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Duluth screenwriter behind Bob Saget's final movie

"Daniel's Gotta Die," a dark comedy about adult siblings vying for an inheritance, has its world premiere Friday at the Austin Film Festival in Texas. In addition to Saget, the cast includes punk legend Iggy Pop.

Two men stand arm-in-arm on a paved surface, smiling as they pose for a photo. The man at left is wearing a Billy Madison shirt and a lanyard. The man at right is wearing a blue button-down shirt.
Matthew Dressel, left, and Bob Saget on the set of "Daniel's Gotta Die."
Contributed / Matthew Dressel
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DULUTH — A lot has changed over the past dozen years since Matthew Dressel first started working on the script for a dark comedy about a family inheritance battle.

The script has gone through a series of different titles, finally settling on "Daniel's Gotta Die." Multiple directors have been attached, and pandemic exigencies forced a rewrite that moved the action from the northwoods to a tropical island. The most poignant change, though, was the sudden death of the completed movie's best-known principal actor.

A promotional poster for the movie "Daniel's Gotta Die," featuring six actors arrayed around a red coffin with an iguana on the floor in the foreground.
Promotional poster for "Daniel's Gotta Die."
Contributed / Matthew Dressel

"We have to proceed, acknowledging that this was his last film," said Dressel about Bob Saget. "I've had a lot of people say to me that they're very interested in seeing what he did, and it had been a while since he had gotten to do a nice comedic role."

"The most heartbreaking thing is that the film wasn't quite finished," said director Jeremy LaLonde. "We were still finishing up some score and some visual effects, and Bob didn't want to see it until it was totally finished. So he never actually got to see the film, which is really heartbreaking for me because he loved the script, he loved working on it, he was such a champion for it."

Saget died Jan. 9 at age 65 due to a head injury sustained from an accidental fall. In a five-decade career as an actor and comedian, it was his role as single father Danny Tanner in ABC's sitcom "Full House" (1987-1995) that made Saget a household name. "He's America's dad," Dressel told the News Tribune from the Cayman Islands while filming "Daniel's Gotta Die" in March 2021. "He's essentially the world's dad."

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Like many holiday films, the feature was shot in the summertime. Yes, that meant making fake snow — in Duluth.

The finished 90-minute film is having its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, in Texas, on Friday night. The fact of it being Saget's final feature has made it perhaps the most-anticipated movie in the high-profile festival, leading industry headlines when the festival lineup was announced last month.

"I'm kind of sad that I'm the last director who got to work with Bob," said LaLonde. "He had so much more to give, and so many more great people to work with."

Dressel and LaLonde said that once Saget read the script, he was quick to join the project. "That was very surreal, doing a Zoom call with Bob Saget, and getting his (feedback)," Dressel remembered earlier this month, speaking with the News Tribune from his Duluth home.

A man in a dark business suit sits at a table with his hands crossed in front of him, looking towards the camera with a guarded expression.
Bob Saget in "Daniel's Gotta Die."
Contributed / Matthew Dressel

Things would only get more surreal: In a late addition due to happenstance, LaLonde was able to cast punk great Iggy Pop as the patriarch whose passing leads to the movie's central conflict.

"Iggy Pop lives on the island," said Dressel. "The director saw him strolling on the beach one day ... Luckily, he loved the script and he came aboard and honestly, he was just the nicest person ever."

"So cool that Iggy Pop is in our movie 'Blue Iguana,'" wrote Saget in a Facebook post from the Caymans, referencing the film's title at that time and sharing a selfie with his costar. "What an incredibly nice music legend."

Pop returned the compliment in a statement after Saget's death. "Salut," he said, "love and respect to Bob Saget, who was so nice and kind to me and everyone else during our time working together."

"Originally, the plan was to make the movie in northern Ontario," said LaLonde. "The appeal of the Caymans, for the producers, was that there was no COVID there. All we had to do was a two-week quarantine at a very, very nice hotel, and then it was like going back in time a year and a half to the pre-pandemic."

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Darius Films, a Toronto-based production company, made the film happen. "It was an entirely Canadian crew, so I wasn't that much of a fish out of water," said Dressel about being a Duluthian on Grand Cayman.

"Daniel's Gotta Die" was part of the first-ever multi-picture production deal for the Caymans. "There was literally no film industry in the Cayman Islands," said Dressel. "Now, I think, they're on their fifth or sixth film there. They're still going strong."

During production, multiple members of the cast and crew took to social media and expressed what a relief it was to work and relax without the virus safeguards that had been in place for over a year at that point. Vaccines would not be widely available for healthy adults until around the time the film's principal photography wrapped.

Group of about 100 people seated on stairs outside white mansion in tropical setting with palm trees. Most are waving their hands enthusiastically in the air.
The cast and crew of "Daniel's Gotta Die" during 2021 production on Grand Cayman.
Contributed / Matthew Dressel

"I can't even express how nice it is to be able to safely live life again," wrote cast member Carly Chaikin on Instagram. The actor, best known for her role on USA's "Mr. Robot," posted a video of herself at a karaoke machine rapping the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion hit "WAP."

The movie's cast also includes Joel David Moore ("Avatar"), Jason Jones ("The Detour") and Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24"). "Sliced 42 balls in the ocean but it was worth it," wrote Moore on Instagram, sharing a photo of a Caymans golf foursome that included Saget, Chaikin and costar Dax Ravina.

"It's kind of like being an adult and getting to go to camp with a bunch of other adults," said LaLonde about filming on location. "We'd hang out in the evenings when we weren't shooting, and on the weekend we'd do stuff together. It's a real additional bonding experience."

"Enjoyed the dream of no Covid here," wrote Saget on Instagram, "thanks to quarantine, the wonderful people here, a great cast and crew, and writer, producer and director that made this a dream experience."

Dressel had experience with helping to develop a film industry in a scenic spot; that's what he's been doing in Duluth for the past several years. He founded the Duluth Film Collective, worked as a programmer at the Zeitgeist Zinema and he teaches screenwriting classes at the Minnesota Media Arts School.

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"When I moved here six or seven years ago, there was no film scene. Basically, there was a scattered group of people who were working on projects," said Dressel. "It's really nice to see (the scene) finally getting a lot of recognition and seeing a lot of projects come in."

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LaLonde said it was important to have Dressel on set to consult while the movie was being filmed. "A screenplay is not so much a final document," LaLonde said, "as it is a living, breathing thing that constantly needs to be tended and adjusted as you go along."

The director said he and Dressel spent a lot of time adjusting the script to fit the house they chose for a location. "90% of this film takes place inside this giant house," said LaLonde. "It was almost like the house itself was this big, giant character."

A nighttime photo of a sprawling white mansion with swimming pool in foreground, in a tropical setting with palm trees.
"Daniel's Gotta Die" was largely filmed in a Grand Cayman mansion.
Contributed / Matthew Dressel

"Not every screenwriter gets to be this involved, from the very beginning to the very end," said Dressel. "They could have pulled me at any point. They could have replaced me with a different writer. They could have brought on people to punch up the script, but they didn't."

Both Dressel and LaLonde are eagerly anticipating the Austin screening, which will be the first stage in the "adventure" of bringing "Daniel's Gotta Die" to the public, said LaLonde. "It was never designed, obviously, to be a tribute for Bob and his last film, but I know it's going to go out as one that he was immensely proud to work on."

"Bob Saget's character is in charge of, basically, wrangling this group of sociopaths," said Dressel. "The thing that Bob really wanted to bring to the surface was the character's heart ... He really wanted to make his relationship to Iggy Pop's character mean something, and he really wanted to inject emotion into it."

A nighttime photo of film production equipment in a tropical setting. At center, a light shines on a large square screen from behind.
Behind the scenes during the Cayman Islands filming of "Daniel's Gotta Die."
Contributed / Matthew Dressel

When will audiences in Duluth, and elsewhere, get to see the movie? "The Holy Grail of what we're hoping for," said Dressel, "is that it will have very positive first impressions, it will get some good reviews, and the demand will be high enough that it is able to snag a theatrical release." That said, "I wouldn't, obviously, turn my nose up at any streaming deal."

If "Daniel's Gotta Die" doesn't head straight to multiplexes, Dressel will try to arrange a local screening — perhaps at Duluth's Minnesota International Film Festival, previously known as the North By North International Film Festival. "You guys have to have a screening for Matt," said LaLonde, "to celebrate your Duluth son!"

"I've just been waiting to get this film in front of an audience," said Dressel. "I think that people will really have a good time."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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