'North Country' tells the story of the Iron Range women who fought the mines, and won
BY CHRIS HEWITT
ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS
When Lois Jenson stepped into a mine in Eveleth on her first day of work more than 30 years ago, she had no idea she was about to change the world.
She didn't know she was beginning a process that would lead to a landmark legal case, the end of several friendships, a community ripped apart by gender and economic issues, years of anxiety and pain -- and a movie starring three Oscar winners. She just wanted to make enough money to feed her family.
"North Country," the drama that was filmed on the Iron Range last winter, is a fictional version of Jenson's story. It's about Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron), who encounters sexual harassment at her job in a taconite mine and who, with the help of a friend and fellow miner (played by Frances McDormand), files a lawsuit similar to the one Jenson filed. It was the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in U.S. history.
"North Country," which opens Friday, is about that lawsuit, about the unique land of the Iron Range, about the character of its people and about the dedication of director Niki Caro to get all of those things on screen. And, like a lot of stories that have anything to do with Hollywood, the "North Country" story begins at the Academy Awards.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
In the months leading up to the Oscars in 2004, Theron often shared red carpets with Keisha Castle-Hughes, the young star of "Whale Rider" who was nominated for best actress along with Theron. Theron had seen Castle-Hughes' performance, and she was blown away by it and by the director, Caro, who helped the young actress achieve it.
"I don't think I've ever seen a 13-year-old give a performance like that," Theron says. "I knew Niki had a lot to do with that, and I became her stalker."
Five days after the Oscars -- where Theron's performance in "Monster" won out -- Theron and Caro met, and the actress enthused about the scene in which Castle-Hughes reads an essay to an audience while trying to hold back her own sobs.
"That's the first thing I said to Niki," recalls Theron. "I said, 'How did you get her to do that scene? And can you do it with me?' "
Caro sparked to Theron right away. "It was the best first date ever," says the director. She had recently signed to make a movie inspired by "Class Action," the nonfiction account of the Iron Range lawsuit, and Caro thought Theron would be perfect as the lead character, based on Jenson but named Josey Aimes.
Theron immediately said yes but putting together the rest of the cast was trickier. Caro wanted Woody Harrelson to play Josey's lawyer, but the actor was reluctant to commit to a shoot in Minnesota. And Caro had her eye on McDormand, who won her Oscar for "Fargo," to play Josey's best friend. But McDormand told Caro she was retiring from acting.
"Frances was a hard one. Oh, man," remembers the vivacious Caro. "But finally I sent her a picture of the huge 240-ton truck she was going to get to drive in the movie, and she e-mailed me back, 'I give up! Men may come and go, but that is a really nice truck.' "
SETTING STORY ON THE RANGE
Executives at Warner Bros. wanted Caro to consider filming in tax-rebate-offering Canada, but she says she always knew the movie would be shot on the Iron Range where the real events took place.
"It was not interesting to me to make the movie if I couldn't make it in that landscape," Caro says.
When the crew arrived in Minnesota last winter, they wondered if Iron Rangers would resent them telling a story that had divided the community. But partly because Rangers welcomed the $3 million to $5 million economic shot in the arm "North Country" was expected to bring, they greeted the crews with open arms.
"Hell, I would be terrified if Hollywood showed up in my community and was going to pick a scab," says Theron, who answered lots of questions about whether the accent would be authentic. "The other thing was: 'How are the men going to be portrayed?' You have to understand what the men struggled for. At the end of the day, it was survival for both sexes. That doesn't justify the behavior, but in this community, this mine was the one thing they considered theirs and their fathers' and brothers'. The women were taking jobs in a community where there were no jobs to be taken."
Caro wanted to establish the mines' importance to the Iron Range early in the film. "I was terrified, because it's so flat. I drove for hours in every direction, and it was just roads and trees, and I thought, 'I don't know how I'm going to articulate this film visually,' " she says.
A trip to a mine boardroom, where the walls were decorated with aerial views of the mined land, made her realize she needed shots from a helicopter. "From up there, you can see the fingerprint of the people on the land," she says.
The land also gave the cast and crew insight into the feelings that eventually led to the lawsuit. "Things have changed a lot up there since the lawsuit, but these feelings have been around for generations, and they will take generations to go away," says Caro, noting the isolation of the Iron Range, along with the rareness of newcomers, makes it respond a little slower than a big city might.
MEETING WOMEN MINERS
At the same time, it was the Range's willingness to change that made Caro respond to the story.
"I love these women. These women have become my friends. And these women changed history," Caro says.
Earlier this year, she told Iron Rangers: "I hope as a community you're very, very proud of the fact that such a case was acknowledged here. Its implications, not just for women working here, but for people working everywhere, are enormous."
To get across that message, Caro, Theron and other cast members met with the real women involved in the case. "By the time I got involved, Niki had already spent a lot of time up there, and she couldn't wait to get me up on the Range to meet the women," Theron says.
In a preliminary meeting right after she had spent weeks primping for the Oscars and other awards shows, Theron says a female miner took one look at her manicured nails and said, "You are not playing a miner with those hands."
That's the kind of insight Caro goes for. "The people on the Range are so down-to-earth and strong, and they don't take (guff)," Caro says. "I loved hanging around in bars with the real women. They advised us on every detail -- make-up, props, dialogue, manners. And I was so glad that, at the end of the film, we could have some of the real women stand up in the courtroom scenes."
It was the strength of people on the Iron Range, both men and women, that struck Theron, too.
"In small towns, life can be hard, so people have to endure a lot more than city folks do. They don't have the luxury to wallow in self-pity. They have to move on," says the actress, who grew up in a small town in South Africa. "And that's what Josey tries to do, but then she can't do it any more when the abuse becomes unendurable."
Meeting with female miners helped Theron set her character apart from the Erin Brockoviches and Norma Raes that Josey Aimes kept being compared to in media reports. "Talking to people up there helped me understand the complexity of this human being, which is my job, really," Theron says. "I understood that she wasn't a woman who was interested in becoming a hero. She was a person who wanted to disappear into the group."
PLAYING ALL THE PARTS
The other thing that helped Theron and the rest of the cast understand their characters was Caro's unorthodox directing method.
"Niki would sit next to the camera. She doesn't look through the lens," says Sean Bean, who plays McDormand's boyfriend in "North Country." "While we were acting, she would be going through it all, every emotion of every character. It wasn't distracting at all, but you just knew that she was experiencing what you were experiencing, too."
Before filming on the Range, much was made of how off-limits the set would be. The reason was the unusually intimate way Caro works with each actor.
"I make it my business to have felt everything the characters need to feel, so if the actors need me to help them go where they need to go, I have already been there," Caro says.
Harrelson, who has been directed by Milos Forman, Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, calls Caro "the best communicator" he has worked with. Theron says Caro gave her exactly the kind of experience she hoped she'd have when she saw "Whale Rider."
Jeremy Renner, who plays the miner who is most cruel to Josey Aimes, says he and Caro spent a lot of time trying to figure out why his character behaved the way he did.
"I play a lot of bad guys, but Niki wanted us to figure out why he was acting like that," says Renner, whose biggest previous role was Jeffrey Dahmer. "We decided he doesn't know he's harassing her. He thinks he's teasing Josey, and he does it because he's unable to express his feelings any other way."
Some would say one of the best things movies can do is help us understand people who seem inexplicable, because understanding leads to compassion. That's the method of moviemaking Caro adheres to, and it's what drew her to make repeated trips to the Iron Range.
"I hope you can see that I love Minnesota," Caro says. "You know, all the women from the mines talked to me about the beauty of the land. The idea that it has always been there, this mystical place that is scary and seductive and that, for many years, they never saw the inside of. So I tried to show that this land is very beautiful and that, even though a lot of ugly things happened, so did a lot of beautiful things."
That beauty is a big part of the understanding and compassion she hopes audiences will find in "North Country."
"There are a lot of people on the Iron Range who are still hurting, but (sexual harassment) was happening all over the world. I want people on the Range to feel proud of the part their women played in changing the world," Caro says. "I want people to know that the world began to change in Eveleth."
CHRIS HEWITT can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 228-5552.