BEMIDJI - The fun, gentle, giant lumberjack many here have come to know as Paul Bunyan is taking to the big screen, but with a different persona.
With a troubled past and a beloved pet to avenge, Bunyan is the top star in Kinetic Filmworks’ "Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan."
Directed by Gary Jones, the 90-minute film showcases Bunyan in a whole other way, differing from the regional tall tales he has come to be known for in the Midwest. According to legend, Bunyan is responsible for the creation of the Great Lakes and the Grand Canyon.
"It took us awhile to come up with the idea," Jones said in a phone interview. "We decided to take the approach of King Kong."
Referring to the how the giant ape carries a sympathetic vantage point, Jones said Bunyan needed the same quality in order to make a better-rounded character.
‘A tortured soul’
Focusing on the story of four juvenile delinquents attending a first-offenders’ boot camp, the plot follows the teens’ adventures until an innocent mistake made by one of the campers causes a deranged Paul Bunyan to go on a murderous rampage.
According to Jones, Bunyan’s renowned accessory, a giant ax, is scary, so the carnage expected in a horror film like this fits naturally, but he countered that by adding the lumberjack suffers from a tortured soul.
Jones said the horror film is different from most, as it doesn’t follow the "standard" of movies of this genre.
"If you think you know where it’s going, think again," Jones chuckled. "Try to watch for the people who are going to die, as we tried to mix it up to make it interesting."
Expanding on what Jones described as "interesting," he said since this film was a lower budget project there was more opportunity to assess what was being shot and how to improve the scenes.
"We kept asking how many different ways you can kill people with an ax, and there’s really only so many ways," said Jones, adding their team got fairly creative with many scenes.
Conceived at a coffee shop in California with the movie’s producer, Jeffrey Miller, the idea to portray a darker side of the iconic figure was more than just a whimsical, last-minute idea. Jones, who originates from Michigan, said coming from a state that is so familiar with the legend made the research process of the film easier.
"We figured out how to patch the story together and then took time to get an interesting back story," said Jones. "I also wanted to do a scene that had some history on how he (Paul Bunyan) came to be."
The film is set for DVD release on Tuesday and is scheduled to be uploaded on Netflix in the future, according to Jones.
A local icon
Having physical ties to the myth since 1937, Bemidji has become known for the Paul and Babe statues along the downtown waterfront of Lake Bemidji.
With the rise of tourism during the late 1930s, various local organizations sponsored a winter carnival to showcase the city’s natural resources for winter sports, upon which the groups decided to construct the statues as a way of commemorating the legend and as a way of celebrating logging.
Dan Karalus, soon-to-be director of the Beltrami County Historical Society, said there’s a possibility that people who know the background of Paul Bunyan might take offense to the film, but added the icon has always been used as a marketing strategy.
"Some people may be upset that he is being portrayed as a monster instead of a logger," said Karalus. "This isn’t new; people have been doing this for years to sell a product, promote tourism, or in this case a movie."
According to Karalus, the legend of Bunyan began in the 1890s as an advertising campaign, but more recently serves as a face for the logging industry.
While Karalus expressed concern, officials from Visit Bemidji say this kind of "poking fun" is a good thing.
"Any Paul Bunyan publicity can possibly be good," said Cindy Habedank, administrative assistant at Visit Bemidji. "It will create a positive spin on the amiable Paul Bunyan we have come to know."
Habedank said the film is sure to create some good conversation, but isn’t convinced it will detract people from visiting Bemidji.
Meanwhile, Carol Olson of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce said the folklore of Paul Bunyan is a "humorous" story that people young and old can relate to and that this new take probably won’t sit well with people who are familiar with the legend.
"Children and adults probably won’t like the movie as it isn’t anything like the stories of Paul and Babe that they are familiar with and does not represent the logging that Paul Bunyan is known for," she said. "Some young adults will probably enjoy the movie because it is a scary movie about Paul being bizarre without his friend Babe."
Olson said the movie has little chance of affecting tourism here, but speculates the film might bring about some attention to the real legend.