Oscar-nominated films have Kansas connections

How can we draw a line from a little kid in Sweden — a co-star in “The Impossible,” a movie set in Thailand — all the way back to Kansas?

Well, you’ll have to pay attention. And keep in mind that most everyone’s first name starts with a J.

First, let’s go back to 1988-89, when a 17-year-old Swedish foreign exchange student, Jan (pronounced “yawn”) Sundberg, was living with John Ploger’s family in Kinsley, Kan. Sundberg graduated high school in Kinsley (east of Dodge City), then attended Bethany College in Lindsborg before getting a degree from the University of Oregon.

Sundberg spent eight years in this country and eventually returned to Sweden. He married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried and had a son. These days he works at Sweden’s biggest bank.

Meanwhile, he kept in touch with the Plogers and has returned frequently. (“I love the Midwest hospitality, common sense and beautiful open spaces,” Jan says.) Last spring, John and his wife, Susan, visited Jan and his family in Stockholm.

Now back to that line we were drawing. After the Sundbergs heard about a movie casting call for children, Jan’s wife, Jeanette, took their little boy, Johan, then 4.

“Johan had by then been in a McDonald’s commercial and wasn’t shy in front of the camera,” Jan tells us. “He is also quite a good listener,” which Jan attributes partly to parenting skills he picked up from the Plogers.

“The Impossible,” based on a true story from the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean in late 2004, concerns a British family — on vacation in a resort village in Thailand — and their desperate efforts to reunite in the wake of the devastation.

The mother (Naomi Watts, a best actress Oscar nominee) and her oldest son encounter a crying boy named Daniel — played by Johan — and rescue him from some rubble, then deposit him up a tree for safety.

The blond, blue-eyed Johan was 5 during his six weeks of filming. He’s now 6.

Child stunt doubles were available, but for the scene in which Daniel has to be plucked from the tree, “all the kids were scared to do it,” Ploger says. “So he played that one himself.”

The Sundbergs got to know Naomi Watts and saw her again recently at the movie’s opening in Spain.

Johan now has his own bank account, “a tremendous start on a college fund,” Ploger says. The boy is personable and laid-back, and his family wants to keep him that way. He just finished another TV commercial, but his parents aren’t sure they want him becoming a child star.

Dad Jan, by the way, made a cameo in “The Impossible”: When young Daniel is reunited with his father at a makeshift hospital, Jan got to play him.

Jan’s old host dad reports that “The Impossible” hasn’t made it to southwest Kansas yet. But when it does, you can’t blame the Plogers if they’re caught pointing at the screen and whispering excitedly.

Riding with Lincoln

Turns out that several guys from the Sunflower State appear on horseback in “Lincoln,” but it’s the appropriately named Paul Steed who’s front and center — well, right of center — in a widely seen publicity still from the movie.

The photo depicts a somber presidential visit to a Civil War battlefield, with best-actor favorite Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe. But Steed, who grew up in Gardner, is prominent, too.

Steed, 44, who now lives in southeast Kansas, around Cherryvale, has been a horse-riding extra in movies and TV productions since he was in college. That’s where he met friend David Carrico, who later started Western Trooper Productions, which not only makes period reproduction leather accoutrements — saddles, saddlebags, etc. — but can also provide a film production with professional horsemen.

“It’s not steady work. You can’t count on it,” says Steed, whose regular job is working a cattle ranch (and no, not on horseback). “But it’s fun, and not too many people get to do it.”

For “Lincoln,” which is up for 12 Oscars, Steed was part of a group of 20 or so horsemen from Kansas and Oklahoma. They filmed in Virginia for about four weeks in November-December 2011.

Lincoln’s tour of the battlefield late in the war “was the major scene we did,” Steed says. Shooting it took several days. The men behind Abe were the president’s mounted guard.

“I think they were trying to show his agony over the war dragging on,” says Steed, who has seen the film just once.

Another scene has the guys and their steeds following Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln as they’re riding in a coach.

“A lot of times we end up being blurry,” Steed says, laughing, “because they’re focused in on the main characters.”

Naturally, when he tells someone he’s been in movies — half a dozen or so, plus some documentaries with Kansas journalist Bill Kurtis for the History Channel — the standard response is, “ ‘Oh, did you meet so-and-so (celebrity)?’ Most of the time, we don’t spend a lot of time on the set in relation to how long it takes for the whole movie to be made.”

And often the main actors may not even be in a horse scene.

“We’ve met actors, but it’s not a social thing,” Steed says. “Everybody’s there to work.”

Steed and some of his horseback brethren play a cavalry troop in this summer’s “Lone Ranger” film (shot last summer and starring Johnny Depp as Tonto), but “I have no idea what the movie’s gonna be like.”

The horsemen’s part “may turn out to be 3 to 4 seconds of a movie and you spent three or four days shooting it.”

By the way, Steed’s beard in “Lincoln”? Absolutely authentic.

“That was part of the deal. They wanted all of us in full beard.”

But no, he doesn’t usually wear a beard, and no, he didn’t like it.

“I shaved it off the last day we shot,” he says.

He helps populate Middle-earth

Robotics engineer Derek Scherer had a hand in making “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which picked up three Oscar nods, including visual effects.

So, we wondered, which “Hobbit” creatures did Scherer and other special-effects wizards bring to life on the big screen?

Well … he can’t say. He signed a nondisclosure agreement. (Scherer also worked for the Army as a robotics researcher, a civilian position for which he had top-secret clearance — and the military seemed less strict about secrets than the movie people, he says.)

Besides, he doesn’t want to get crosswise with Weta Workshop, the New Zealand special effects firm that hired him. Weta also created the effects for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Avatar,” among other films.

Scherer, 30, grew up in Olathe and recently moved back here (to Overland Park) after a decade on the East Coast. He spent two months in New Zealand in late 2011, and he still marvels at “what a rare treat it was to work on a big-budget movie like this that had a large animatronic portion to it.”

“Practical effects,” he points out, not computer-generated stuff.

“There is a certain charm to little hand puppets in front of the camera,” he says, as opposed to schlocky effects that look like they were produced by “someone messing around with free software on the computer.”

While he was at Weta’s animatronics department, he also worked on two other films: the upcoming Superman movie, “Man of Steel” (due in June), and “Elysium,” a Matt Damon sci-fi flick (August).

Scherer’s company Golem Group provides “custom robot solutions” as well as film/haunted house/theme park special effects and other services. He spends some of his time thinking about how robots can make everyday tasks easier. Like, for instance, driving our cars. Or folding our laundry.

Who wouldn’t love that?

And he’s on a mission to help us navigate all the information floating around. Organizing it “is a very important part of surviving in this content-rich society,” Scherer says.

His contribution to a better-organized Web is Entertain Tech Wiki, a website he started with articles on topics such as stagecraft, video games and animatronics. (Get there through derekscherer.com.)

Since “The Hobbit” opened in December, he has seen it twice, once in 3D.

And yes, of course he stayed to watch his name roll by in the credits.