Young woman gets her shot at Sundance

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January 3, 2011 - 12:00 AM

For a girl who grew up on the high plains — and spent some time in southeast Kansas — setting a film on the prairie of North Dakota wasn’t that crazy of a notion.
Making a film during “the coldest winter on record since 1936” was a bit wild, though, said Holly Ellis.
Ellis, granddaughter of Iolan Dorothy Ellis, recently learned the film she stars in, Prairie Love, was accepted into the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance is the pinnacle of independent film festivals. At one time, acceptance into the festival almost guaranteed box office success. Now, though, “It’s become less and less common for films to be bought at Sundance,” Ellis said in a phone interview with the Register. But the film has gotten such a positive response from Sundance staff that she is cautiously optimistic.
“Sundance got a record number of over 10,000 submissions this year,” Ellis said. “We were one of only eight films picked in our category.”
The category, NEXT, highlights films made on small budgets — less than $500,000.
That Prairie Love could be done on a shoestring was due to serendipity. The three main actors plus the writer/producer “all grew up together and graduated from Minot (N.D.) High School within a year of each other,” Ellis said.
Ellis’ father, former Iolan Lee Ellis, moved his family to Minot when Ellis was just one, she said. In high school there, she and a handful of friends shared aspirations to the film industry. All, though, went separate ways after graduation.
Ellis moved to New York City, where she pursued a master’s degree in acting from the New School.
In 2007, her former classmate, Dusty Bias, called. Although married and living in Alabama, he couldn’t shake the idea of setting a film in the desolate prairie of their youth, Ellis said he told her. “About a year later, we had the script. We shot it in January of 2009.”
Filming in her hometown was “simultaneously the most fun and most torture I’ve ever been through,” said the 31-year-old. “My mom (Heather Ellis) put four of us up while we were filming. She fed us and made sure we were warm.”
Shooting took about three weeks. Days were long, about 12 hours at a time, Ellis said. Most was outdoors.
“The coldest degree marker we ever saw was -37,” she said. “And that’s not including wind-chill.”
Ellis exaggerated her North Dakota accent for the film, and coached her former classmates on doing the same. The result is a film that is linked to place.
A trailer for Prairie Love, available at prairielove.com, displays the native humor born of living in an isolated landscape.
Strong as it is, Ellis said she was surprised the film was accepted to the  festival.  “I still can’t believe it. The shock of it comes right back.”
When she received the call from a festival representative, “I just kept going, ‘Are you serious?’
“It’s the best kind of surrealism,” she noted.
Ellis, her mom — listed in the film as part of the crew — Bias and the others will rent a house in Park City, Utah, for the Jan. 20-30 festival. Prairie Love will screen four times.
The group is  planning another movie together. “I’m excited about it because it takes place in Alabama and I won’t have to freeze again,” Ellis quipped.

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