FARGO — The oil boom has affected not just North Dakota, but Hollywood too. Following a handful of western films in the '40s and '50s, there were few films that took place in the state until the late 2000s. Since 2014, at least one movie has been set here each year and the oil fields in western North Dakota have often been used in the plot.
Not every movie gets North Dakota right and a couple of films could have easily taken place in any small Midwestern town. Other films struggle with filming locations mistakenly portraying the flatter eastern portion of the state as mountainous.
So, with production of feature film “Tankhouse” underway in Fargo, it’s a good time to revisit these other movies set in North Dakota, a state better known for an oil boom than a booming film industry. Here's a list of some old and some new full-length movies set in the Peace Garden State, including where they were actually filmed.
Let’s get this one out of the way. While it would’ve been easy to exclude a movie that doesn’t feature a single scene shot in its namesake city, parts of the 1996 Coen brothers classic were shot around Bathgate, 160 miles north of Fargo. And even though it's used as a substitute for Brainerd, Minn., Bathgate deserves the credit.
One of the most successful movies produced in North Dakota is also one of its earliest. Released in 1978, “Northern Lights” featured a cast of North Dakotans in a dramatization of the founding of the Nonpartisan League during the winter of 1915. The film won the best-directed first feature, the Caméra d’Or, at the Cannes Film Festival. Henry Martinson, who participated in the real-life events, played himself in present day. He was 94 years old at the time.
This 1993 comedy horror starred Warwick Davis (“Star Wars Episode VI” and “Willow”) in the title role and Jennifer Aniston as the “final girl” in one of her first starring roles. The movie struggles to decide which state it actually takes place in. The voiceover in the trailer says it’s in a small town in South Dakota, the characters in the movie say it’s North Dakota and yet, the mountainous backdrop screams California because that happens to be exactly where it was filmed.
“Leprechaun Returns,” a sequel that ignores the previous five sequels and a reboot, was released in 2018 and takes the setting back to the farmhouse from the original. This time around, they’re a little more confident it takes place in North Dakota by establishing the farmhouse, which has been renovated into a sorority house, is outside of Devils Lake. Bismarck even gets a shoutout as well. However, North Dakotans will be quick to point out there are no mountains surrounding Devils Lake, the city isn’t home to a “Larimore University" and there is no such thing as the North Dakota Postal Service.
The comedy, which was shot around Medora and Beach, has a reputation for being the first major motion picture filmed in North Dakota and also for the lengthy delay of its release. Though completed in 2001, a lack of distribution caused a three-and-a-half-year delay before the movie finally saw a theatrical release in 2004, premiering in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Bismarck.
“Wooly Boys” stars legends Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson as Badlands sheep ranchers. A medical trip to Minneapolis brings out an opportunity for Fonda’s grandson to reconnect with him.
The 2007 horror film stars a pre-"Twilight" Kristen Stewart and Dylan McDermott (“American Horror Story”). The Solomon family moves from Chicago to a farm outside a small North Dakota town where, unknown to them, a family was murdered. The movie was shot in the Qu'Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan.
Former Fargo resident and Drayton native Aimee Klein, who joined the circus earlier this year, played the lead female role in this 2008 film, which was shot in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Slavko Stimac stars as Hasan Hujdur, a struggling Bosnian refugee who lives in North Dakota and finds a sense of happiness in his 1963 Buick Riviera.
Fargo native Dan Glaser directed the 2011 film “Pinching Penny,” which stars Timothy J. Meyer as Alex, a British hypochondriac and shopaholic who relocates to North Dakota. Glaser worked with an all-local cast and crew, filming in Fargo, Moorhead and Ada, Minn.
The 2014 film begins in the Ottoman Empire with blacksmith Nazaret Manoogian surviving the Armenian genocide during World War I and going out in search of his daughters. His travels take him to a few countries before he reaches the United States and finds himself in the incorporated town of Ruso, which is southwest of Minot. The movie was filmed in Jordan, Cuba and Canada.
Lucas Till stars in this 2015 indie film about a teenage DJ in New York who, following an accidental drug overdose, gets sentenced to spend the school year with his estranged father in the small — and fictional — North Dakota town of Paragon. Minot's own Josh Duhamel co-stars in the flick that was actually filmed in Winnipeg and Selkirk, Man.
Actors Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf play a teenage runaway and a traveling salesman in this 2016 road drama that was filmed in several Midwestern cities, including Williston, where LaBeouf suffered a small head injury on set. The movie won the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
A year after starring in “Bravetown,” Lucas Till returned to the North Dakota setting to play Tripp Coley, a character who befriends a creature released from a lake during a fracking operation. The title comes from the creature’s fascination with hiding in, and sometimes “driving,” Coley’s truck. Canada again doubles as North Dakota, with the film shooting in a variety of locations, including Chilliwack, British Columbia.
The 2017 horror movie stars Amanda Schull and Shawn Ashmore as an FBI agent and a sheriff who team up to find a missing woman and her son. The film takes place in fictional Devil's Gate, N.D., but was filmed in Winnipeg.
'Valley of Bones'
In 2017, Dan Glaser released another movie set in North Dakota, the thriller “Valley of Bones,” which he co-wrote with North Dakota natives Jon Wanzek and Steven Molony, who has worked with Glaser on a few films. The movie stars Autumn Reeser as a paleontologist and single mom working to unearth a valuable Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the North Dakota Badlands. A drug cartel led by Mark Margolis, who played Héctor "Tio" Salamanca in “Breaking Bad,” threatens to take everything away from her.
Most of the footage was shot in the North Dakota towns of Marmarth, Bowman and at Wanzek's ranch near Amidon. Other footage was captured in Los Angeles.
The third and final Wolverine solo movie, for now, features elements of the film noir and western genres. The 2017 film takes place in a dystopian 2029 as Wolverine and former X-Men leader Charles Xavier try to transport a young girl to a secret refuge for mutants — a refuge located in North Dakota. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart return to play their iconic X-Men characters one last time.
The movie goes meta when the ex-X-Man Wolverine finds the coordinates for the refuge in an old X-Men comic book, placing the location slightly east of the unincorporated community of Northgate, N.D. The movie was filmed in New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi and erroneously depicts North Dakota as mountainous and covered in trees.
The 2018 thriller starred Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Westworld”) and Lily James (“Downton Abbey,” “Cinderella”) as two sisters who get involved in drug runs to Canada, following the death of their mother. The fictional town of Little Woods, N.D., used in the movie is loosely based on Williston.
In a 2018 interview with Under the Radar, Director Nia DaCosta said, “I realized that was the perfect place to tell this story, because at the time it was two-to-one men to women, and completely overrun with oil and construction. It just made sense to me to set it there.”
DaCosta confessed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times they wanted to shoot in North Dakota but their window for shooting was January and February. Because of budget restraints, much of the movie was filmed in Austin, Texas, but they did get two days to shoot North Dakota, presumably for exteriors.
The film won Best Narrative Feature, Best Director for DaCosta and Best Actress for Thompson.
'The Parts You Lose'
Another “Breaking Bad”-alum stars in a film set in North Dakota. Aaron Paul, who is about to return to his role as Jesse Pinkman in "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," plays a criminal whose fugitive status leads him to North Dakota, where he befriends a deaf boy living on a rural farm. Though set in North Dakota, principal photography was shot in Manitoba. The movie premiered at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho earlier this year and is set for a U.S. theatrical release on Oct. 4.
Aside from feature films, there have been several documentaries released in the 2000s that are based in North Dakota. Here are a select few:
“Jesus Camp” (2006): The controversial film takes a look at Kids in Ministry, an evangelical Christian camp for children in Devils Lake. The criticism and vandalism following the film’s release played a role in the camp’s closing, according to the camp's minister.
"White Earth" (2014): The film documents new arrivals in White Earth, in the Williston Basin area, who are seeking work in the oil fields. It follow an immigrant mother and her three children. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary in 2015.
“The Overnighters” (2014): The film follows the efforts of Williston pastor Jay Reinke as he tries to help homeless oil field workers. It won a special jury award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
“Welcome to Leith” (2015): The story follows Craig Cobb, who purchased land in Leith, and tried to turn the town into a white supremacist enclave.
“A Different American Dream” (2016): The film focuses on members of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and how their lives are impacted by the oil industry.
Movies from the '30s, '40s and '50s
The popularity of the western genre throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s led to a few films that take place in the Dakota Territory. All of the following were filmed in the southwestern United States, according to IMDB.
"The Purchase Price" (1932): This one’s possibly the oldest film set in North Dakota. The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub singer who becomes a mail-order bride of a North Dakota farmer during the height of the Great Depression.
"A Star is Born" (1937): Janet Gaynor stars as a farm girl in North Dakota who aspires to be a Hollywood actress. Opening scenes take place on the farm. The film spawned three remakes, with the most recent one released in 2018.
"Three Faces West" (1940): North Dakota is featured in the beginning of this John Wayne film. A father and daughter escape a Nazi-occupied Austria to a small North Dakota town suffering from a drought. Wayne plays the leader of a wagon train. The movie was filmed in the Alabama Hills in California.
"They Died with Their Boots On" (1941): Errol Flynn stars in this fictionalized version of the life of George Armstrong Custer, from his arrival at West Point to his fall at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. A few scenes of the movie take place at Fort Lincoln near Mandan.
“Dakota” (1945): Taking place in the 1870s in the Dakota Territory, the second of two John Wayne-led films set in the state sees professional gambler John Devlin and his new wife try to profit off land as a railroad is set to extend into Fargo. The married couple find themselves at odds with two crooked businessmen.
“Bugles in the Afternoon” (1952): Actor Ray Milland plays Kern Shafter, a soldier who is demoted following a fight. He later rejoins the army in Custer’s 7th Calvary at Fort Lincoln.
“7th Calvary” (1956): Randolph Scott plays Tom Benson, a soldier granted furlough to bring his wife to Fort Lincoln. He arrives in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and is accused of cowardice for not leading troops in the battle. Benson volunteers himself and a group of misfits to retrieve the bodies of Custer and the other soldiers who died in the fight.