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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 6.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Nicholas Langholff is dedicated to indie cinema in Wisconsin
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Credit:Pete Olsen

Darren Burrows recalls standing around the production office while acting in the 2010 film NoNAMES when someone said, "Darren, I'm such a fan of your work. How did you become involved in this project?"

"Nick's a friend of mine," replied the alumnus of TV's Northern Exposure, referring to NoNAMES co-producer Nicholas Langholff. "And somebody else in the office said, 'Oh, you've been Langholffed too.'"

Burrows laughs, as the anecdote gets at Nick Langholff's essence. Langholff is a Madison-based producer of such movies as Madison and Feed the Fish; an assistant director on films starring the likes of Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman; and the founder of a new state film festival. He has such relentless enthusiasm for independent filmmaking that his surname has birthed a verb. To be Langholffed is to be swept up by his gusto, whirled into his orbit and forced to share his devotion to working in Wisconsin.

Born in Kansas in 1973, Langholff was raised in Fort Atkinson, attending Lakeside Lutheran High School in Lake Mills. "I was one of those obnoxious kids who would go to the theater because it was a place to hang out on Friday night," he says.

The one movie that held him rapt while everyone else was acting up, he recalls, was Hoosiers. He connected to its small-town milieu and basketball narrative. He sought out more Gene Hackman movies but confesses he was so bad about returning VHS tapes that one video store suspended his membership.

His father, a Vietnam veteran, never talked about the war but took Langholff to Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Good Morning Vietnam "when I was just old enough."

Langholff followed a circuitous route to filmmaking. Waypoints included a stint at UW-Rock County with the aim of becoming an elementary schoolteacher, a period of "figuring things out" after his father's accidental death, a video-store gig, a first visit to Madison's Majestic movie palace, an exposure to foreign and independent films, the opening of his own video store in Cottage Grove, and his first pilgrimage to the Sundance Film Festival.

"I wasn't a filmmaker," he remembers. "I didn't know any filmmakers. I just loved these movies."

Returning to Sundance a couple more times, he bought a camera, rallied some friends and produced "this little movie called Haunting Perpetually Dead Squirrels." IMDB lists the 1999 comedy short down at the bottom of Langholff's filmography. In addition to producing, he helped write the script and was among the cast.

Langholff started hanging out at American Players Theatre around this time, volunteering as an usher. He had first visited APT with his high school English-lit classmates but admits, "I was the kid the teacher would worry was gonna screw around."

Revisiting APT in his mid-20s, Langholff forged an enduring friendship with Brent Notbohm. Now an associate comm arts professor at UW-Superior, the director and co-writer of Madison was then APT's house manager. He recruited Langholff to help film a promotional video for APT. More followed.

Notbohm calls Langholff "one of the most fearless social beings I've ever met." He has seen his friend mature "from making films with buddies to one of the top professionals in the state," ambitious and persistent. "I've never felt that Nick's love of film comes from watching films, but from the love of the process," Notbohm observes. "I think he's most at home on a film set."

Pondering his options after that first APT collaboration with Notbohm, Langholff decided to "just move to New York and see what the heck I can do." He struggled until an old Madison acquaintance found him a production assistant's gig on the set of Love the Hard Way, starring Adrien Brody and Pam Grier.

"I didn't know what the heck I was doing," says Langholff. Wide-eyed, he bluffed his way onto the set, paid attention and, by the end of day two, "everything started clicking."

For four years, Langholff did film work in New York from October to May, then returned to Wisconsin to house-manage APT. New York became a second home, pulling him away from APT as he rose from second to first assistant director on a string of films. Organization, he notes, has always been a strong suit. As an AD for projects in L.A., Louisville, Colorado, Brazil, Mexico and Sudan, Langholff became known for his willingness to relocate.

But he kept a foot in Wisconsin. "You're always going back to Wisconsin," friends observed. "You've never fully moved to New York." Langholff attributes this Madison orientation to his paternal grandfather.

His grandfather was so devoted to attending his baseball, basketball and football games that "he's in my high school yearbook four times," Langholff notes. Now residing at King Veterans Home near Waupaca, Langholff's grandfather remains his Wisconsin anchor.

Approaching 30, Langholff recognized production as his destiny while continuing to work as an assistant director. He has built a core crew, working with some individuals on as many as a dozen movies.

He continues to work as an assistant director and second-unit director on projects with bigger budgets, including The Convincer, Madison native Jill Sprecher's crime drama starring Lea Thompson, Billy Crudup and Greg Kinnear, which premiered at Sundance this year; and the forthcoming A Late Quartet, starting Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

"For me, as a producer, it's a chance to learn this other budget level," Langholff says. "But it's not what I call work work. It's my job job, money job."

For work work, he is now scouting locations in New Mexico for a Western he is producing from a script by Darren Burrows. You may also have seen Burrows and Langholff in and around Madison, scouting locations for another film or nailing down details for this fall's Driftless Film Festival, which they co-founded.

Burrows and Langholff met in Memphis seven years ago on the set of Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic feature at Sundance in 2005. Burrows played one of the leads in that film, and Langholff was second assistant director.

Burrows and Langholff stayed in contact after Blue wrapped, reunited for the eight-minute 2008 vampire thriller The Shadow of the Night and again on NoNAMES - the first produced and the latter co-produced by Langholff. Burrows describes their friendship as "a birds-of-a-feather thing."

After 25 years in L.A., Burrows and his family resettled to his home state of Kansas a couple months ago. He has visited Madison several times between film projects, batting around ideas at the apartment/production office Langholff maintains above Mickey's Tavern on the near east side. Taking in a show at APT, they discovered a shared appreciation for settings like Spring Green.

Touring the vintage theaters Langholff proposed as Driftless Film Festival venues affirmed their shared appreciation for old movie palaces and opera houses, Burrows says. "You don't make films to just watch them on your phone," he observes. "You want to see them in a theater." Especially one old enough to have been lovingly restored.

After a trial run last fall at venues in Baraboo, Mineral Point and Platteville, this year's Driftless Film Festival - scheduled for Oct. 6-9 - expands to include theaters in Richland Center, Spring Green and Viroqua.

Langholff and Burrows are also collaborating on a mystery film called Driftless. "We wrote part of it together," Langholff says, calling it "a little David Lynchy, but more Hitchcock." Burrows hopes to direct as well as star.

Langholff's ambition for the Driftless Film Festival is to create an enduring oasis for filmmakers - a handful of small towns where filmmakers can bring their movies and "hang out with the town."

Langholff hopes showing their films on nice screens in cool small-town venues will draw audiences who may find both the films and their makers more approachable.

The festival also has an element of enlightened self-interest for Langholff. With his sister's family and his mother living in Tacoma, Wash., and the relentless pull of far-flung assistant-directing gigs, the Driftless Film Festival is a way for him to sink deeper roots here.

Having a base in Madison, he notes, affords easy access to Minnesota, where The Convincer was filmed, and Michigan, where he was second assistant director on What's Wrong With Virginia, a 2010 drama starring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris. Projects like these break up more distant commitments, making it easier for Langholff to work on his own projects in and around Madison.

Langholff is in the vanguard of state filmmakers who aren't waiting around while policymakers dither over the merits of state film incentives. He hopes to rally members of Wisconsin's cinematic class in the grass-roots development of state film crews and infrastructure.

With star-struck states vying for big-budget filmmakers' attention in ways that sometimes expose them to financial liability, Langholff suggests it might be better to emulate Oklahoma, where Terrence Malick shot his latest film with a cast including Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem.

Oklahoma is pushing ahead of other states, Langholff observes, by wooing films with modest budgets while investing in resident filmmakers, crews, professional-caliber equipment and production facilities. This, he believes, will prove a strong draw for filmmakers. Who better to boost jobs and tourism, after all, than homegrown talent familiar with the state's assets?

This is the gist of one of his characteristic verbal displays, which break sentences into fragmented fits and starts punctuated by ellipses - ideas broached but left to trail off somewhere between thought and expression, one exhilarating staccato burst yielding to the next in a free-associative stream of consciousness flowing at 200 words per minute.

The buzzing extemporaneous soliloquy concludes with a visceral sense of having been Langholffed.

A Nicholas Owen Langholff Production
Nicholas Langholff has 15 production credits on his résumé. Here are five films to get you started.

NoNAMES, 2010
Winner of Phoenix Film Festival awards for best director and best acting ensemble, NoNAMES explores the inertia of friends in a small town struggling to survive and the allure of lighting out for greener pastures. It was filmed in central Wisconsin and stars Barry Corbin and Darren Burrows.

Feed the Fish, 2009
Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub (Monk) stars as Sheriff Andersen in a romantic comedy about a children's author whose writer's block breaks up his relationship and sends him fleeing from L.A. to wintry Door County, Wis. Complications - including a polar plunge, a badger attack and an encounter with a reclusive sage played by Barry Corbin of Northern Exposure - ensue.

Madison, 2008
A war correspondent returns stateside after four traumatic years in Iraq. Visiting Madison in hopes of recovering his youthful idealism, he finds instead an unexpected kind of resolution via an unconventional facilitator. Sarah Day, James DeVita and Jonathan Smoots of American Players Theatre star.

The Shadow of the Night, 2008
An atmospheric eight-minute black-and-white ode to silent thrillers, starring Burrows as a detective in pursuit of a vampire, with a contemporary twist at the end (www.naturalfilms.com/films/shadow).

When Boys Become Monsters, 2005
This provocative mockumentary satirizes media sensationalism surrounding contemporary outbursts of violence by teenage boys. Not for the easily outraged or faint of heart.

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