Oil rigs and American dreams
What happens to a dying town when it discovers oil? Welcome to Columbus, North Dakota, a tiny prairie town with a shrinking population in the low 100’s.
This is a story that was brought to us (Red Earth Studio) by Kelly Neal. An American living in Glasgow at the time, she had directed a short film in Columbus back in 2007 about ice fishing called “How to save a fish from drowning”, (winner of a Scottish BAFTA).
When we saw the stunning landscape and fascinating characters we all came to the conclusion that there was a bigger story to be told.
A once booming community, these days Columbus’ liveliest parties are funeral processions. Columbus’ youth and small-hold farmers have fled to the bright city lights of Fargo. This has resulted in a quiet disappearance, a withering away of the landscape until all that is left are vast swaths of lonely countryside peppered with abandoned farms and ghosts of the past. This is about to change. In the next 6 months the sleepy little town’s residents will have their lives turned upside down in a modern day gold rush, in this case black gold.
Sitting atop the Bakken formation, Columbus’ elderly residents are unwittingly the owners of part of the biggest oil find in the lower 48. Drilling has just begun, bringing with it a steady stream of out-of-state oil workers and a chance for wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Columbus is about to get a new lease on life.
Meet Wiley Post. A wise-cracking, sly old dog with a limp and a ready-grin, Wiley is the voice that guides us through the story of Columbus. At 76 years old Wiley was born and raised in Columbus. He’s seen it through its good days and now through the bad. A grumpy old man with humour in his heart, he reveals much of the information that drives the story ahead.
He leads us through a tour of the town, limping his way along the barren Main Street that’s awash in memories for him. We learn of the town’s former glory, its population of over 800 people and the hustle and bustle of abundant local businesses. But as Wiley says, “that’s all gone now. We got 1 café and 1 bar. And by God I never thought I’d be mowing grass on the sidewalks of Columbus North Dakota. But that’s what I’m doing.”
Winters in North Dakota are harsh. It was a new experience for me and for my trusty Sony HDXDCAM 700.
Average temperatures were around -20c so I decided to take a jacket and heat packs for the camera but it was cumbersome. It meant unzipping to set it on the tripod and a hassle to change discs and to film on the shoulder, the access for the hands wasn’t easy and I couldn’t get good maneuverability with it on, so off it went. We drove everywhere, even from our rented accommodation to the cafe which was about 50 metres and the engine was always left running to keep it warm. Shooting outside was so cold that we limited it to around ten to fifteen minutes max. Nostril hairs and the cables on the camera would freeze. The 700 was robust and trusty as ever and we didn’t have one single problem arise from the extreme conditions.
Filming started in June 2010 and we returned a further five times over the next year and a half. The production was self financed and therefore the field crew was small, just myself and Kelly.