‘Cheeseheads: The Documentary’

andrew kruse-ross | cheeseheads | april 2017

Perhaps no film captures the essence of all things Wisconsin more than director John Mitchell's aptly titled documentary “Cheeseheads." The film, which is part travelogue, part human analysis, takes viewers into Wisconsin's factories, farms, breweries and more to seek a deeper understanding of the Cheesehead moniker and discover what it really means to be a Cheesehead.

As one might expect, any investigation into Cheesehead culture would not be complete without a hearty dose of Titletown.

Taking some time away from a busy touring schedule, director John Mitchell was kind enough to answer some questions via email.

How long did you work on the film?

From concept to completion, the direct answer would be about six years including shooting, editing, touring and now having it go nationwide on all of the VOD platforms and on Amazon on all of their media platforms.

Indirectly, I think this has been a project I was always meant to accomplish. Having to do nearly everything from writing to shooting to editing to sound mix (and even scoring several scenes), and then the market and distribution aspects, I had the background for all of those elements from my previous jobs in the entertainment industry. Whether I was writing or producing for others, working in film marketing with the studios or in DVD distribution (back when that was a thing), I learned nearly every aspect of the industry first-hand. That's invaluable when you want to get your own work finished and out there (and outside the system at that).

I believe you told me you live out of a suitcase. Can you tell me what life has been like since your film was completed?

I've spent that past year and a half doing screenings and events all around Wisconsin (and Minneapolis, Chicago as well), so I'd liken it to the Metallica song 'Wherever I May Roam' since I've spent that entire time either in hotels or at family and friends. I'm pretty sure that's what the song is all about anyhow, being on the road and doing that thing you need to do to understand your view of existence.

Where is home now?

That's still in question. Obviously, Wisconsin feels like home all over again despite two decades away, but I also plan to get back to California and set the several other projects I've written in motion. But again, you have to get the word out there for the one that is done, especially for an indie project like this.

Was there any particular item that you wanted to include in your film but were unable to?

The first edit was nearly six hours long and covered twice as many things as ended up in the final edit. As you work your way through the editing process, you make the easy cuts, then the hard ones. When you finally have to get it to a feature length film, you make those tearful cuts you hope you won't regret.

I had finished four scenes about Wisconsin's deep pride of military tradition dating back to the Civil War where the term 'On Wisconsin' comes from (a battle cry Arthur McArthur used with his troops), through General Billy Mitchell (no relation) coming up with the Air Force, and a scene about the 'Ace Of Aces,' Richard Bong from WWII. The fourth scene was an intimate portrayal via my Aunt Ruby of my Uncle Forest, who had served on D-Day and throughout the war. What started as a personal look at a family member I respected who had passed away, turned into this beautiful, tear-inducing, 'World War II love story' about the two of them.

Ultimately, the military scenes didn't fit the more up-beat and humorous approach I ended up taking with the final story, so they had to be pulled. Luckily, there will be a market for those down the road, what with all the digital options we have now.

'Cheeseheads' reminds me of a love letter to Wisconsin. Why make 'Cheeseheads,' and when and how did the idea first come to you?

It really is a love letter to Wisconsin, isn't it? It was always intended to be humorous and informative, while also being entertaining with a sort of literary vibe. I had also intended for that deep sense of self you get in being proud of where you are from to show through as clearly as possible. That I discovered going home again was just as rewarding as having been from such an awesome place was just the gravy that makes the poutine extra tasty.

The Idea: As you see in the opening scenes of the film, it all began with tailgating the Badgers fans at the Rose Bowl, then the Packers fans at the Super Bowl, with camera in hand. After having a blast doing that, I thought there was a much deeper story connected with the term Cheesehead, so I researched everything I could about Wisconsin. But that wasn't enough, so I knew I had to go back to discover that deeper meaning, but always with an eye on the humor that such a term evokes.

So why make 'Cheeseheads'? Frankly, it was a story that had to be told. I've always been so damn proud to be from Wisconsin that it often times annoyed friends in California. They didn't get why someone could be so proud of a 'place,' so inspired by it. Throw in that their only concept of what a Cheesehead was involved a funny foam hat or a team jersey, and you can see why I had to set the record straight.

If you had to explain Wisconsin by only three of its elements, enterprises, etc., which would you choose?

Only three, how dare you! I think you're trying to trick me into saying the Packers, Badgers and Curling. No? How about beer, cheese and sports. But then that leaves out innovators like Harley-Davidson, Les Paul and Frank Lloyd Wright. And let's not forget the world-renowned entertainers like Liberace, Spencer Tracy and Harry Houdini. Museums, landmarks and oddities galore. I could go on and on and on.

For more information, visit iamacheesehead.com. “Cheeseheads: The Documentary" is available now on DVD through Amazon.com and VOD via iTunes, Google play, Xbox Video, PlayStation Network and more.

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