Belle Gunness was a notorious figure in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. A rare female serial killer, she was a vicious creature. Strangely, it seems that only those of us who live in the Northwest Indiana area have actually heard of her. Unlike so many serial killers whose crimes have turned them into deranged celebrities of sorts, Belle has never received the recognition many of her peers have.
That is about to change, thanks to Steve Ruminski, writer and director of the short film Belle, and Rob Roediger, producer of the film. I recently had a chance to ask them a few questions about the film, which is actually filming in the general area where Belle stalked her prey.
1. This short film is about Belle Gunness, a notorious, and rare, female serial killer in the LaPorte Indiana area in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. How did you come across the story and can you give me a little back story about her crimes?
Steve Ruminski, writer and director
STEVE: Being born and raised in La Porte, I have known this story my entire life. At some point as a kid you end up taking a trip to the La Porte County Historical Society and you see the exhibit on Belle. It becomes an instant fascination. Belle came to Chicago from Norway in the late 1800’s. After the suspicious death of her first husband, she traded her property in Chicago for a farm in La Porte. She was married once more to Peter Gunness who also eventually died under suspicious circumstances. After this Belle began writing want-ads in Scandinavian newspapers throughout the country offering them a business opportunity as a partner in her farm. Men came from all over bringing only cash and telling no one where they were going. Soon after their arrival she would poison them, crack their skulls with a mallet, and cut their bodies up to be buried with the trash. All told, she killed at least 20 people (including women and children). In 1908 her house burned down. The bodies of her 3 children and a headless woman’s body was found in the rubble. To this day it is unknown whether that was actually her body or one she left to fake her death.
2. Can you give me a little bit of your background and why this subject fascinates you?
ROB: My background started in advertising which opened up a few doors that focus in film and television and very early on I decided that was where I belong. Several years later, I met Steve and he had this incredible story about a female serial killer that has almost been kept a local secret. This fascinated me, how could someone do so many terrible things and still not really be known further than the city limits? I knew right away that I wanted to partner up with Steve to help him bring this local legend to the big screens and to a much larger audience.
STEVE: Along with this being a part of local history, I really got the idea to make this into a narrative film after producing and directing the short documentary, The Gunness Mystery, with fellow La Porte native Bruce Johnson. Bruce has become one of the leading experts in the world on Belle. We’ve held numerous screenings, even some in Norway, including Belle’s home town. One of the biggest questions is always when is there going to be a movie made about Belle? There have been rumors of it for ages, but nothing pans out and worse, they want to pervert and twist the story in unnecessary ways. I decided to take up the goal myself. 2 1/2 years later, we are finally on the verge of shooting.
3. What are you going for in the film? Are you going for a horror short or a more dramatic approach with the material?
STEVE: All the way we are going for a more dramatic approach. I’m more fascinated with who Belle was and why she might have done these things as opposed to what she actually did. It’s easy to reduce her to a man-hating murderer going around hacking up bodies, but she was also a mother, business-woman, neighbor, etc. We won’t ever really know her psyche but we can attempt to depict her in a way that is three dimensional. Silence of the Lambs is always the example I go to when talking about our approach.
4. How difficult was it securing the funding to produce this film? What steps did you take to secure that funding and is this a completely independent project, free of local interests and persons who may not want to see the story told in dramatic fashion?
Rob Roediger, producer
ROB: The community has been incredibly helpful in securing the necessary funds. Early on we had a generously large investment from a sole backer, La Porte local Tim Stabosz. But that alone wasn’t enough. So we created an account on Indiegogo and with the help of our followers on our Facebook page we were able to reach our additional goal to actually make this short film happen.
STEVE: It was hard initially to gain all the funding through Kickstarter. It’s easy to find the interest and audience for this, but not as easy to get those people to contribute. Personally, I can’t blame them, I feel like crowd sourcing campaigns are becoming so common, people get tired of seeing them and stop donating. Most people don’t have extra cash around to throw at various projects they might want to support. After the failed Kickstarter in 2012, Tim Stabosz offered to back the project to a certain amount, the rest we raised on Indiegogo this last month. It has been a long journey for both me and this project.
5. I can’t recall where I read it, but I read somewhere that this is a proof of concept. Is that actually the case, where this short film will hopefully secure the funding to make a full length feature?
STEVE: Yes, that is correct. We still want it to be a great short film on it’s own, but the main goal is to say, ‘Hey, check this out, we have this awesome story waiting to be told, and there is a huge audience out there, many who don’t even know the story at all.’
ROB: Steve said it all.
6. How important to you is actually filming in the LaPorte area where these crimes occurred? Do you feel this lends an authenticity to the project that other films of this type have failed to capture?
ROB: We feel it absolutely must be filmed as much as possible in La Porte and the surrounding areas. For authenticity purposes and for the community since this story is so close to home for most of them.
STEVE: If we were filming this in California or Georgia, people wouldn’t be as excited and may even resent that La Porte isn’t being used.
7. Can you describe the difficulties in securing locations to shoot that resemble the actual locations where these atrocities took place? Times were very different in the late 1800’s and many areas are covered in the modern day trappings of “civilization’ like phone poles and electric towers, not to mention the abundance of cell phone towers.
STEVE: It was extremely difficult to find locations. One thing I have learned is that people with old farms usually keep the old barns, but not the farm houses. We got unbelievably lucky when I randomly came across a farm house in Portage that has been restored and is kept in a 1900’s period condition. I contacted the group who maintain it and they were beyond excited to be a part of the project. Without that key find we probably wouldn’t be a few days away from shooting right now.
8. Are you going to be filming this digital or on film?
STEVE: We will be shooting digital on the Red Epic. I don’t romanticize the notion of shooting on film all that much. I come from a post production background which has always been digital for me. I wouldn’t be opposed to shooting something on film, but the costs are just too prohibitive.
9. What does your time frame look like with having this released? What are the release plans? Can you elaborate?
ROB: At this time, we begin production on Monday 4/27 for 5 days, wrapping on 5/1. Post production will begin shortly after. Once that is complete we will submit the short film to festivals hoping to draw the attention of financiers for the feature. After the festival run is over we will then host a public release for the community as well as promote local distribution.
Ann Hagemann, who will be playing the notorious Belle Gunness!
10. Can you break the news for who you’ve cast as Belle and give me a little of her background?
ROB: We are extremely excited and lucky for the people we were able to cast. Ann Hagemann will be playing the infamous Belle Gunness. Ann has a strong history in dramtic roles and we feel like she will be able to bring a calm yet frightening feel to the character. Amanda Raudabaugh will be playing the role of Belle’s foster daughter Jennie Olsen. Amanda has plenty of experience as well and blew us away with her ability to capture the raw emotion of the character.
STEVE: La Porte native Will Lott will play the role of Emil Greening, Belle’s farm hand who is the love interest of Jennie Olsen. Will has been cast in that role since we first started this project and we are excited to have him. We also have two other La Porte natives: Moe Krentz playing banker Mr. Proctor and Leonard Sales playing photographer Mr. Cooke. Moe has been a fixture at the La Porte Little Theater for many years. Leonard is an eager up and coming actor. We are very excited to have local talent featured in the short.