The spirit is at home
This story appeared in the December 2013 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
“I use an uppercase “C” on Cheesehead intentionally,” John Mitchell writes in an email. “It is my opinion that this has become a title of sorts, one that millions of people now embrace and thus, just like titles such as Mister or Misses, President or Governor, or pretty much any other title one is given, it should begin with the first letter capitalized in order to show its value to the person holding it as a matter of respect.”
Mitchell, a native of Rice Lake, Wis., is a Cheesehead by birth, but for the last 20 years he’s been a resident of California, working in the film industry. Homesick for Wisconsin’s seasons in the summer of 2010, an idea came into his head and stayed stuck there: he wanted to travel around his home state, the one that has his heart, to discover what it means to be apart of Wisconsin’s culture, or, to be a Cheesehead.
“I was having a conversation with a dear friend, a Bears fan from Chicago of all things, and suggested to him how awesome it would be to drive around Wisconsin, taking all the backroads and pulling over in whatever town you came across just to check out the local food or beer, and see what kind of people you could run into,” Mitchell said. “By the end of the day, it made perfect sense to call it “Cheeseheads: The Documentary,” since I’ve been proud to be a Cheesehead for as long as I could remember and the story I worked out was about being in love with where you are from.”
Now, almost three years later, “Cheeseheads: The Documentary” is being trimmed over the next couple of months into the shape of a feature movie, “one that is both entertaining and informative, while hopefully saying something meaningful about being from a place and culture that you love,” Mitchell says.
The idea that wouldn’t leave Mitchell alone turned into a journey that brought him to nearly every nook and cranny of the state, meeting and talking with over 300 people, recording over 100 hours of footage for the film and racking up nearly 30,000 miles on the country highways and backroads of Wisconsin. It’s an odyssey about searching for an intangible idea through its physical descriptors, but also about better defining what it means to be a Cheesehead.
“Prior to that, I had been frustrated with the lack of understanding of what it means to be from Wisconsin, even more so, what being a Cheesehead was all about,” Mitchell says. “Outside the Midwest, for the most part, everyone thinks we’re just a bunch of fat, drunk idiots wearing funny foam hats and not much else in below freezing weather.
“And yes, we do enjoy doing just exactly that on gameday, but that’s only because we’ve spent the rest of our week working hard to afford the time and money to allow ourselves to play hard. You see the stereotype during Packers games even today, where they focus the cameras on the eight people who are wearing the hat, forgetting the 80,000 others in the stadium, and another 20,000 out in the parking lot who couldn’t get tickets, who don’t wear the foam hat, but still show off their Cheesehead pride in their own unique ways. Make no mistake, I love the foam hat Cheesehead. It has become an iconic symbol of Wisconsin. And hats off, pun intended, to Ralph Bruno for coming up with it, but being a Cheesehead had always meant so much more to me than the symbol it became on TV. So the idea struck that we’re so much more than a funny foam hat, and I went with it.”
“Cheeseheads: The Documentary” will feature plenty of Packers-specific superfans and highlight the team’s overall statewide importance. For Mitchell, it was about meeting people who live here and love it, making instant connections and lifelong friendships with folks he hadn’t met before interviewing them.
“Traveling has always been high on my list of things to do, for work, for art, for fun. It’s a life experience thing. Get out there and see how other people live, what you might find along the way, how your mind can expand from those experiences,” Mitchell said. “And there’s nothing like the open and oft times winding road to spur your thinking. It has always been a sort of Zen Driving thing. Sure, you had a destination in mind, but the path you take to get there isn’t always the one you mapped out at the start of your journey. I had done a similar thing while on vacation in other states, even in British Columbia, but not with a documentary idea in mind. Of course, I wasn’t born and raised in those places, so traveling around Wisconsin became so much more meaningful once I set out on this journey with an idea and camera in hand.”
“Another thing would be the finding of common ground when first meeting someone,” Mitchell adds. “When you travel outside of Wisconsin and see someone wearing a Packers or Badgers shirt and there’s a mutual understanding between two people who’ve never met before and will likely never see each other again, yet inevitably the term Cheesehead comes up and you’re proud to know each other for those brief moments. As I went around the state, that wasn’t hard to find.
“But what I did find that was even more rewarding were the differences you find all over this state, be they ethnic, religious, or in what people do for a living. But the most interesting part about that would be the blending of cultural differences, this sort of merging, dare I say assimilation, of cultures into this even grander culture we now call a Cheesehead. And despite our reputation for the Wisconsin accent, it surprises a great number of people when you say, ‘Which one?’ Beyond that, everyone here has a story to tell, and if you wait for the punchline, damn near every one of them is fascinating, and more often than not, brings a smile to your face, or sometimes even a hearty laugh.”
Mitchell wants to begin screening the film (with accompanying tailgates), once it is finished, in different locales around the state sometime in the fall of 2014. Now that his travels are coming to an end – for the documentary, at least – he says the labor of love that making a film by yourself has to be was well worth it because of the subject matter.
“Ultimately I like to think of this as a love letter to Wisconsin. And much like raising a child, when taking on any artistic project of this nature, any sizable artistic project really, there are a good number of days when happiness is a theory that escapes reality,” Mitchell says. “Even so, the positives have vastly outnumbered the negatives. I have met so many wonderful people along the way, made some dear lifelong friends in the process, and have taken so many chances out of my comfort zone that I can’t help but be a better person for it. Getting to interview a sitting Governor of Wisconsin in the state capitol, mayors from around the state, legendary retired Packers players, a great number of business leaders, brewmasters, cheesemakers, and most importantly, an incredible amount of hard-working people who proudly call themselves Cheeseheads? That’s something anyone would be thrilled to have been involved with.
“It is about enjoying the journey, about the people you meet along the way, the friends and family who support you no matter what, and about being a part of something so much bigger than one’s self. There’s also the great food, the great sports teams, and the best damn beer and cheese in the world.”