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Duluth filmmakers hope audiences enjoy their first feature-length film

Jesse Whiting stars as Dr. Jesse in “The One Who Watches,” a locally made feature-length movie that the filmmakers describe as a mix between “Twin Peaks” and “White Christmas.” One scene finds him sandwiched between lumberjack-looking townies who are trying out for a community theater production. The movie gets its premiere today at Zinema 2 and also can be streamed online at nicholassunsdahl.com. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Sunsdahl)1 / 4
Molly Josefson (left) and Nicholas Sunsdahl spent about three months of summer 2013 writing “The One Who Watches.” (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Sunsdahl)2 / 4
Sean Elmquist is Jean, the deep-thinking director who is rumored to be Canadian in “The One Who Watches.” (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Sunsdahl)3 / 4
Chelsy Whittington did much of the choreography for “The One Who Watches,” and has her own mid-movie musical moment. (Photo courtesy of Nicholas Sunsdahl)4 / 4

It starts with a man using a dock as a desk. He is seemingly working on his book and, unknowingly, an empty canoe floats past behind him.

Dr. Jesse is new to this northern town. He’s living in a borrowed cabin in some weird woods, working at the college, and strange circumstances surrounding his briefcase have landed him the lead in the community musical. Situations twist and morph and bend as he’s thrown into this strange new world — his disorientation partially heightened by the Blue Ox he downs during a cast party.

“The One Who Watches,” is a medium-to-dark musical comedy created by husband-wife duo Nicholas Sunsdahl and Molly Josefson and more than 60 friends who gathered on a handful of weekends to make the feature-length film. It gets its premiere screening at 7:30 p.m. today at Zinema 2 and has a few additional dates already scheduled for early 2015.

Sunsdahl, a filmmaker who has previously created shorts and music videos, said he describes the movie as “Twin Peaks” meets “White Christmas” for the sake of brevity — though that’s not exactly what it is.

“It’s not ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘White Christmas,’ ” he said. “If you had to put it in a world of cinema, maybe that’s where it would be.”

Séance and mediums

A seed of the story came from something Josefson remembered hearing about from a college professor. He had encountered a scene in a park that included a séance, a medium and a trumpet that flew from the middle of a circle of people and into a lake.

“Nick wanted to make a movie, and we were talking and that came to my mind,” she said.

Sunsdahl wanted a regional representation, not the TV show “Fargo” with its linguistics experts and outsider perspectives.

“We wanted something authentic and original, and we really wanted to do something kind of unique to northern Minnesota,” he said. “My personal goal was to help to be a more definitive voice of the culture up here.”

They started writing the screenplay in summer 2013. They wrote mostly in the mornings, in their backyard over coffee. They had just had a baby, so they were home more often. They worked up to notecards and tack board, so they could easily rearrange the plot.

Filming for “The One Who Watches” began that fall, and the biggest shoot was held at the Masonic Temple theater, where about 60 friends played various townspeople trying out for the community musical.

Some are strapped into prop canoes and others are dressed like lumberjacks. There’s a sexy song and dance number, the art of mime and handstands.

“It was the most fun I’ve had doing art stuff in a really long time,” said Sean Elmquist, who plays mysterious Jean, the show’s director who has a cult figure-level of hold over the cast. “I think there is something about that movie magic that makes people more — nicer, more shy.”

‘The One’

“The One Who Watches” is set in a fictional town in northern Minnesota. It could be a Duluth positioned away from the iconic images. Dr. Jesse is new in town, a professor who requires logical explanations for things that are attributed to otherworldly beings. He winds his way through the town and is led to a sub-group of people at tryouts for a local production.

Jesse (played by Jesse Whiting) spies on them from a distance, but is eventually forced into the spotlight by Jean, who is rumored to be Canadian.

Jean is revered, pensive, deep — and occasionally comedic.

“Anyone can act,” he assures the reluctant Dr. Jesse. “Not everyone can run the lights, but anyone can act.”  

As the story unfolds, Jesse becomes more clued into the peculiarities of his new home.

One character says to him, during a blue drink-fueled night in his cabin, “A curious man can find himself in the strangest situations.”

‘We think they’ll like it’

Today’s showing is the first time “The One Who Watches” has been screened for a large audience. Josefson had recently seen the film play at Zinema 2 in preparation for its premiere.

“It makes me really happy,” she said. “I don’t know what other people will see. I see all of my friends being really amazing actors. They’re funny and charming and I remember making all of it. It feels good to watch it.”

The filmmakers have submitted “The One Who Watches” to regional festivals, but mostly they just want it out in the world.

“We want everyone in Duluth and the Iron Range and Wisconsin to see it,” Sunsdahl said. “We think they’ll like it.”

Meanwhile, the two are back at the beginning. They’ve begun writing their next film — though they aren’t sure which direction it will go.

“There might be a detective in it,” Josefson said.

Go see it

What: “The One Who Watches”

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Where: Zinema 2, 222 E. Superior St.

Tickets: $8 at eventbrite.com

Online: The movie can be screened at nicholassunsdahl.com

Other screenings: 7 p.m. Jan. 6 at Zinema 2 as part of the Explorers Club series; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8 at The Trylon, 3258 Minnehaha Ave., Minneapolis

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