Former MSU filmmakers’ ‘Prairie Love’ debuts at Sundance Film Festival

A film made by former students of the Montana State University film school will premiere at the prestigious 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

“Prairie Love,” a quirky love story set in North Dakota, was one of 118 films selected from 10,000 submissions to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and one of just 40 narrative feature films accepted.  Sundance  is the largest film festival in the U.S. and which will be held Jan. 20-30 in Park City and other Utah locations.

“Prairie Love” will premier Jan. 23 in the festival’s Next <=> category, a new non-competitive category for independent films with a budget of less than $500,000. It will also screen Jan. 25, 27 and 28.

Four of the film’s principals attended MSU’s School of Film and Photography, then called Media and Theater Arts. They are: Dusty Bias who is the film’s co-producer, co-writer and director; co-producer and co-writer Ashley Martin Bias, lead actor Jeremy Clark and associated producer Darren P. Leis.

“We are extremely proud of this achievement for Dusty, Ashley, Darren and Jeremy and we hope to coax them back here for a screening for the MSU and Bozeman community,” said Cindy Stillwell, MSU film professor who had the filmmakers in class when they were students.

Stillwell, who has had a short film selected for the prestigious festival, said that selection to Sundance effectively launches your work onto the world radar of contemporary independent filmmaking. It puts you  and your film on the “map” so to speak.
“On the practical side, the shot that Sundance gives a film is that it becomes actually possible to sell the film. The whole world is watching that lineup and they know exactly which ones are available to be purchased for distribution,” Stillwell said.

“The sort of dream formula for most film students is to make a film that gets into Sundance, then sell it and hopefully broker your next film project in the process.”

“Prairie Love” has already generated a good share of Sundance buzz. Its trailer was featured on the festival’s Web site and was also featured on The Indie Wire’s run up to the festival:

“Director Dusty Bias combines the Midwest’s harsh winter landscape with exquisite production design to create a world seemingly frozen in time,” the Sundance synopsis notes. “The absurdist humor and quirky onscreen oddities make the characters of this grim tale seem strangely lovable. Brazenly idiosyncratic, ‘Prairie Love’ takes the love story into uncharted territory.”

Bias’ upbringing in Minot, N.D., and the need for an inexpensive location to make a feature, led to the idea for the film.

“We wanted to tell a really simple story with very few characters and very few locations and I was able to come up with something simple that took place in North Dakota in winter time, which is a character in itself,” he said.

The Biases met while students at MSU and became a part of a core group of filmmaking students who still work together. Ashley Martin-Bias graduated in 2001. Dusty was a senior project and a math class away from graduating in 2001 when he left for Los Angeles.

“My time at Montana State was invaluable,” Bias said. “So many things that I use and think about and consider when telling stories comes directly from school there, and particularly Cindy Stillwell. Things that she taught I use every day when working in the film industry.”

Bias said that he actually stopped at the Sundance Film Festival a decade ago while on his way from Montana to Los Angeles.

“I met classmates and friends at festivals and was there for two or three days, but we couldn’t get into any of the movies,” he recalled. “I had a really good time, but I promised myself that I’d never go again unless I had a film there, which became my punishment and goal. So, now it all comes to fruition.”

Bias said he worked for a year or two in the industry in Los Angeles. “But, I wasn’t doing what I wanted and I found it torturous,” he said. “It works for some people. It just didn’t fit my personality.”

He and Ashley, who had joined him in Los Angeles by then, decided to move to her hometown on the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

“I said that if we could write from anywhere, let’s go where I’m from — where it’s hot and there’s a beach,” Martin-Bias recalled. The two married in 2006, divorced last year, but still are collaborators on films and on their lively son. When they write, Dusty usually writes the plot and then Ashley transforms it into dialogue. The two worked on three successful short films. Bias has also been a finalist for the Sundance Film Labs and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

But about four years ago they decided to make a longer feature. Bias’ first idea was discarded when deemed too complex and expensive to make.  Then, in 2007 he had “a Jerry McGuire” moment in the middle of the night and came up for the idea for “Prairie Love,” which was shot in North Dakota in 2009, one of the worst winters on record. Missing footage was shot last winter.

The cast included Clark, who is now based in Chicago, and Holly Lynn Ellis, who went to high school with Bias in Minot and also served as a co-producer. Those involved said it was like working with family.

“I had a great time on the shoot,” said Clark, a native of Great Falls who was a member of the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks Cast in 1998, 2000 and 2005. “Dusty and I have worked together so much, since our days at MSU, that we trust the other one to do their job. It was lots of fun.”

All members of the production thought that the film had a special quality about it. Martin-Bias, who sells real estate to help make ends meet, said the producers decided to submit a rough cut rather than finished film to Sundance,  because their intention was to try for another festival.

“We thought (Sundance) would give us a deadline,” Bias said. She said they were shocked when Sundance called with the acceptance.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Martin-Bias said. “You don’t think Sundance (success), especially off a rough cut. It had been such a long road. We never stopped trying to make movies. But, it had been 10 years.”

Dusty Bias said learning that their film had been accepted to Sundance was like “I had been at a fair throwing balls into a bucket all night long, and I finally made one. It was unbelievable.”

Bias said that all involved in the film are planning to attend the festival and soak in the atmosphere, but they will also work hard to sell the film while there in order to fund another film project.

“I want to seize this opportunity and make the best of it,” he said.

He also hopes to bring the film to Bozeman and MSU someday soon. He’d like to talk to current film students, whom he said often get too caught up in the future.

“My time (at MSU) was so important, more than anything because of the relationships I built there with other students and Cindy Stillwell,” he said. “Those relationships are still the most important thing that have happened to me, career-wise. Everything I’ve done has involved someone I went to school with at MSU.

“You look back and it is the peers sitting in front of you that you’re going to work with the rest of life.”