Ben Zschunke takes a moment to pose with members of his cast and crew during the shooting of his first feature film, “The Polar Bear Club.” Zschunke is standing fourth from the left.
By Jennifer Steichen on October 15, 2015 R 6:00am 
What started as the image of a person’s foot in the snow is now a full-length feature film that will screen at the Twin Cities Film Fest’s annual October film festival.

“The Polar Bear Club,” co-written by 2007 Rosemount High School graduate Ben Zschunke, will play at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at St. Louis Park’s Showplace Icon Theatre.

The movie follows a group of elderly men who get together once a week to jump into a frozen lake in an attempt to relive their youth. When a member of the group suffers a heart attack and dies during one of the outings, the men are forced to face the difficult reality that they are, in fact, nearing the end of their lives.

Zschunke, who also served as assistant producer and script supervisor on the project, said the idea for the story was born when University of North Carolina School of Arts classmate Brett Price picked up the phone during their sophomore year and told Zschunke he had an image he wanted to flesh out.

“It was an image of a foot in the snow, with a sandal or something,” Zschunke said,” and he wanted to build a story off of that.”

The two friends thought it would be cool if the foot belonged to an older person. It grew from there.

“Brett and I created this story using the personalities of all the elderly men in our lives,” Zschunke said. “We’ve also had grandparents that lived in nursing homes and saw how living there changed their whole demeanor. It inspired us to center the theme on mortality and how someone is forced to accept it, especially when they’re nearing the end of their life.”

With Price serving as the film’s director and Zschunke helping to co-produce and co-write the script, the two began a grassroots effort to raise funds and assemble a crew. Zschunke said they did most of the casting through craigslist and raised more than $15,000 through contributions to a Kickstarter campaign.

“The Kickstarter campaign didn’t seem that difficult,” Zschunke said. “My parents and friends were really excited. We had been working on the project for three years.”

It took the friends two full years to write the film, so when Price called Zschunke to tell him they were going to have to postpone shooting for a year due to actor availability, Zschunke could not hide his disappointment.

“It was a bummer. I was really looking forward to shooting,” Zschunke said. “But he said, ‘We’re going to make it better for next year.’”

This temporary setback ended up being a blessing in disguise. During that year-long delay, a Nashville-based video production company called Gear Seven Creative got in touch with the filmmakers and offered to supply all the equipment they needed.

“They even drove it to Minnesota and helped with post-production,” Zschunke said, remarking how funny it was to watch a crew that had gathered from Los Angeles, Nashville and South Carolina struggle to adapt to the Minnesota winter.

“It got to 20 below zero some days,” Zschunke said. “They weren’t prepared for the cold. One day it got to 30 degrees above zero and we all thought it was so warm.”

The entire crew, actors aside, did summon the courage to participate in their own polar bear plunge in Coon Rapids, where some of the filming took place.

Though Zschunke’s movie premiered at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville this September, the Twin Cities Film Fest will be the first time he gets to share it with his hometown. His parents, grandparents, and some of the actors will be there.

“It was surreal. Really surreal,” he said of seeing the movie on a big screen for the first time.

“It feels good to see it on the big screen and see people’s reaction to it.”

Despite being sprawled out across the country, the creative team from “The Polar Bear Club” has remained in close contact. Zschunke said he and Price have a handful of new ideas they have been kicking around and hope to collaborate on future projects.

“When you trap yourself in a room and get writing, it can be hard to let it go because it’s your baby,” Zschunke said. “But when you work with someone else, you can bounce ideas off each other and it becomes a different monster.”

Though he does not have any specifics about what projects the future might bring, Zschunke does know one thing for certain.

“I just wanna keep making good stories,” he said.