MOORHEAD — Growing up in Fargo-Moorhead, Mike Scholtz knew who Matt Olien was from the latter’s work at KXJB-TV and later at Prairie Public TV.
The two finally met through the Fargo Film Festival, where Olien volunteers and Scholtz, a documentary filmmaker, has shown his work.
Then, something interesting happened. They became friends on Facebook.
“Matt Olien has the most amazing Facebook page because it’s 50 percent what he’s doing on any day, like a diary, 50 percent Ohio State football or sports and 150 percent who died today,” Scholtz says. “I know that doesn’t add up to 100 percent, but his Facebook page is so packed with information it adds up to 250 percent.”
Scholtz asked Olien what was up with posts like this one from Wednesday: “Longtime Arizona Cardinals owner, since 1962, Bill Bidwill dead at 88."
“Matt sheepishly explained, ‘Oh, I do this because we’re in a celebrity death pool,'" Scholtz says. “Then I had a million more questions to ask.”
Scholtz’s questions for Olien and his dead poolmates became the director’s latest documentary, “Riplist.” The feature film follows the group as they “draft” the newsmakers they think will die within the next year and pulls them aside one by one to talk about death and how people react to it.
The film premiered at the Fargo Film Festival in March and returns to F-M on Friday, Oct. 4, when Scholtz screens it at his alma mater, Minnesota State University Moorhead. The showing will be in Glasrud Auditorium in Weld Hall, where Scholtz often ran the projector for film studies classes.
Since March, “Riplist” has gone coast to coast in film festivals, and Scholtz is starting to field calls about distribution.
Audiences have mostly liked it (it just won Best Documentary Feature at the South Dakota Film Festival last week), but some didn’t care for a movie that talks about death. And some booed when lovable celebrities get drafted in the deadpool.
“I feel the Nordic cultures predominant in our area are just slightly more comfortable with death than other people,” Scholtz says from his Duluth, Minn.-area home.
The film’s subjects openly talk about death on camera, including the group’s only female member, Kriste Ross, Cass County’s chief deputy coroner. Ross explains how she grew up with a funeral home as the family business.
Her frank approach to the subject prompted one crew member to call her “the single greatest documentary character he’d ever seen,” Scholtz says.
Still, Ross isn’t even the star of her own stories. Scholtz paid her daughter cash and a Def Leppard T-shirt to play young Kriste as a kid in the funeral home.
“Then, because I can’t take reenactments seriously in documentaries, I showed her interacting with Kriste later,” Scholtz says. “I do historical reenactments and then immediately deconstruct them because I think they are all kind of ridiculous. I like screwing around with the form of documentary films.”
Local viewers of a certain age will appreciate the film for reuniting a number of KXJB personalities from the 1990s, like Olien, Skip Wood, Jason Branby and, most memorably, weatherman Bruce Asbury, now living in Sarasota, Fla.
“More than any other human being, he’s kind of like a tornado,” Scholtz says of the colorful meteorologist. “He’s a whirlwind of entertainment that dropped into my life. He was constantly entertaining.”
It was Asbury’s idea to shoot his scenes in an abandoned church outside of Gary, Minn. He showed up to the set singing showtunes and crooned Johnny Cash when not reciting Shakespearean sonnets between interviews.
The smile fades, though, when Asbury opens up about his son’s drug addiction and a near-fatal overdose in a surprisingly poignant scene.
Scholtz was a bit taken aback by Asbury’s candor, as he was when Olien suggested that he may be on the autism spectrum.
“That was an amazing moment of self-awareness,” Scholtz says. “A lot of people that are eccentric like Matt Olien don’t want to admit it and I admire and love him because he’s decided he’s a real weirdo and he’ going to embrace it and he’s OK with that.”
Getting, Olien, Asbury, Ross and the others to open up took some work for the filmmaker, who showed them his other movies to prove that while he may make funny movies, he doesn’t make fun of the subjects — he laughs with them, not at them.
“I’ve discovered this since making the movie, but people have intense, personal, sometimes weird feelings about death. I think they were worried people would think they were ghouls,” he says.
“I don’t know if I’m a good documentary filmmaker because I’m always rooting for the people in my films,” he adds. “Sometimes I think I should probably be making these hit jobs on people, but I guess that’s not my nature.”
If you go
What: “Riplist” screening
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4
Where: Glasrud Auditorium, Weld Hall, MSUM
Info: This film is free and open to the public. This film is not rated, but includes colorful language and discussion of death; https://www.mikescholtz.com/riplist