News Column

Duluth recalls 'Iron Will'

May 30, 2013


May 30--It's been about 20 years since a young actor from southern California moved to northern Minnesota to play the role of a teenager who enters a sled-dog competition to raise enough money to save his family's farm and go to college.

"Iron Will," starring Mackenzie Astin, was filmed in and near Duluth for about six months in the winter of 1993 and included thousands of local actors and tons of local vistas.

Astin, son of Patty Duke and John Astin and brother of Sean Astin, hasn't been back to Minnesota since the mid-1990s, but he will return for an "Iron Will" reunion as part of the Duluth Superior Film Festival.

Astin is scheduled to arrive by train Sunday at the Historic Union Depot, where he will mingle, view a public showing of the 1994 film and take part in a panel discussion after the screening.

The showing starts at 5:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

The setup

Astin was in a bad place when he auditioned for "Iron Will." He remembered that beforehand he had stopped by his brother Sean's house to see some work he had done on the yard. Mackenzie Astin was convinced to shut his eyes for a surprise unveiling and was bonked on the head by the back door.

"The head bleeds a lot," Astin said. But ultimately, it might have helped him get the role.

"It helped take me out of my own head space. Literally," he said.

Astin was 19 years old, a bit of a teen heartthrob from his days on "The Facts of Life," and self-described as obnoxious.

He said he thought, "It's just a Disney film. It's just for kids. It's not a big deal. It's not 'On the Waterfront.' ... I didn't realize how much fun and what a lovely experience I was going to have in Duluth."

Duluth was in competition with Montana and Canada for the movie's location, according to Riki McManus, who was casting director for "Iron Will." Today she's the director of the Upper Minnesota Film Office.

She remembered wooing the filmmakers with a combination of a train ride up the North Shore and a visit to Greysolon Plaza.

"(Director) Charlie Haid said, 'This is it,' " McManus said. "It was a really big score. I was doing a big happy dance."

McManus said about 3,000 locals ended up as extras in the movie -- likely the most in this region's history, though "North Country" came close, she said.

Memories from making the film

Bruce Ojard didn't have to stretch too hard for his part in the movie playing a photographer. He was a photographer by trade -- in addition to acting with the local comedy troupe Colder By the Lake. Ojard spent 23 days on set and said if viewers look closely, he's in almost every scene.

He is front and center when newspaperman Kevin Spacey gets his first front-page story and his picture taken while he poses with a copy of the edition.

"The time that I spent doing that (movie) were some of the most exciting and absolutely the most boring moments of my life," Ojard said.

Some days he would go home with exciting stories, other days less so. One day he recalled it took three hours to get a dog to look into the camera a certain way.

Chris Bacigalupo was the key production assistant on the set and developed a friendship with Astin that started when he picked the actor up from the airport.

"We got along and clicked really well," he said.

During Astin's stay he showed the actor around town and introduced him to the characters living the bohemian lifestyle in the apartments at Emerson School. They've reconnected in recent years via social media.

Astin spent time with outdoorsman Mark "Sparky" Stensaas, acclimating to the winter weather. There were also dogsled sessions, where Astin learned how to work with a team.

"It was relatively easy," Astin said. "The dogs were doing most, if not all of the work. Literally all I had to do is hang on."

He said he was hung over from a late night before the first tutorial and was greeted in the morning by 77 barking dogs. Astin took a wide turn with his dogs and the sled tipped over. The dogs kept going, but he kept an arm on the bar. He was able to right the sled on its rails.

"I heard a cheer from behind me," he said. "And the hangover was gone."

Sled cred achieved.

Astin said there were three sleds used in the film. One was damaged during a runaway dogs situation that left him shaken and resulted in a half-day break from shooting for the cast and crew. Disney kept one sled; Astin got the other one. A few years later he was living in Colorado, and he hooked it up to the back of a pickup truck and gave friends a ride in the snow.

After 'Iron Will'

Filming for "Iron Will" wrapped at the beginning of April. Astin bought a car in St. Paul and headed back to Los Angeles.

"I celebrated being a movie star for a while," he said. "My thinking was that it would be a huge commercial success and I'd be flying on private jets."

The movie didn't have the huge opening weekend required of a commercial hit, but it drew decent reviews.

"Say what you like about 'Iron Will' --that it's corny and predictable --it's still an irresistibly sweet and upbeat adventure and if it doesn't make your heart beat a little faster, call a cardiologist," the Associated Press said.

In recent years, Astin has made indie films with friends and appeared on TV shows such as "Bones," "Private Practice," "90210" and "Criminal Minds."

It's the off-season for TV, so Astin said things are a little slow.

"I'm anxiously awaiting the start of TV again," he said. "The rent isn't going to pay itself."

Back to Duluth

Astin got some bad news when he began researching his old Duluth haunts. Mr. Nicks, his favorite burger spot when he spent time living at the Holiday Inn, no longer exists.

"I was there four times a week," Astin said.

Still, there are other sites he remembers and wants to revisit -- including Fitger's, where he also lived for a while.

"It will be interesting to see Duluth in the summer, without snow on the ground," he said.

"It'll be a treat to see it up on the big screen and see it again with the hometown crowd and with a number of people who were in or worked on the film."


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