Filmmaker finds inspiration from Duluth's beauty, and its dark corners
Movie was shot in Denfeld High School’s basement and in Duluth’s Old City Hall.
A man waves a flashlight in a dark basement. The battery dies, and he lights a candle.
"It's the pizza guy; I'm lost," he says.
He follows the low sound of a TV to find a bath-robed woman holding a remote.
"Hi," he says, breathlessly.
After an early April launch, the last five episodes of “The Hunter" are out Friday, April 30, exclusively on DocsNow Plus . This is the second feature by Alex Gutterman, the Duluth writer and director behind 2017’s “In Winter.”
Expect an underground chess game, an avant-garde language lesson and rising tension between a filmmaker and an editor. And like its predecessor, “The Hunter” has a wide Northland and Minnesota showing.
It was shot in Denfeld High School’s basement, in Duluth’s Old City Hall, and under the overpass near the West Duluth Library. (The crew wrapped months before COVID-19 prompted shutdowns across Minnesota.)
Francis Heid of Duluth is an executive producer, and Minnesota-based Nora Targonski O’Brien (who played Annika “In Winter”) co-stars as The Film Director, along with Los Angeles actors Christoper Soren Kelly and Jessica Graham.
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Art imitates life in more ways than one for Gutterman.
“‘In Winter’ is a way to address my broken heart. ‘The Hunter’ is a way to address the meanderings and chambers of my mind, and ‘Threshold’ (his next film) is a way to walk directly into where I’ve been stabbed in the guts,” he said.
Gutterman moved to Duluth around 2005, after suffering a breakdown and struggling with significant mental illness. “Landing here, the place was visually stunning. It struck something in me,” he said.
He comes from a heavy artistic background, childhood acting on stage, a long-term education in the arts, a background in writing poetry and painting — but it was Duluth that helped launch his filmmaking career.
He was an outsider, but he found a tremendous amount of support here, he recalled.
“It’s big enough to find people of a certain caliber, but small enough to forge a team,” he said. “I could never have pulled this off in Chicago or New York.”
Gutterman said his background also naturally progressed into filmmaking, where his work makes for “visual poetry.”
A big takeaway from his first film is the importance of long-term, mutually attentive relationships around the development of art.
Also: “a willingness to take spiritual, emotional and aesthetic risks and being willing to stand with those risks,” Gutterman said.
While his first feature was a buffet of North Country locations, “The Hunter” is set mostly in a dark, labyrinth-like underworld.
While scouting locations, Riki McManus, chief production officer at the Upper Midwest Film Office in Duluth, suggested a Duluth spot with maze-like tunnels and an attic.
“I was racking my brain to come up with something that would work for him,” McManus recalled. “Once we went down into the bowels of Denfeld High School, he was like a little kid. He was so excited.”
McManus worked with Gutterman on “In Winter” and has known him for about five years.
“He’s got such interesting stories in his head,” she said.
Asked about his latest work, she said: “It’s an art film. … It helps you think a little bit more than just being entertained.”
Gutterman fills many roles with his work, employing people in the industry and training them. As a filmmaker, he has people from all over the world watching his content and distributors who love his stuff. He has added a richness to the creative community in the Northland.
“He’s really just opened the door to something new for us here,” McManus said, “and that’s something we should be thankful for.”
Duluth filmmaker Caelan Mars recalled his introduction to this script.
“It was the film I wanted to see next,” he said by email. “I was spending a lot of time watching films that explored weird dimensional and/or philosophical concepts, and the screenplay did that in a way I hadn't seen before.”
Mars worked as the cinematographer and editor on “The Hunter.” He said it's important to realize traditional rules will become guidelines, at best, and you'll likely be inventing your own form of cinema when working on a project like this.
“Alex and I have similar interests with the philosophical concepts and musings that inspired the content,” Mars said. “Sometimes, he wants something specific, and other times, he gives me a general concept, which means that I then get the artistic freedom to come up with something. It does take a special director-editor relationship for this to work.”
A rough cut of the film was three hours, and it was suggested by the distributor to release “The Hunter” in episodes.
“Given the overwhelming material and how bone-crushing intellectually demanding it is, this could be a more digestible way to handle it,” Gutterman recalled.
Gutterman spoke to the News Tribune from his family’s Fire Island, New York, home.
While he’s keeping his house in Duluth, he’s shifting his center of gravity to the East Coast for now. And, he is currently 30-plus pages into writing a script for his next project, “Threshold,” which will likely start filming in autumn 2023.
Gutterman said it’s important to approach his work with sincerity and authenticity, and to tell his own stories. When you’re watching a great filmmaker, you’re watching the outcome of a spiritual wrestling match.
Great filmmakers had to dig deep, and they had to create in order to come to terms and integrate. “That is what art is versus what I would call entertainment, and I am aiming to be in that group,” he said.