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feed the fish
Tony Shalhoub plays a small-town Door County Sheriff in the Wisconsin comedy “Feed the Fish” who keeps an eye on the outsider Joe, played by Ross Partridge.

One would think finding a badger to play himself in a Wisconsin film would be easy.

But for Michael Matzdorff, finding one willing to do an independent film in the winter on a tight budget proved a challenge.

And casting a talented woodchuck for the part would save $2,500 a day, but the hairpiece would not fool anyone.

"It wasn't terribly cooperative, but we certainly got an effective performance from the badger," Matzdorff joked.

"At one point we thought of trading it out for an ermine, which are apparently much more directable and trainable than a badger."

It's subtle scenes in Matzdorff's film "Feed the Fish" that point out the amusing, and sometimes crazy, things that make us Wisconsin.

Like standing in Lake Michigan in January and thinking, "It's not that bad, eh?"

Or running shirtless outside in sub-zero temperatures and getting a sunburned vacation look.

And of course, there's our love of gun play.

When a California native comes to Door County in winter to get away from it all in the film "Feed the Fish," what he experiences are the finer, and funny, points of living through a Wisconsin winter.

There's ice fishing, snowmobiling, and trying to stop a well-armed mob dressed in orange walking past his house.

Matzdorff, who grew up in and around Green Bay, filmed "Feed the Fish" in Door County in 2009 and premiered it this year at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison to a sold-out crowd.

"I wanted to write something that was about a place that was familiar to me," he said. "And a lot of the characters in it are a combination of people I've known, or people I've heard stories about up in Door County, having been there most of my life."

The film is in a handful of Wisconsin theaters right now and is making its Portage premiere this weekend.

Jeremy Rusch from Portage Theatres said it's rare to have an independent film come to Portage for a week-long run, but Wisconsin movies play well here.

The smart fish-out-of-water comedy stars a well-armed Tony Shalhoub ("Monk") playing an over-protective father who also watches over his small Door County town as sheriff.

With a giant mustache and quick draw, he intimidates the out-of-town Californian Joe (Ross Partridge) who's just trying to get his life back in order while surviving a cold, desolate winter.

"There's a certain aspect to this character, sort of no-nonsense, very straight ahead," Shalhoub said in a phone interview. "He does not want to be thought of as a small-town (sheriff) or be underestimated."

And when Joe meets the sheriff's daughter he instantly places a bull's-eye on his own back. Shalhoub's sheriff finds himself firing his gun around Joe just as a friendly hello.

"Basically, it's a romantic comedy," Shalhoub said.

Door County

There's not enough violent children's books out there these days. Ones where the cute, fuzzy kitty dies at the end, bitten by a crazed fish with large fangs.

It's not exactly a heartwarming tale for children to read, but a funny opening for "Feed the Fish," whose main character Joe is a children's author with writer's block who wants to get away from Los Angeles to clear his head.

To get away from writing, Joe's buddy JP (Michael Chernus) takes him to Sturgeon Bay, then up into the peninsula to let him experience a different way to live in the winter.

On Joe's quest he meets an inspirational mentor named Axel, played by a very funny Barry Corbin, who hearkens back to his "Northern Exposure" days of being surrounded by snow and ice.

He also meets Sif (Katie Aselton), a hockey player who works in a local restaurant and is touted by the women of the town as "the single one."

In Door County, Joe finds his lost passion, a love interest and survives a visit from his ex-girlfriend, all while testing the January waters of Lake Michigan.

Matzdorff said he wasn't trying to show Wisconsin in a certain light in the film, he was just trying to make a movie people would enjoy.

What he came away with is a highly entertaining, well-crafted story with an exceptional cast that doesn't go overboard on Wisconsin, but lets you know it's always there.

Matzdorff also didn't overplay Wisconsin accents from the Door County region, wanting residents in other states to relate to the characters.

"We tried not to hammer (the accents) too hard, Shalhoub said.

"We didn't want it to feel too much like ‘Fargo' or something."

Come on in, the water's nice

There wasn't a whole lot of acting going on with characters battling the elements, Shalhoub said. Surviving the cold was real.

It's not often you see a film shot while winter's in full swing. Perhaps that's because the weather to shoot on location can be so unpredictable.

Filming started on "Feed the Fish" in January 2009, and the first scene shot was supposed to be a polar plunge into Lake Michigan.

"We went to scout it out the day before and it was a perfect 35 degree day with calm water," Matzdorff said.

"We got back the next morning and the wind kicked up and there was a 60 mph gale force wind coming in off the lake and it had blown a bunch of ice on the shore. And there was basically a blizzard going on with the snow blowing so hard it stings your face."

While the shot was delayed, the cast was up for anything, including running outside in little clothing on a minus-6 degree day.

"It says a lot about the actors to be able to just be out there in just shirt sleeves and shorts and deal with that," Matzdorff said.

There were three takes of a polar plunge that was filmed in Jacksonport in Door County, where the cast - many from warm, sunny climates - had to run across ice in little clothing and dive in.

"You know, a lot of planning goes into that because you're asking people to jump into 33 degree water where there's ice floating around and there is a rocky bottom on that side of the lake," Matzdorff said. "It's pretty dangerous. And pretty fantastic it came off like it did."

The toaster

Gun rack, radar gun, toaster.

They are the essential survival items for any small-town Wisconsin sheriff in a squad car.

At least they are in "Feed the Fish," which answers the question: what does a cop do while waiting for speeders?

On the rural roads of Door County in the dead of winter, there's not exactly a lot of traffic. There's not a lot of anything, for that matter.

It's barren, cold and five months until Illinois tourists arrive again.

So if you're playing a small-town sheriff like Shalhoub, having a toaster in the car is a necessity.

"At first it did not make sense to me, but then once I got in there and I started to work with the toaster, it began to make total sense, because this was a guy who has to sit in his car a lot - whether it's speed traps, or whatever - waiting," Shalhoub said. "It's cold, and it's another source of heat, and the ability to eat warmed-up food while he's just sitting in his car made perfect sense."

Shalhoub said the sheriff is kind of an amalgam of a number of different people he has come across. He's also a tough character, far from Monk, who has a laundry list of fears.

"I've done a number of different kinds of things while doing ‘Monk,'" Shalhoub said. "I don't think of myself as - maybe some people do - but I don't think of myself as Monk. I think of that as one character of many that I have played and will play."

"Feed the Fish" is the first film Shalhoub has shot in his home state. And it took him back to Door County, where he spent summers swimming while growing up.

Shalhoub, who also is Matzdorff's uncle, came on board as a producer for the film, as well.

While the story is about a man coming to Wisconsin, what helped bring filming here was also the state tax credit that brought Johnny Depp's movie "Public Enemies" to shoot in Wisconsin in 2008.

But the tax credit has since been pulled back, leaving independent films like "Feed the Fish" looking elsewhere to shoot.

"Any financial advantage we can take we have to take because we spent so little money on this film and it's such a tight schedule," Matzdorff said.

"So without every financial advantage possible, we can't make a movie like this."

Next up for Shalhoub is an HBO film he will start shooting in New York in a few days about the Wall Street bailout.

But he said he would love to see the tax incentives reinstated in his home state so more projects like this can come to Wisconsin.

"Feed the Fish" played at the Midwest Independent Film Festival in Chicago this week to another sold-out crowd. But it's not your typical festival movie, Matzdorff said.

"I think film festivals sometimes go for very dark, haunting films just because they like to press the envelope a little bit. And I don't think ‘Feed the Fish' falls into that category. It's a very family-friendly kind of film."

One with a very tough badger.

If You Go

What: The independent Wisconsin comedy "Feed the Fish" starring Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub

Where: Portage Theatres in downtown Portage

When: Now through Thursday, Nov. 11.

Times: Everyday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. with additional showings on Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3 p.m.