Interview by Greg Carlson
Full disclosure: I have known filmmaker Mike Scholtz since I was in elementary school. His sister Ann spotted me reading X-Men comic books during milk break and figured Mike and I would hit it off. Not long after, Mike invited me to his birthday sleepover party, which happened during the time when people rented a VCR and three movies for a weekend. He selected “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Eraserhead,” and “The Making of Thriller.” To this day, we spend time discussing Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Michael Jackson.
Mike’s first feature-length documentary, “Wild Bill’s Run,” has enjoyed a successful film festival run and will be shown on Thursday, March 7 during the Fargo Film Festival’s evening session. Mike will be in attendance to talk about the strange trip of Minnesota outlaw and adventurer Bill Cooper.
If I remember correctly, you became acquainted with Bill Cooper’s story through a 2006 Minnesota Monthly article by Paul Lundgren that eventually led you to a treasure trove of 16mm film from the expeditions. Has Paul seen the movie and shared his reactions with you?
That’s true. Paul’s article dealt almost exclusively with the second act of Bill Cooper’s life, when he was accused of being Minnesota’s top drug smuggler and landed himself on the U.S. Marshal’s Ten Most Wanted List. But Paul was equally fascinated by the Arctic expedition that Cooper led before all the criminal allegations started piling up. Paul got me in touch with the expedition members—who had recently rediscovered a whole bunch of the 16mm footage they shot in the 70s—and we started making the film.
When Paul finally saw “Wild Bill’s Run,” he was delighted. He’d become seriously obsessed with Bill Cooper and I think he might’ve gone broke spending the rest of his life tracking down every angle of this story. It was fun for him to have someone else do a little bit of the dirty work. I guess that makes him sound like a puppet master. I know he’s already dreaming up other documentary ideas for me to adapt and/or adopt some day.
A question about questions. What is the best thing anyone has asked about “Wild Bill’s Run” at a post-screening Q & A?
Can I share the worst thing, instead? Although I guess it was kind of the best thing, too. Our screening at the Free Range Film Festival was one of my favorites. We had more than 300 people crammed into this old wooden barn outside of Duluth. But the Q & A after the film was bizarre. All of the questions were about snowmobile repair. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have any idea what a blower belt is.
Fortunately, some of the members of the expedition were on hand to answer those questions. It’s always fun when those guys can join me for a Q & A and to see them treated a bit like celebrities.
Have you ever ridden a snowmobile?
My dad took me for a snowmobile ride when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was dirty, smelly and loud. So I hated it. I realize that makes me a pretty lousy ambassador for my own film. But I absolutely love the design of vintage snowmobiles, if that’s any consolation.
What is the allure of the chinstrap beard?
Cooper was kind of a genius when it came to selling himself as a product. I don’t know how many Arctic expedition leaders think to hire two full-time photographers just to document their journey. But he did. And he also realized, pretty early on, that the only way to stand out from the rest of the identically-dressed expedition members would be to have some crazy facial hair. That chinstrap beard sets you apart from the crowd. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to be remembered.
Short of discovering that Bill Cooper is alive, what is the one thing you did not or could not get that you wish you could have included in WBR?
I wish I could’ve returned to some of the Arctic locations that Bill Cooper’s expedition visited in the 1970s. I would’ve loved to talk to some of the people who might’ve remembered the sight of these dirty, lost Americans stumbling into their towns and villages. It just didn’t seem worth the expense, since I already had so much fantastic Arctic footage from the 70s. But it would’ve been fun.
Of all the festivals and places WBR has played, which has been the most exciting/rewarding for you?
I have to cheat and give two answers here.
The most exciting festival was the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Alberta, Canada. I think they must pump adrenaline through the HVAC system at the Banff Center. When I arrived for that festival, they told me straight up that my film was a weird and almost controversial pick for them. Banff specializes in adventure, but their programmers and audiences tend to steer clear of films that feature motorized sports (like snowmobiling).
I think they were actually a little nervous about running the film. But it played to a huge audience that really loved it. Shortly after that, they invited “Wild Bill’s Run” to play with some of their other favorites from the festival on the Banff World Tour. So, thanks to Banff, my film is playing all over the world.
The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival was just as rewarding. They hold that festival now in a giant old art deco hotel. Your room and all the screenings are in one building. You can literally roll out of bed and head downstairs and see screenings all day long every day for 10 days. It was like summer camp for documentary filmmakers. I almost cried when I had to leave all my new friends behind there.
We are both devoted admirers of “The King of Kong.” What are some other non-fiction movies that inspire you?
I do love “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” very, very much. I think it’s a nearly perfect example of the kind of story you can only tell with a documentary, the kind of story that fits in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Had somebody written those characters and situations, it just wouldn’t have been believable.
Other films that have inspired me in one way or another include “F for Fake,” “Manda Bala,” “American Movie” and anything by Werner Herzog. He has a knack for uncovering deep wells of twisted weirdness inside even the most mundane interview subjects.
I’m also a huge fan of sports documentaries like “When We Were Kings” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Since I don’t follow sports at all, I often have no idea how the films are going to end. It’s nice to be surprised.
As a kid, I loved the documentary TV series “In Search of…” hosted by Leonard Nimoy. So I really wanted “Wild Bill’s Run” to feel a little bit like a long-lost, extra-long episode of that show. That was the biggest inspiration for this particular film.
A couple decades ago you worked at the Fargo Theatre and now you have a movie playing in the Fargo Film Festival. Congratulations.
I’m pretty excited to have “Wild Bill’s Run” play at the Fargo Film Festival because I practically grew up inside the Fargo Theatre. I live in Duluth now, but I still like to think of the Fargo Film Festival as my hometown festival. I try to come every single year, even if I don’t have a film playing.