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Grand Forks, UND showcased in popular Japanese TV drama

A Japanese film crew films a scene from an aviation-related TV drama called "Ms. Pilot." Monday at the Grand Forks Airport. The city was selected because UND is training pilots for All Nippon Airline, which has some involvement in the show. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The story of a young woman's dream of becoming a pilot will catapult Grand Forks and UND into the limelight in Japan this fall when they are featured in a popular TV show there.

A film crew of employees of Fuji TV Network in Japan and a Los Angeles-based production company has been filming for the past 10 days in Grand Forks for the one-hour, weekly drama, "Miss Pilot."

Seven actors and dozens of production workers shot scenes at locations such as the UND campus, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Grand Forks airport, Kraft Field and, on Sunday, at the Toasted Frog restaurant.

About 30 to 40 people, including UND students, have been hired locally to act as extras -- some with speaking parts. A Fargo modeling and talent agency, The Academie, also provided extras.

UND Aerospace connection

Grand Forks was selected as the site for filming because of UND's connections with a Japanese airline company, All Nippon Airlines. About 40 student-pilots at Tokai University, a private university in Tokyo, come to UND for training each year.

A class of students begins a 14-month training program at UND in the spring and fall, said Chuck Pineo, chief operating officer with UND's Aerospace Foundation, who helped the Japanese film crew with production and other preparation details.

"ANA called us and asked if we would be willing to be the backdrop for this series," he said. "It's the story of two women's goal of becoming ANA pilots -- that's their dream job."

So it was natural for ANA to turn to the school as a location to tell the story.

Grand Forks episodes

Three of the show's 11 episodes are being shot in Grand Forks, said Daisuke Sekiguchi, Fuji TV network producer for the show.

The series' director, Kamasaku Sawada "is very famous in Japan," Sekiguchi said. Known for his work in film and TV, Sawada is esteemed on a par with American director Steven Spielberg, he said.

The story line of "Miss Pilot" follows two young women in their bid to become pilots.

Lead actresses in the show, Maki Horikita and Saki Aibu, are well-known in Japan and enjoy celebrity status similar to Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz in this country, he said.

"Almost every Japanese (person) knows their faces," he said. In addition to TV dramas, the actresses keep "very busy," working in films and TV commercials.

The "Miss Pilot" series explores the women's friendship and how they support each other.

In an episode filmed Sunday at the Toasted Frog, they share their fears about becoming pilots, Sekiguchi said. "They talk about setting a high target in their careers."

The series is aimed primarily at a female audience of teens through 30-year-olds.

"Huge posters and advertising at train stations and on billboards and TV" are all over Japan, touting the upcoming show's season, he said.

More than entertainment

Providing more than entertainment, the TV show may also inspire young students to consider a career in aviation, Sekiguchi said.

"Some people want to come here" for aviation training, he said.

In August, Sekiguchi visited Grand Forks for "location-hunting," he said. This "is a beautiful city."

In contrast, "Japan has many mountains; you see mountains everywhere," said Sekiguchi who lives in Tokyo.

He called Grand Forks' terrain "amazing," he said, and the people "very friendly, very kindly to us. We were very surprised at their kindness.

He's had no problems in accomplishing his film production goals here, he said. "Grand Forks is very easy-going."

And he's grateful to Pineo for making the necessary arrangements for his crew.

"He is a great person," Sekiguchi said. "We love him."

The Japanese filmmakers have enjoyed Grand Forks' amenities, he said, noting breakfast at the Canad Inns, where they're staying, and restaurants such as Texas Roadhouse and Little Bangkok.

Extras step up

Paul Weinreis, a senior aviation student and flight instructor for UND's aerospace program, is among the extras tapped for the project.

"I was a moving guy," he said. He was filmed sitting inside a truck parked near the Phi Delta Theta fraternity where boxes were unloaded onto the lawn. The house is portrayed as a dormitory that the women have moved into.

"I had one line," he said. "'Have fun in Grand Forks.'"

Weinreis has also provided security for the Japanese crew while they were filming at the airport, in exchange for a donation for the student organization, Wilderness Pilots Association, for which he serves as president.

"I've spent more than 50 hours with this group this week," he said.

Another extra, Justin LaFrancois, a senior biology student at UND, said he learned about the project through a flyer.

A bunch of friends took the flyer, but "I was the only one who got called back," he said. Seated at a tall table with other extras at the Toasted Frog, waiting to learn if he'd be needed for a scene, he said the experience was "kind of cool.

"It's interesting," he said. "But I'm doing a lot of sitting."

Oct. 15 premiere

After the Japanese group returns home on Tuesday, Sekiguchi will be under pressure to edit the film and add music to create the final product, he said.

He's also in charge of planning "a huge party," he said, to celebrate the series premiere.

The series begins airing Oct. 15 on the Fuji TV Network in Japan and is broadcast in other countries including Taiwan and Singapore.

For Grand Forks area viewers, it will be accessible through the Internet, Sekiguchi said.

Knudson covers Health and Family for the Herald and can be reached at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext.1107 or