and trying not to look backwards too much as I went. And it ended up kind of having an intentional improvisational quality and a very spontaneous feeling, almost like an exquisite corpse type of thing.

Ashley Thornberg

What is an exquisite corpse?

Toby Jones

That's like an art exercise where you do a drawing, the beginning, the top of a drawing, and you hand it to a friend and they do the next part of the drawing, but then they hide the beginning and you give it to another friend. And so the person making the third part doesn't know what the first part looked like. And then it goes on and on and on until you create a bizarre thing that where nobody who was involved knew what the two things before them was.

And so no one knows what it's going to be. So that kind of goes back to the improvisational feel where it's just kind of like, I'm trying to build out something where I don't want the audience to necessarily be able to predict what's going to happen in the next scene. And I'm trying to surprise myself as I make it as well as the audience.

Ashley Thornberg

Ben, I think for Toby being writer and director, people probably don't realize the full scope of how much work that is, but they have a sense of what it means to be a writer and a director. Nobody knows what a producer is or does.

Ben Hanson

Including the producers. For me, because obviously we're doing this on a very different level than like a big multi-million dollar mainstream blockbuster.

Ashley Thornberg

Oh, you didn't have that budget?

Ben Hanson

I'm glad we fooled you, but we did not. We came in well, well under seven digits.

Ashley Thornberg

Where's the decimal point?

Ben Hanson

I enjoy being a producer. And one of the things I did enjoy about was it was a new thing each day in each shoot. You're a jack of all trades and you're really more of a project manager than anything else.

It's a lot of scheduling. It's a lot of locations. It's a lot of visual gags in the movie.

And so you have to, we had some very talented local artists that came up with props that you get to see in the movie, such as fish of unreasonable length and many other fun examples. I don't want to give away too many, but getting them all in the same place, in the same location, on the same day. And then sometimes, especially with an outdoor shoot, hoping the weather's right, which it was not all the time.

Very often that was a major problem. So you wind up being like a combination secretary, scheduler, reminder, and planner. And then there also really is budgeting and you're trying to do shopping and just basic price comparisons to see if you can get something for cheaper for free.

And there are occasionally things in the movie that you'd be shocked to know we got to use or do for free. And there are sometimes entire wrestling rings that need to be assembled that don't come for nothing.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's talk about that expense thing, because I think at one point you said it was a micro-budget and then a nano-budget here. What are some of the surprising expenses to local independent film?

Toby Jones

Well, kind of just as Ben was saying, I would say that even though we both have experience making things in our lives, every single time we got something, we were never really able to fully predict what it would cost. Because sometimes we would be able to get something, as Ben said, completely for free, because we knew somebody who knew somebody. And sometimes we would just have to step up and plop down an almost uncomfortable amount of money from our very meager budget to make these ideas occur on screen.

And it almost felt like a coin flip at times. And that was kind of part of the drama of making a movie like this, because we don't have the power or control over how these things go. We just need to work with what we can get on the day.

Ben Hanson

It's also interesting because for folks who haven't ever made a movie before, there are things that Toby…knew from working in the industry, like basic sound mixing or color correction, that wouldn't have necessarily occurred to me. And I'm extremely glad that he pushed forward and got them, because then once I saw them, if you haven't shot things on film before, if you're not a camera person, you don't know what color correction can do for production.

Now I see what we originally shot are pre-color correction. I'm like, oh my God, this is night and day.

Toby Jones

And that ended up being a pretty significant chunk of the budget, because shooting the movie in Fargo, there were a lot of things we were able to save money on. But when it comes to post-production, that was an area where we elected to really, really go as far as we could. And that was where, when I brought everything back to Los Angeles, I used people I worked with in the industry and in cartoons that I worked on to give it that full post-production, again, sound design, color correction.

And my friend Owen Dennis, who created a cartoon called Infinity Train, he did all the VFX and stuff like that. Although the music is something that was done actually by some Fargo people. It was a band called Secret Cities, my friend Charlie Gokey, Alex Abnos, and Marie Parker.

So they did the score. But a lot of the post-production was trying to... That was where we tried our best to really spare no expense and make sure that the thing had a shine to it at the end of the day.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, I will say that I was watching the movie, and I watched most of it at home, but I had to watch part of it at work. And two people stopped by my desk. I was wearing headphones.

They couldn't hear anything, but they stopped and watched because they were very compelled by the visual effects.

Toby Jones

Oh, that's great to hear. And I'm sure Owen will be happy to hear that too.

Ashley Thornberg

Give us a little compare and contrast, Toby, of the advantages of working in North Dakota. And yeah, you could just call up Greg Carlson, who's been on this show many times, a professor at Concordia, and get some stuff for free. But then also the different level of expertise that comes with having connections. I mean, you're working at Cartoon Network.

Toby Jones

Yes. Well, to me, one of the main things that is certainly true, there are a lot of pros and cons. When you're making a professional TV show for a major studio, all the resources are there, all the money is there, all the people are there, everything's in place, and everybody shows up at the same time every day to make sure the thing happens.

Trying to make an independent movie here in Fargo, the pro is you call somebody up who you've never met before and you want some help doing something, shooting at a location, often they'll be like, that sounds interesting. Sure, I'd be happy to help you out. But the other issue, but the kind of more difficult part of it is this is nobody's day job.

And so I fly to Fargo and I'm hanging in Fargo and I got to hang here for as long as it takes for everybody's schedules to line up to pull the thing together. And it was a significant challenge because that's just the way it works. So it's on one hand, the enthusiasm and the actual technical skill and the creative expertise, all that stuff is there.

But what we don't have is the structure and the resources with which to get it done quickly, which is why it took three years.

Ashley Thornberg

Talk a little about the importance of a local film festival.

Toby Jones

To me, that's huge. Honestly, I remember when there wasn't a local film festival and I remember thinking, why isn't there one? And when it happened, I was so happy because the fact is, every city needs a creative scene.

And to me, the Fargo Film Festival is a major hub of the creative scene, which is why I'm so grateful that they chose to play our movie because it's like, this is a Fargo movie and it's always been a dream of mine to play one of our things at the festival. And so it's just a really cool... And also, it being something made here with talent here, I really hoped for the opportunity for this to be the first audience to see it.

Ben, what would you say to that?

Ben Hanson

Well, I showed it to a friend who lives in Sioux Falls. She watched the first 15 minutes of it. And one of the things she said in response was that it inspired her to try and go out and shoot things with her friends, like short movies with her friends, film the footage during the summer.

And she's like, I got all these winter months, I can be editing them back in my apartment. But what's cool about that is that's something that she's seeing because it's regional and because she's here so that not everybody has to be in one geographic location and can see that. One of the things I'm proud of with the movie is that we really have a wide variety of geography and just landscape settings in the movie, but it's all shot within Cass and Clay County.

Most of it in Fargo, but some out in Lakes Country, our farms, et cetera. But it shows a real variety of what we have here and that you can make something yourself here and you don't have to be somewhere else in order to do that.

Toby Jones

See, Ben, that's kind of a crucial thing, actually, because I'm sure you notice when you watch the film, this is not a movie that's pretending to be a big budget Hollywood production. We are proudly a small North Dakota movie made with very little money and we want that to come off as part of the appeal. And the fact that someone would see it and one of the things that they would say is like, seeing that you did this makes me think that I could do this.

To me, that's one of the biggest things that we could do because you can. Like, you know, you can get together with your friends and make something and you should.

Ben Hanson

Now, if we did fool you that was a multi-million dollar production, please keep that in your heart.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, you know, as creatives, there's the giving birth to the project and you do get to have lots of control over that. You don't get to control how people react to the film. Is that freeing?

Is that terrifying?

Toby Jones

I mean, that's something that I've certainly had a lot of experience with, you know, working for major studios and making, you know, cartoons that play on Cartoon Network and stuff. You know, when an episode of a show that I would make would come out, you could see hundreds, thousands of responses. And what you learn is maybe there's a consensus but also everybody will see it differently and everybody will see it maybe a little differently from what you anticipated.

And at a certain point, you have to maybe let go and just try your best to feel confident in your choices. In the case of this movie, not that many people have seen it yet. So I don't really know.

You know, our goal is just, you know, as you saw, I'm sure when you watched it, it's a pretty unique type of comedy. You know, it's a specific tempo and texture of flavor of humor. And we're just trying to find the people for whom that will be refreshing to them.

Because for me, it kind of comes from a place of wanting to see more movies with surreal, absurd, gag-driven comedy. You know, Ben and I and some other friends…

Ashley Thornberg

You haven't seen a lot of elbow wrestling.

Toby Jones

Exactly. You know, Ben and I went to Sundance a few times and Slamdance. And it's a wonderful experience to go to these festivals.

But a lot of the movies are very serious, very dramatic. And when you've sat through four or five serious, dramatic movies, and at the end of the night, you hit one really, really funny comedy. Honestly, it's like euphoric.

For us, that was in 2019, it was a movie called Greener Grass. And we were just like, my goodness, it's like heaven experiencing something that just wants me to have fun and make me laugh.

Ben Hanson

I will say that we don't feel, speaking a little bit for Toby, that we see enough of them. So we made our own. And here's our contribution to that, because we'd like to see more of them out there in the market.

Ashley Thornberg

And have you both always been that person who, if there's a problem, you don't just complain about it, you just try to solve it?

Toby Jones

I think that's something that we've both grown into and learned to do. But you're absolutely right about that, though, because it is a thing where we, you know, this kind of comes back to some really inspirational stuff from some filmmakers who kind of like inspired us. You know, there's the Duplass talk where he says the cavalry isn't coming.

You know, it's like, you know, even as somebody who's worked in the industry for a lot of years, and I've always wanted to make a movie like this, you know, I happen to notice over 10 years that nobody was knocking down my door to make a movie like this. And so you still have to make it happen by yourself, because nobody's going to do it for you. You know, you can't ask permission to make something like this.

And, you know, the filmmakers Matt Farley and Charlie Roxburgh, also of modern media, they also are like that they just make movies in their backyard, because nobody's begging them to do it, but they want to do it. So you know, they have to make it happen.

Ashley Thornberg

AJ goes to the dog park showing this Saturday at the Fargo Film Festival. Ben Hanson, producer, Toby Jones, writer and director. Thanks to you both for your time today.

NOTE: This transcript and the descriptions of today's show were created with the assist of AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.