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Published January 16, 2012, 04:18 PM

Bismarck Man Creates Web Video Series of Everyday North Dakotans

BISMARCK – Matt Fern loves movies. When it comes to the portrayal of North Dakota in movies though, he’s not much of a fan.

By: Sam Benshoof, Forum Communications

BISMARCK – Matt Fern loves movies.

When it comes to the portrayal of North Dakota in movies though, he’s not much of a fan.

Fern, a Bismarck native, went to film school in Bozeman, Mont., and then spent five years working in ad agencies. When he’d travel for work and tell people where he was from, he’d get a lot of blank stares.

“People think of the movie ‘Fargo,’ or that it’s winter here all the time,” he says.

As a North Dakota native, Fern knew that there was a lot more to the state than those stereotypes, so he started thinking about how he could best present what the state is really about.

“I wanted to show the country what present-day North Dakota and North Dakotans are like and also tell a lot of positive stories about our community,” he says.

Fern played with the idea for several years until last August, when he started his own video production company. With the necessary resources available to him, he was able to start work on “Daily Dakotan,” a YouTube video series dedicated to, in his words, “telling stories of North Dakotans.”

Like the name suggests, the subjects of Fern’s series are everyday North Dakotans in everyday jobs who might not otherwise get positive recognition.

“That’s what interests me as a filmmaker,” Fern says. “All good art, all good media is taking something that you see every day and looking at it more closely until you find out something about it you didn’t know before.”

Fern approached the project with a few people in mind to interview, but as word spread around Bismarck about what he was up to, he started receiving suggestions from people who had ideas for future shows.

As he worked on the project during his spare time (his video production company is his full-time job), Fern says the people he approached were energized about the idea behind the series.

“Most people were excited to help out and to be involved with this project,” he says. “Most people kind of got it right away.”

Betty Mills, an 85-year-old former columnist for the Bismarck Tribune who volunteers at a prison, was the focus of the third “Daily Dakotan” episode. Mills says the experience of working with Fern was an enjoyable one, especially because the idea behind the project is so unique.

“I’m not aware that anybody has done it quite like that before, especially not a series,” Mills says. “He’s picking out people who he thinks have done something of interest.”

Luke Graner, a musician and father who is the subject of an episode, had collaborated with Fern on various projects in Bismarck before. Even so, Graner was impressed with how Fern approached the series.

“He’s not sugarcoating anything, like for a state campaign,” Graner says. “He’s showing the truth behind people’s stories, and he’s just not afraid to let the story frame itself.”

For Fern, what’s been especially interesting about doing the research and the interviews for an episode is when he gets surprised by a story that he didn’t expect, and then being able to tell that story to his viewers.

For the first episode, Fern chose to feature Kate Schell, a TV reporter in Bismarck. He expected the episode to be just about how a North Dakota TV reporter does a story and then gets it on the air.

Instead, he found something of a North Dakota love story.

Schell had moved to North Dakota from Pennsylvania and explains in the episode how she had planned on only staying a few years before moving on to her next job, wherever that might be.

Instead, Schell became engaged to a North Dakota National Guardsmen who she had interviewed for a story. Suddenly, she had a good reason to stay in Bismarck.

“How that story was able to go a different direction is what I think makes this series special,” Fern says. “When you click on the episode, it’s not always what you think.”

The episode with Schell is the most popular of the first season, with more than 1,600 views.

In all, the first season of “Daily Dakotan” consists of 24 episodes, each about three minutes long, as well as several episodes of bonus clips. Viewers can subscribe to the “Daily Dakotan” series on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Although he has only done episodes on people in the Bismarck-Mandan area so far, Fern is looking to expand outside the capital in the next season, if he can get enough financing – he made the first season without any advertising or sponsors.

If all goes as planned, Fern hopes to start filming again this summer. Even though he learned a lot about the state where he was born and raised throughout the first 24 episodes, he knows there are still plenty of North Dakota stories out there that haven’t been filmed yet.

“I knew that North Dakota hasn’t been on film a lot,” he says about going into the first season. “I knew, just by filming it, that it would be something different.”