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'Iron Will' movie cast takes ride into past for 20th anniversary

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By Peter Passi

Forum News Service

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Nearly 20 years after Disney came to Duluth to shoot "Iron Will," cast and crew members reunited for a special commemorative screening of the film at the Depot on Sunday evening.

Before the lights dimmed and the projector whirred, however, people involved in the production joined the film's star, Mackenzie Astin, for a brief excursion to Lakeside aboard a well-appointed railcar pulled by the old Duluth and Northern Minnesota Steam Locomotive No. 14, a train featured prominently in the film about a dogsled race.

Bill DeRoche, a conductor for the North Shore Scenic Railroad who participated in the film, fondly recalled one particularly trying shoot in 18-below-zero weather. The crew was having trouble with the scene, featuring actor David Ogden Stiers - perhaps best known for his portrayal of Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series "MASH." After repeated unsuccessful takes, DeRoche spoiled one with a cough.

A frustrated Stiers barked angrily at DeRoche, who waited patiently for his opportunity to later offer a zinger as a retort.

The next time Stiers started to lose his temper, DeRoche, a Knife River resident, was quick to respond with a taunt of his own.

"When the bats in your belfry begin to flap, and there's no one home in the top of your dome, your head's not a head but a nut," he quipped.

A surprised but bemused Stiers replied: "My word! I've been had by a backwoodsman."

Karl Randa of Duluth landed a part as Thordur Thorenson, an Icelandic musher in the dogsled race at the center of the movie's plot. An employee of the federal prison system, he recalls talking his warden into granting him leave of about four months so he could participate in the film. The role seemed tailor-made for Randa, who had studied theater in college and had also taken up dogsledding, with 13 huskies of his own.

"My best memory from the film is all the personal friendships I developed," he said, recalling nightly dinners with Astin, Kevin Spacey and other cast members. Randa said he came to think of Astin as a younger brother.

"Being a guy from Duluth, I didn't know what to expect from the other actors. But they were so down to earth and really very humble," he said.

Astin said he welcomed the opportunity to reunite with former cast members and participate in the festivities at this year's Duluth Superior Film Festival.

"It's nice to get out of L.A. for a change," he said. "I haven't back to Duluth in 19 years, since the premiere."

Astin came to Duluth about one month before they began to shoot the movie and attended a 10-day mushing camp to learn the basics of a sport that was new to him.

"All I had to do was hang on and let the dogs do the work. I'm from L.A., so letting someone else do all my work came pretty natural for me," he joked.

Bill Schandel, who then worked as operations manager of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, said the 2½ months of rental fees collected during the shooting of Iron Will really helped bolster the coffers of the nonprofit organization.

He described the experience of working on the film as an eye-opener.

"It was fascinating to see, but afterward you never quite look at another movie the same way. You become a little jaded," Schandel said, reflecting on all the techniques employed to deceive viewers. He recalled white foam being deployed to make trees look like a heavy fresh snow had just fallen on them.

Another cast extra recalled the crew using potato flakes to substitute for snow. That technique had its drawbacks, however, as some of the sled dogs developed a taste for the fake flakes.

Ken Buehler, general manager of the North Shore Scenic Railroad, said there were silver linings to be found even in misfortune during filming. The extreme cold took a particularly tough toll on the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway Business Car Northland, circa 1916. The well-appointed all-steel executive Pullman car had been meticulously hand-painted so steel panels appeared to be rich mahogany paneling. As the metal expanded and contracted with wide temperature swings during filming, that paint gave way, and a painting specialist spent months working to restore the car to its original condition after the shooting ended. Disney footed the roughly $100,000 bill.

That same carefully reconditioned car was back in action Sunday afternoon, as Iron Will's cast and crew shared cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and stories aboard it, all the while chugging toward their special reunion screening.

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