Augie Alumnus writes and directs movie, “love letter to South Dakota”

While experiencing cabin fever during a Chicago snowstorm, alumnus Andrew Kightlinger ‘08 encountered a strange vision. He imagined two people walking alone together through the wide open South Dakota plains. On the left, an “ogre of a man” held a beer bottle, and on the right, a woman in a yellow bikini walkedg a dog.

“I asked myself ‘Why are those two characters walking through the prairie together? What’s the story there?” Kightlinger said.

From that image, Kightlinger’s latest movie Tater Tot and Patton was born.

Tater Tot and Patton, written and directed by Augie alumnus Andrew Kightlinger ‘08, will begin showing at 7:00 p.m. on March 8, 9 and 10 at the Wells Fargo Cinedome. Photo from

Made with the producers of Napoleon Dynamite, the film follows Andie (played by Jessica Rothe from La La Land and the Happy Death Day franchise) as she is sent to live with her cantankerous and boozy uncle (Bates Wilder) on his South Dakota ranch.

Filmed north of Pierre, the indie movie has done well for itself on the festival circuit, winning best screenplay at the Vail Film Festival, best film at the Beloit International Film Festival and best film at the South Dakota Film Festival.

Kightlinger, a South Dakota native himself, has been directing movies for the past eight years and currently lives in L.A. But this past week, he was back on his old romping grounds—the Mikkelsen library—poring over notecards for his next big project.

He’s returned the plains to promote Tater Tot and Patton, which will premiere across South Dakota this weekend. In Sioux Falls, the film will show on March 8, 9, 10 at the Wells Fargo CineDome. Watch a teaser here.

Recently, The Mirror sat down with Kightlinger to chat about the movie, which he calls “a love letter to South Dakota.”

Q: How did you arrive at the title Tater Tot and Patton? Was this a title you had envisioned all along?

A: “When I write something, I have to have a title. I can’t write anything without a title because the title sort of encapsulates the theme of what I’m doing. Even if it’s a working title and changes in the end, there has to be a theme there. “Tater Tot” is sort of emblematic of the Midwest. And one of my best friends, Wade Gemar [alumnus ‘08 and Augustana’s current assistant director of international admission] was nicknamed  “tater tot” throughout college. We still call him tater tot today. It is a name I always knew because of him, so I just appropriated it for the girl in the movie. Her nickname is tater tot and that gave her this funky little backstory. The name “Patton,” I sort of rolled with it. I wanted something that would roll off the tongue.”

Q: The story features both an “outsider” and an “insider” clashing in South Dakota. Having been raised in Madagascar before moving to Pierre at the age of eleven, do you see yourself in either character?

A: “I think that was one thing that I was definitely exploring. What inspired me, other than my love for South Dakota, was that notion of being an insider and an outsider. The fact that I didn’t grow up here, but I did at the same time—that’s always been an identity that’s confused me in a way. It’s not like I’ve been on the floor crying about it, but it’s been something I’ve wanted to explore. [I’ve wanted] to capture both what it’s like to be on the outside but also what it’s like to be on the inside, to show those from both perspectives. And to see what happens when those two butt heads essentially.”

Q: Why film the movie in South Dakota? How does the state’s geography impact the direction of the film?

A: “I think that art and especially good art is always personal. So, in order for me to make a great movie, I had to make it about somewhere that I’m familiar with, so South Dakota made sense. One of my favorite things about growing up here was the landscape and the horizon. What I loved doing in Pierre was just going into the bluffs. All 360 degrees around you, there’s nothing. It gives you both this feeling of insecurity and isolation, but at the same time, it can fulfill you and inspire you. It’s that sort of duality that’s always intrigued me—that it could give you these two opposing feelings and build this conflict inside of you. It’s something I wanted to explore in the film itself, how the endless horizon and landscape are both a symbol for isolation and healing at the same team.”

Q: Jessica Rothe has recently become more popular with her recent appearances in La La Land and Happy Death Day. How did she come into this role?

A: “She went to Boston University at the same time that I did and I saw her for like 60 seconds at a monologue reading. I remember in that moment saying, ‘that girl’s going to be famous someday.’ However, we never got to work together because we were so busy, and it just never worked out. But four years later, as I was writing this movie, for some reason she kept popping into my head. She just kept popping up, so I sent her the script out of the blue, which she admitted was creepy at first. But after she read it, she said it was beautiful. We’re still friends to this day and have coffee just about every week. She’s great, she’s down to earth and she’s one of those actresses that is capable of doing both drama and comedy.”

Q: To many Americans, South Dakota is considered devoid of culture. By having filmed multiple movies in this state, would you say you are arguing the opposite?

A: “That’s a big reason I made this movie. I’m on the board for the South Dakota Arts Council, and one big thing that’s frustrating to me is the fact that people don’t think great art can come from here. And honestly that’s the biggest reason why I did it—to show people you can make great art here. You don’t have to be in Los Angeles or New York In fact, I find that to be a disservice to my way of creative thinking. It’s easier for me to write here. South Dakota is my creative mecca.”

Q: What can people take away from this movie?

“That compassion is a powerful thing. When I was a senior here, Maya Angelou came and spoke. I remember waiting in the audience for her and it was packed—everybody was thrumming, the crowd was chattering—but nobody had noticed that she was already on stage because she was so little. But then she started to raise her hand and point her finger, and that’s when people noticed. The room fell silent and we were all just tractor-beamed underneath her finger. Then she said something so simple but so powerful. She said, ‘there is a light.’ And I thought ‘what?’ And everybody else was hanging onto that last word. She began talking about the lights in our life … She talked about how we’re all lights to each other and how we’re all on this dark, cosmic highway called life, and how whether it be a parent or grandparent or stranger, we’ve positively influenced each other. That just spoke to me in such a raw way that since then, it has been the theme of everything I’ve ever done. And so, Tater Tot and Patton is basically about two lights meeting for a particular moment in time.”

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