To name some of Steven Spielberg’s greatest works is to list some of the film medium’s greatest works. But some of those cinematic masterpieces could never have made it to the big screen without plenty of people working behind the scenes – people like Suzanne Jurva, who served as a feature film development executive at Spielberg’s Amblin and Dreamworks studios.
"The usual job for a feature film development executive is to bring scripts in, read them, say yay or nay and then get them into the pipeline," Jurva said. "My job within that department was doing a lot of really heavy research into films, doing a lot of the heavy lifting at the start of a project to get it going, to find the consultants and then work with the writers and the storyline to make sure it was as accurate as possible.
"The other executives had to meet people, go out to lunch and read scripts; I got to do much more interesting work."
After spending years behind the scenes digging up stories and research for movies like "Saving Private Ryan," Amistad" and "Lincoln," the Bay View-based filmmaker has dug up a story for a movie of her own: "Yoopera!", a documentary that follows – as the title suggests – a bunch of Yoopers as they put together an opera (or more accurately an oopera, which is the Finnish word for the art). And not some kitschy Northern backwoods opera either; a legitimate, real, major opera, based on real events from the former copper haven and created by renowned Finnish composer Jukka Linkola and librettist Jussi Tapola.
"It’s not the real ‘Waiting for Guffman’," Jurva joked.
It’s a story that hits close to home for Jurva – quite literally. Her parents are Yoopers, she considers "the U.P. to be my spiritual home" and the large Finnish population in the region – according to Jurva, the largest ethnic population of any group outside of its home base – spoke deeply to her own Finnish heritage. As a result, she wanted to tell a different story than most that come down from the north.
"Usually when people talk about the U.P. and Yoopers, they talk about beer and deer hunting and fishing and all of the stereotypes," Jurva said. "I didn’t want to do anything that had a stereotype attached to it, anything that would indicate that these people are what we expect. I didn’t want to do any of that.
"So when I heard that an original American opera was commissioned based on a little known historical fact that came out of the Upper Peninsula, I was like, ‘Bingo!’ That hit all the buttons I wanted to say about this. Because my experience with the U.P. is it’s filled with wonderful artists and creative souls and people who live up there because its beauty but it’s rough life."
Those local artists and creative souls came out for the opera and for Jurva’s documentary – which, the director notes, was partly filmed by a film student living in the area. One key element to both, for instance, was The Storyline Project. Designed by U.P. native Mary Wright, the project went to schools, senior citizens homes, organizations, Ojibwe tribe members and other groups throughout the region, researched their ancestors and wrote first person perspective stories about them. Wright then gathered up the stories into a banner and put it on display, waving at visitors entering the opera house.
"I didn’t want to do a standard immigration story, but this is a way to do an immigration story that would talk about it without it being so on the nose about it," Jurva said.
Even the opera’s story pays homage to the region’s heritage and history, retelling the story of the early 20th century copper boom, a small but deadly strike and the industry’s vacating of the area.
"There’s all these stories about Detroit and Flint and the disaster and doom when industry left," Jurva said. "The industry left the U.P. too; it left the copper country and left it in shambles. But it’s about the people and how they used creativity and what they had to create a living and a life up there. I didn’t want it to be broken down and boarded up windows."
Jurva hopes the result, both in the opera and in "Yoopera!", plays as a tribute to an often untapped, underappreciated and negated culture and region – one just as fueled by artistry and creativity as any big city in the country.
"L.A. was not making an original American opera based on their story," Jurva said. "A big town doesn’t do this. It was a small town, and the words you’ll hear today in this opera are the words you’d hear 100 years ago."
"Yoopera!" screens at the Milwaukee Film Festival on three dates: Monday, Sept. 28 at 4 p.m. at the Downer; Sunday, Oct. 4 at 1 p.m. Avalon Theater; and Thursday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. Suzanne Jurva and select stars of the documentary/opera are expected to be in attendance for the screenings.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.