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'Lutefisk' hits the screen (so to speak) at Fargo Film Festival

Lutefisk wars

Making a movie means collaboration, said filmmaker and Grand Forks native Christopher Panneck, but probably only in North Dakota does collaboration include neighbors showing up at the film site with food and snacks and advice.

Panneck and his co-writer, co-director and co-producer David E. Hall spent 3½ weeks in North Dakota shooting parts of "The Lutefisk Wars," the movie that won the Fargo Film Festival's Prairie Spirit award and will open the festival at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

"We used a lot of local people when we were making the movie here. They were all open and supportive," Panneck said in a telephone interview. "We shot a scene at a farm out at Northwood (N.D.), and neighbors would bring out food and tell us how certain things should have been done or said."

The Fargo Film Festival will run Tuesday through Saturday at the downtown Fargo Theatre, featuring 72 films of all types and lengths. Founded in 1999, the festival will host presentations by actor Doug Jones on Thursday night and Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin on Friday night.

Emily Beck, the Fargo Theatre's film programmer and coordinator of the Fargo Film Festival, said Tuesday's opening night traditionally is a big celebration.

"This year, it will be a big celebration of North Dakota and the North Dakota spirit, and we just think this film ("The Lutefisk Wars") is all about that," Beck said.

Panneck will be in Fargo on Tuesday night for the premiere of the film, along with Deb Hiett and Stewart Skelton, the actors who played its leads. Other cast members were Regan Burns, Joel McCrary and Haynes Brook, along with local talent Steve Poitras and Scott Horvik.

Shot like a documentary, "The Lutefisk Wars" examines the escalating trouble in fictional Newford, N.D. It features a Schwan's man, an aspiring chef, the local sheriff, a mysterious death, an ancient lutefisk recipe, hotdish and a family feud that goes back hundreds of years.

The movie's tagline? "Before this is over, somebody's going to eat it."

Panneck grew up in Grand Forks, graduating from Red River High School in 1982 and from UND in 1985 with a major in English and a minor in music. Always interested in theater, he became involved in film criticism in college. He finished a degree in film studies at Regent (Va.) University in 1988, and in 1990 moved to Los Angeles.

Making "The Lutefisk Wars" was a "film-what-you-know" kind of project, Panneck said, especially since he was from Grand Forks, and Hall, his producing partner, was from Iowa.

"Though neither of us is Norwegian, we grew up around the culture and are big fans of Garrison Keillor and the church potlucks and a lot of that played into this story," Panneck said.

Some of the film's press calls it a mockumentary, but Panneck says the film doesn't mock people; it just treats their situations in a humorous way.

"I think that's the way with Norwegians," he said. "The humor is understated but they do laugh at themselves. It was wonderful to combine what I grew up with and the filmmaking I love."

From the start of filming to the completion of post-production, it took almost five years to make "The Lutefisk Wars." The 3½ weeks of filming in North Dakota took place in 2004. Other scenes including interiors were shot in California as their schedules allowed. Post-production ended in late 2009.

"We pitched the idea to investors -- all North Dakota investors, primarily from Grand Forks and Fargo -- and the concept was we really wanted to make a film that really celebrates the North Dakota spirit in an entertaining way, using North Dakota talent," Panneck said. "We knew because it was low-budget, we would have to space it out because Dave and I both have full-time jobs."

Perhaps the most recognizable "Hollywood" actor in their cast is Regan Burns, a comedian known for many roles in TV commercials, television and movies. But they also mined North Dakota talent, people such as Kris Strobeck of Stanley, N.D., who played the role of the town historian one day and then the next day drove back home to do ranch work, Panneck said.

After all the years in the making, "The Lutefisk Wars" will have its first audience Tuesday night in Fargo.

"We were thrilled when the Fargo Film Festival director called and said, 'We're going to use your film on opening night to kind of showcase all things North Dakota.' That's why we made 'The Lutefisk Wars.' So we're very excited."

For a complete schedule and ticket information, call (701) 239-8385 or go to