Cameras keep rolling through Iowa's verdant film fields

Lights, camera, Iowa!

Backrow Studios

Director Joe Clarke of North Liberty (center) and his crew recently wrapped filming of the Backrow Studios feature film, “Up on the Wooftop,” shot in various locations around Iowa City, Coralville and the Quad Cities. The holiday film is due out at Christmas.
Backrow Studios Director Joe Clarke of North Liberty (center) and his crew recently wrapped filming of the Backrow Studios feature film, “Up on the Wooftop,” shot in various locations around Iowa City, Coralville and the Quad Cities. The holiday film is due out at Christmas.

Filmmaking in Iowa is alive and well — especially in Eastern Iowa, according to Liz Gilman, executive producer of Produce Iowa, the state office of media production.

“ 'Up on the Wooftop' just wrapped ... and last September, I was visiting over at Kirkwood College and I saw 'The Summerland Project' being filmed with Ed Begley Jr. So you've got a lot of excitement going on over in your area,” she said by phone from her office in Des Moines.

The types of films being shot here are as varied as the markets they're destined for, including digital platforms.

An upcoming film festival will showcase a snapshot of these films by Iowans, shot in Iowa, starring Iowans or otherwise tied to Iowa. The Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival will be April 17 and 18 at Collins Road Theatres in Marion.

Backrow Studios

The Corridor-based Backrow Studios has had its first three features screened at the Cedar Rapids festival, beginning with “Kung Fu Graffiti” in 2011, “The Wedge” in 2012 and “The Formula” in 2013. The latter won a gold award in the professional long-film category, as well as the audience choice award. It also premiered at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City before hitting the festival circuit. The other two used the Cedar Rapids festival to springboard onto the big screen.

“Iowa just has a vast majority of resources that we need and we really like,” he says. “It's a good fit for what we have going right now.”

- Joe Clarke



Backrow is expanding its scope with its latest project, “Up on the Wooftop,” a holiday show about a talking dog who works at the North Pole and dreams of leading Santa's sleigh. He sneaks onboard, but gets left behind in Iowa, where two children help him find his way home. Shot at sites in Coralville, Iowa City and the Quad Cities, it's due out at Christmas, of course.


Filmmaker Joe Clarke, 26, of North Liberty, said “the Christmas talking dog genre” has “surprisingly high numbers” on Netflix and Red Box.

“They're geared toward real, real young kiddos, so a lot of times, for adults, they're not the easiest thing in the world to sit through,” he says.

So he and his colleagues set out to make a movie that would appeal to all ages.

Clarke and company haven't had to dig too deeply to find filmmaking bliss in their home state. They might shoot some B-roll or shorts in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but that's the exception, not the rule.

“Iowa just has a vast majority of resources that we need and we really like,” he says. “It's a good fit for what we have going right now.”

Clarke and Tim Nash, who both studied cinema at the University of Iowa, founded Backrow Studios in 2008. They've shot features for $5,000 on up to $100,000, and their roles vary from directing and producing to scheduling shoots and locations, dealing with finances and rounding out story arcs and character performances.

“It's really quite a few hats that we're flipping on and off at this level of production,” Clarke says.

Branching out from theater screens to digital platforms, Backrow is moving into the future and grabbing international attention through Amazon, Xbox Video and Google Play, as well as Netflix and Red Box.

“It's so hard to predict (the future of filmmaking). It's constantly shifting under our feet, so it's just a matter of keeping up with the evolution and staying on that fence between being traditional and keeping up with the times,” Clarke says.


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Fourth Wall Films

Emmy-nominated documentary filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle with Fourth Wall Films returned to their homeland in 2007 after logging 20,000 highway miles over two years, commuting from Los Angeles to the Midwest to shoot “Lost Nation: The Ioway.” The award-winning film tells the story of the Native American tribe that once claimed the territory between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers from Pipestone, Minn., to St. Louis.

“We moved back home to grow our Midwestern historical documentary business,” says Kelly Rundle, 55, of Moline, Ill. He grew up in East Moline, and his wife, Tammy, 53, is a Waterloo native. “We wanted to continue making films about the Midwest, and so it just made more sense to be in the Midwest.”

Even though they live across the Mississippi, they've told so many Iowa stories that Rundle said they “feel like honorary Iowans.”

Their work has aired on public broadcast television stations across the Midwest and has made the film festival circuit, winning accolades as far afield as New York. They've taken top documentary honors at past Cedar Rapids film festivals with their accounts of the Ioway tribe, as well as the unsolved mystery of the 1912 Villisca ax murders, in which two adults and six children were killed in their beds. One of the couple's latest films, a World War II account titled “Letters Home to Hero Street,” will be screened at this year's Cedar Rapids festival.

That festival holds a special place in their hearts, Rundle said, because it was the first festival to accept their first film, the Villisca documentary, which took 10 years to produce while they worked at other jobs in Los Angeles.

“We flew back from L.A. to attend the festival, and we won the top award in the documentary category. It was just such a boost to our confidence, after having worked on it so long,” Rundle says. “It just was a wonderful moment, and we'll be grateful to that film festival for that forever. It was a great experience. We've been back with just about every film we've produced — it's one of our favorite festivals.”

The couple strives to cast a light on forgotten stories or others that simply go untold, from country schools and Highway 6 to actress Jean Seberg and John Deere's dream.

Iowa Nice

Clarke and Rundle point to the ease of shooting films in Iowa as another reason to work here, rather than in coastal cinematic meccas.


“In a lot of the bigger cities, there's an issue of permits, which can make shooting in those areas more complex and more challenging,” says Rundle, whose production company was based in Los Angeles from 1989 to 2007. “We're working on this film right now, 'The Barn Raisers.' What we find as we go from place to place, the people are so friendly and welcoming and so eager to share those stories that they have. I can't say that's unique to the Midwest, but it certainly is one of the qualities of the Midwest in general.”

Creative control and the Midwestern work ethic are draws for Backrow's Clarke — as well as not having L.A. producers breathing down his neck. Here, his investors want Backrow to thrive and are there to support the team's vision. He also pointed to the sense of community the film shoots create, in which businesses step up to provide locations or feed the crews.

While the Rundles typically do most of the work themselves, they have hired as many as 60 or 70 people for larger projects. Backrow projects, on the other hand, can provide jobs for up to 100 people, and Clarke likes hiring locally.

“A lot of the crew members come from the Midwest. Their work ethic is just on a whole other level,” Clarke says. “Cast, same thing. It's just a lot of great people, super-talented, coming together for the passion of the project rather than just a paycheck at the end of the day.”

Gilman from Produce Iowa echoes those sentiments. Now 49, she had built a media production career in Des Moines before being tapped for the new office announced May 1, 2013. Created under the auspices of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the office aims to “promote, facilitate and educate” about film, television and digital media production in Iowa.

Gilman was given a new phone and a new computer — with no ties to the Iowa Economic Development Department's defunct film tax credit program created in 2007 and suspended in 2009 over mismanagement of funds.

Gilman's first order of business was to travel the state, getting to know the territory at the municipality level before traveling the country to promote what Iowa offers to film, advertising and television producers. She said the state's tax credit black eye has faded.

“From the start, I had so many people just excited,” she says, citing how thrilled directors were when she answered the phone, signaling Iowa was back in business.”


“It's a totally different world. (The scandal) was so long ago (in) a whole different department. Enough time has passed and we're on a different mission.”

She said she sells Iowa as “heaven to filmmakers.” She also said about 75 percent of inquiries come from out-of-state production companies looking to shoot national commercials, cable shows like “American Pickers,” documentaries and network shows like “The Bachelor,” which brought its drama to Chris Soules' home turf.

“It's a great time to hit the refresh button and move forward,” she says. “I just see a lot of opportunity” for the future of media production in Iowa.

But without the tax credit incentives, what does the state offer to media companies?

“Everybody freaks out on how hospitable we are, how genuine we are. That's been fun, hearing the feedback,” Gilman says.

At last summer's 25th anniversary celebration for “Field of Dreams,” she said actors Kevin Costner and Timothy Busfield talked about the light being a reason to film in Iowa. They both told her Iowa has “this natural light and wide open sky that you can't always find anywhere.”

Filmmakers also like the ease of shooting in cities that don't require special permits and the way city leaders are eager to facilitate filming in their towns.

“It's that Midwestern value of 'What can I do to help?' They love it, so thank you, Iowa,” she says.

Films shot in Iowa

Nearly 160 movies have been filmed in Iowa between “The Homesteader” in Sioux City in 1919 and “The Midnight Swim” at Lake Okoboji in 2013. Here are some of the higher-profile films either set in Iowa or with select scenes shot in Iowa over the years. For the full list, go to the Iowa Culture Affairs website.

1933: “State Fair,” Des Moines (Janet Gaynor, Will Rogers, Lew Ayres)

1957: “The Pajama Game,” Dubuque (Doris Day, John Raitt)


1968: “Cold Turkey,” Greenfield, Winterset, Des Moines (Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Tom Poston)

1975: “All the King's Horses,” Des Moines (Dee Wallace, Grant Goodeve, Anne Bellamy)

1977: “F.I.S.T.,” Dubuque (Sylvester Stallone, Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle)

1980: “Take This Job and Shove It,” Dubuque (Robert Hays, Art Carney, Barbara Hershey)

1981: “Pennies from Heaven,” Dubuque (Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters)

1984: “Children of the Corn,” Sioux City, Whiting (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton)

1984: “Starman,” Cedar Rapids (Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen)

1987: “Miles from Home,” Cedar Rapids (Richard Gere, Penelope Ann Miller, Brian Dennehy)

1988: “Zadar! Cow from Hell,” Iowa City (Bill Allard, Mel Andringa)

1988: “Field of Dreams,” Dyersville, Dubuque (Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Burt Lancaster, Timothy Busfield)

1990: “Indian Runner,” Council Bluffs (David Morse, Viggo Mortensen)

1991: “Noises Off,” Des Moines (Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Marilu Henner, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter)

1992: “Shimmer,” Toledo, Marshalltown (Mary Beth Hurt)

1994: “The Bridges of Madison County,” Winterset, Adel (Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep)

1995: “Twister,” Ames (Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt)

1996: “Michael,” Cedar Rapids (John Travolta, Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, Teri Garr, Jean Stapleton, Bob Hoskins)


1998: “The Straight Story,” Laurens, West Bend, Clermont (Sissy Spacek, Richard Farnsworth, Harry Dean Stanton)

2001: “About Schmidt,” Council Bluffs (Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates)

2006: “The Final Season,” Norway, Cedar Rapids (Sean Astin, Powers Boothe, Rachael Leigh Cook)

2007: “16 to Life,” McGregor (Hallee Hirsh, Theresa Russell, Shiloh Fernandez)

2007: “Michael Clayton,” Des Moines (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton)

2009: “Collapse,” West Branch (Chris Mulkey, Karen Landry)

2011: “Cedar Rapids,” Cedar Rapids (place-setting scenes; Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche)

(In postproduction) 2014: “The Summerland Project,” Cedar Rapids (Ed Begley Jr., Kate Vernon, Angela Billman)

Iowa Film Festivals

CEDAR RAPIDS: Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, April 17 and 18, Collins Road Theatres, 1462 Twixt Town Rd., Marion; films with Iowa ties, awards; $8 sessions, $25 pass before April 17; $10 session, $35 pass at door;

DUBUQUE: Julien Dubuque International Film Festival, April 23 to 26, various sites downtown; parties, awards, screenings; $5 to $8 per film, $20 to $50 day pass, $75 to $175 weekend pass;

DES MOINES: Interrobang Film Festival, June 26 to 28, Western Gateway Park, 1000 Grand Ave.; film production festival, prizes, public screenings;


DES MOINES: 48 Hour Film Project, July 24 to 26, Des Moines Art Center, 4700 Grand Ave., and Fleur Cinema, 4545 Fleur Dr.; competition to see who can make the best short film in 48 hours; premiere screenings Aug. 4 to 6, $10 per show, Fleur Cinema; “best of” screening Aug. 20, $20, Fleur Cinema;

BURLINGTON: Snake Alley Festival of Film, Aug. 6 to 8, Capitol Theater, 211 N. Third St.; short films from around the world;

TIPTON: Hardacre Film Festival, TBA;

IOWA CITY: Landlocked Film Festival, Aug. 14 to 16, Englert Theatre and other downtown sites;

MASON CITY: Iowa Independent Film Festival, Oct. 23 to 25, Historic Park Inn Hotel, 15 W. State St.;

DES MOINES: Wild Rose Independent film Festival, November, Fleur Cinema, 4545 Fleur Dr.; TBA;

MUSCATINE: Muscatine Independent Film Festival, November; local and regional films; TBA;

DECORAH: Oneota Film Festival, March, Luther College and downtown sites; documentaries, panel discussion, reception; TBA,


SIOUX CITY: Siouxland Film Festival, Orpheum Theater, 528 Pierce St.; February; TBA;


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