Ironbound Studios in Chisholm focuses on the future

CHISHOLM -- Veteran Films executive director Steven Reed paused at the end of the underground tunnel. As the eerie notes of the horror film's soundtrack played, Reed explained how the characters will run back and forth in the short tunnel several...

Producer Steven Reed talks about a cave set for the movie “The Harbinger,” which will be filmed at Ironbound Studios in Chisholm City Hall. At least 36 tanks for expanding foam were used to make the cave. Steve Kuchera /
Producer Steven Reed talks about a cave set for the movie “The Harbinger,” which will be filmed at Ironbound Studios in Chisholm City Hall. At least 36 tanks for expanding foam were used to make the cave. Steve Kuchera /

CHISHOLM - Veteran Films executive director Steven Reed paused at the end of the underground tunnel.

As the eerie notes of the horror film's soundtrack played, Reed explained how the characters will run back and forth in the short tunnel several times during filming - but it'll look like they're running down a 300-foot tunnel to a cave on the movie screen.

The basement of Chisholm City Hall, once the home of hockey and curling rinks, has been transformed into faux home interiors, underground tunnel, cave and crypt to film the horror movie "The Harbinger." Local residents have been helping construct the sets since January in "the mill," an area of the basement filled with set construction materials.

"Everything you see here was brought in for this production," Reed said as he stood in the mill on a studio tour earlier this week.

When nonprofit Veteran Films begins filming "The Harbinger" on Tuesday, it'll be the first for Ironbound Studios in Chisholm. The studio has undergone several leadership changes and sued the city of Chisholm since it began leasing the top floor and basement of Chisholm City Hall in October 2015.


But it seems to be turning a corner with new studio President Joel McGuire, with an improving relationship with the city and a project coming to together in its studio space.

McGuire said "The Harbinger" is the first movie to reach the point that it has using Ironbound's studio space after previous projects didn't materialize.

Joel McGuire, Ironbound Studios president

"We're doing everything we can to help it across the finish line. They're doing a great job, building the sets and really taking advantage of all the great resources we have to offer. ... It's definitely the largest one to come to fruition here," McGuire said.

Ironbound has visions and goals for the future, but at its core, it wants to provide jobs and economic development in the community, McGuire said.

"Beyond that, we want to do more. We want this to be a platform or vehicle to create opportunity in the region. There's a lot of different ways we're looking at that. Right now, it's just to get working here, get locals experience working on it. But the sky's the limit from there," he said.

First film


Two Native American women in the Twin Cities are financially backing the filming of "The Harbinger," and there was a vision from the beginning that they weren't just making a movie - they were going to have an impact a community and people's lives, Veteran Films' Reed explained.

Veteran Films would like to continue its work using Ironbound Studios' location in Chisholm for several more films, Reed said. For every actor appearing on the screen, there are more people working behind the scenes. They've had as many as 30 people working at one time on constructing the sets since January, most of whom were hired locally, and about 75 percent of the movie's actors are from Minnesota.

"Whoever wants to be a part of this, we have a spot, whether it's construction or a (production assistant) or an extra, caterers," Reed said.

The connection between Veteran Films and Ironbound began when an actor from Minnesota suggested to Reed that they shoot a film in in the state. Reed started looking into it, which led him to meet the people at Ironbound. Reed said he realized that Ironbound's mission to provide jobs was similar to Veteran Films' mission to provide jobs, especially for veterans, Native Americans and women who have been abused, Reed said.

McGuire summarized, "It's been a wonderful experience so far."

Reed, who is from Minnetonka, Minn., pointed out that Midwesterners are known for their work ethic. Visitors to the set from Los Angeles are "speechless" when they see the work being done in the Chisholm studio, Reed said as he stood in the film's crypt set.

The production office for “The Harbinger” in the basement of the Chisholm City Hall. Steve Kuchera / DNT


"This is world-class work," Reed said. "It's cool, to be honest, it's just cool that we can blow people's minds that work in Hollywood full-time and then they come up here to 'the middle of nowhere' and they just can't believe it can be done. They can't believe it can be done in Minnesota and now you get up into northern Minnesota and they're like, 'No, people up here just hunt and fish, right?' No, this is what we do up here."

McGuire is from the Twin Cities, but he said he has been visiting the Iron Range "for as long as I can remember" due to his family's cabin on Lake Vermilion.

"It's always been a dream in my mind, since I was a kid, thinking they should film movies up here. There are movies being filmed here, 'North Country' was made ... but I was thinking it's so beautiful up here. There's these lakes and, you think of a horror movie, almost 90 percent of horror movies are filmed in the woods. Why not around here? For me, it's a no-brainer for films to come to this area," McGuire said.

Chisholm has residents with the skills needed to create film sets, and it's just a matter of training them to work on a film set, he said.

"This project has been a catalyst for that initiative. It's a catalyst for creating jobs specifically for film production. But these people aren't showing up without any experience whatsoever. What they have is transferable experience. Whatever profession they've held previously, they can provide value to the production," McGuire said.

New leadership

McGuire is the third leader for Ironbound Studios since its inception several years ago. He became involved with Ironbound in November 2016 and has been the studio's president for about a year.

His background is in sales and business development, and he saw an opportunity at Ironbound to use his sales skills to find projects like "The Harbinger," he said. He said he likes taking on the challenge of improving companies, and sees opportunities where others may not.


"It's just a different mindset on how you approach. Yes, it's going to be extra work. Yes, it's going to be scary and nerve-wracking at times. It's also exciting and fulfilling to be involved in something that's bigger than me," McGuire said.

Ironbound's first CEO, Jerry Seppala, resigned in July 2016 after he, along with two California men, were indicted on charges that they cheated investors out of $12 million meant to finance movies. The indictment made no mention of Ironbound. Seppala, who was in attendance at Tuesday's studio tour, pleaded guilty in December to misdemeanor bank larceny and is expected to be sentenced in June. When Seppala resigned as CEO, Ironbound co-founder Jeffrey Erb became the CEO.

McGuire said Ironbound's previous CEOs aren't involved in the studio "from an operational standpoint," and the void in leadership following Erb was how McGuire landed in the president role a year ago.

"We can't focus and dwell on the past. We can't change people's perceptions. We can only just strive to continue on our mission to create jobs and economic opportunity. To do that, we need to find projects and that's where my focus had been over the last year - interfacing, connecting with production people like Steve (Reed). From those efforts, we have this project. We have some others in the pipeline; we're hoping they come to fruition like this project has," McGuire said.

He said it's exciting to walk through the sets for "The Harbinger" and think about the progress Ironbound has made in the past year.

"For me, the most rewarding aspect of this project isn't just people using the space, but it's connecting with members of the community, getting to know a lot of people that I would never have an opportunity to meet," he said.

Lawsuit status

Despite the filming this month in the City Hall basement, Ironbound and the city of Chisholm are still in a legal battle over Ironbound's lease.


The studio filed a lawsuit last fall in State District Court against Chisholm and former Mayor Todd Scaia, alleging that the city unlawfully entered Ironbound's leased space and forcibly evicted Ironbound from the space. The city is countering that Ironbound failed to meet its lease obligation when it didn't pay its rent.

A three-day jury trial is scheduled for November. Until the lawsuit is concluded, the city and Ironbound agreed that the studio has access to its space in City Hall if the studio pays $13,348 owed to the city in unpaid rent and utilities from 2017 and remains current on its monthly payments of $500 for rent and $200 for utilities.

Ironbound has operated in Chisholm City Hall since October 2015 in a lease-purchase agreement that included $6,000 in annual rent, with an option to purchase the City Hall building for $2 million. However, the city twice gave Ironbound notice after it fell into arrears on paying its rent - once in July 2016 and again in February 2017.

However, Ironbound alleges in the lawsuit that it attempted to pay the owed rent using a debit card, which the city refused. Ironbound claims the city manufactured the lease default to dissociate itself from the studio after Seppala resigned in July 2016. The studio further argues that the city received a $250,000 grant from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to cover the cost of building improvements for Ironbound, but that funding never appeared - leaving Ironbound to pay more than $200,000 for improvements.

On Tuesday, McGuire said the relationship between Ironbound and the city is on better footing.

"They've been very supportive and helpful as needed. Whenever we have requests, it's been amicable," he said.

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