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Three films by DL native will be shown

Gayle Knutson, a Detroit Lakes native, with her director’s chair. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Though her work as a filmmaker takes her all over the world — she had to miss her high school reunion this summer because she was on a plane to Peru when it was getting underway — Detroit Lakes native Gayle Knutson still has a lingering affection for her hometown.

“It’s a fun place to grow up, I tell you,” she said Thursday. “I love Detroit Lakes — I think it’s a huge influence on why I like to do films about small towns.”

Though her dream is to make a feature-length film someday, the expertise that Knutson has gained in more than 33 years of working in cinema has mainly been in the form of short films — 30 minutes or less.

So a planned showcase of all three of Knutson’s award-winning films during an upcoming visit to Detroit Lakes will only be a little over an hour long.

“Movie Afternoon at Zion” is set to take place on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 1:30 p.m. in Zion Lutheran Church, located at 1100 Lake Ave. in Detroit Lakes.

The afternoon will begin with a screening of Knutson’s first scripted film, “Grandfather’s Birthday,” which was released in 2000. The drama was based on a 1985 short story written by Rudy Joe Mano, “It Was Grandfather’s Birthday.”

Featuring the renowned stage, screen and television actor Robert Prosky in the title role, the entire 18½-minute  film was shot on location in Marine on St. Croix and Stillwater, Minn., (where Knutson now makes her home) in June 1999.

It told the touching, though heartbreaking tale of a 79-year-old man who spent his entire birthday preparing, then waiting for his family to show up to help him celebrate. They never came.

In the two years after its release, Knutson spent a couple of years taking the film to various festivals around the world.

“It was pretty popular,” she said — as evidenced by the fact that the drama has won 23 film awards worldwide, as well as a regional Emmy. It is now a part of the permanent archives of the Minnesota History Center as well.

It is also being used at between 1,200 and 1,500 institutions throughout the U.S. — schools, churches and even prisons — as an educational film about elderly awareness.

About five years after “Grandfather’s Birthday” was released, Knutson said, “I was trying to decide what I was going to do next,” when she took a wrong turn on the way to the Target store in Stillwater on a very hot summer day, and came upon a Lutheran church that had a sign out in front stating, “Hell is hotter than this but it’s a dry heat.”

She started laughing, and “I made it a point to make that wrong turn again” on the way home, and discovered “a lot of people were doing the same thing.”

Knutson then looked up the phone number for the church. That led her to Pastor Steve Molin, the minister of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Stillwater, who was the author of the humorous signs that garnered so much attention from people living in the area.

She and Molin joined forces to collaborate on the 12-minute, humorous documentary entitled “If There Were No Lutherans… Would There Still Be Green Jello?”

Molin also created a short book of his favorite signs, and they sold copies of the book along with Knutson’s film on DVD, as a gift set.

“That wasn’t part of the original plan (a book and DVD set), it was something that came about during post-production for the film,” Knutson said.

“It was hugely successful on the film circuit,” she added, noting that the short film’s humorous theme made it a popular alternative to the often serious, dramatic subject matter of film festival selections.

“We filled seats,” said Knutson.

“If There Were No Lutherans…” went on to win its share of awards as well, and is now part of the permanent film archives of not only the Minnesota History Center, but the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well.

“That was a complete surprise for me,” Knutson said of the day she got the call from the Library of Congress. “I was totally shocked, and very honored.”

This film will also be part of the Nov. 2 showcase at Zion Lutheran — where there will be green Jello served, of course, along with popcorn, cookies and beverages.

The third film to be included in the event will be “Prisoner 32,232,” another documentary that has a much more serious topic as its central theme.

The 9-minute short film is a portrait of Reidar Dittmann, a Norwegian man who was incarcerated in the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, after the Nazi invasion of Norway. He later moved to Minnesota, where he became a professor at the College of St. Olaf.

The film is now part of the permanent film collections at the Minnesota History Center and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was also screened at the 2008 Fargo Film Festival, and was nominated for a Regional Emmy, though it didn’t win.

Knutson is currently in the early planning stages for her next short film, tentatively entitled “Monopoly.”

Like “Grandfather’s Birthday,” this film will be another scripted drama, and she is working with a screenwriter on developing the script.

“I had a short screenplay idea, and I got a real scriptwriter from Minnesota to work with me on it,” she said. “It’s in the finalist round of a national screenplay competition, so we’re waiting to hear back on that.

“It’s the story of Claire, a 35-year-old, mentally challenged woman who lives in a small town and has a lemonade stand, and how the local town bullies swindle her out of her money by convincing her that Monopoly money is the currency of choice.

“It’s getting me back into directing dramas with a script, which I truly love,” she continued. “Pretty soon, I’ll probably start all that stuff like casting, and fundraising… I’m hoping to cast another big name (like Prosky) in the new film as well.”

As for why Knutson chose to make the new film a short one, she said, “Short’s my thing. I’d love to do a feature someday, but that requires quite a bit of money. Maybe that will still happen someday.”

For now, though, she is simply enjoying the opportunity to make her living as a professional filmmaker.

“I’m a filmmaker, that’s all I do,” she said.

While that wasn’t what she first set out to do after graduating from Detroit Lakes High School in 1973, she found that the world of film was a pretty easy transition for her because she’d always been a visual learner.

“I had a really hard time reading, so because of that I always listened real well in class… I visualized so much of what I learned in pictures,” Knutson said. “I’d have the whole thing in my head, kind of like a movie. I just saw things a lot easier visually. That translated well into filmmaking.

“My dad (Dave Knutson) was a good storyteller too. I remember listening to a lot of stories growing up, and that kind of rubbed off,” she continued. “My internship in college (at St. Cloud State) was shooting film for the TV station in Alexandria.

“But where I really learned (about filmmaking) was working for the film services department at Honeywell. I really learned from the best.”

That experience gave her the confidence she needed to begin working on her own documentaries and scripted films, as well as taking on contracted filmmaking projects for companies like 3M and PBS.

“Things got a little tougher there for a while, especially after 2008,” she said. “The work-for-hires got a little thin. A lot of times, when companies have to reel in (their expenses), the stuff that gets reeled in is what doesn’t make money for them, like industrial films.

“It’s picking up a little bit again now.”

But Knutson said that she also likes to take her time filming projects, and work with a crew of paid professionals — she’s still a little “old school” that way.

“That’s why I’m not pumping out a new film every six months,” she said.

While the Nov. 2 event at Zion Lutheran is free and open to the public, donations to help make Knutson’s latest film project a reality will be gratefully accepted.

For more information about Knutson and her past and present film projects, please visit

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454