NORTH MANKATO — Ethan Clerc said most of his film school classmates work in television or on short films in between semesters.

He had a bigger goal for his summer off.

Returning to his hometown of Windom after his first year at Columbia College in Chicago, the 19-year-old started filming a feature-length project in June.

The film, “Cottonwood,” won’t be his first feature-length film — he’s made three others already. But it is his most ambitious and highest budget project yet.

The crime thriller will mainly be shot in Windom, although Clerc and crew filmed scenes at the Happy Chef Friday night. Clerc said he strives to use Minnesota imagery in his projects, and Happy Chef’s original location had just the right look he envisioned for the scene.

“It’s one of those places where if I think of southwest Minnesota, I think of the Mankato Happy Chef with the big chef,” he said.

“Cottonwood” tells the story of a young cop and veteran detective teaming up to solve a string of murder cases. The case leads them to the restaurant for an interview with the owner.

A Mankato producer of the film helped connect Clerc with the Happy Chef’s owners, who agreed to the filming while food was still being served.

Kyle Antes plays the young cop. He’s acted in other Clerc projects through the years, from Youtube shorts to his previous feature length film, “Sundog,” shot in 2016. Antes said his friend keeps improving with every project.

“This is a lot different, a lot more time consuming,” he said of the latest film. “I’m excited for it.”

A year at film school is paying dividends, Clerc said. He knew how to make a film from previous experience, but brought back with him audio and visual tricks that can lead to a more polished end product.

More than $6,000 was raised for “Cottonwood.” He invested the extra funding in audio equipment, lighting stands, wardrobes and other gear.

He’s also starting to learn the organizational aspects of directing, said Greg Lunn, who plays the experienced detective. Lunn, who acts in community plays in Windom, has also starred in previous Clerc projects, so he’s gotten to see the aspiring filmmakers keep adding new details to his productions. Call sheets, so cast and crew know where to be when, is one example.

Lunn said he enjoys collaborating with the young crew, in part because he gets to see how much they’re improving.

“It’s a big deal to make a full feature movie when you’re doing everything yourself,” he said of Clerc. “I admire him for that.”

Once filming is completed in July, Clerc plans to edit the film and premier it in Windom in January. At past premiers it seemed like most of the town showed up, Clerc said, in part because he likes to include locals.

“It’s a community movie,” he said. “I’m trying to get as many people from the community involved as I can.”

He said he’s not sure whether he wants to follow his role models — Steven Spielberg and David Fincher among them — into directing, or go into production instead once he’s done with school. Whatever the future route, he feels his feature-length summer project gives him the experience he needs to break into the field he loves.

“That’s the biggest thing is to keep doing it, learn from your mistakes and do it again,” he said. “That’s why I keep making them.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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