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In boost to Minnesota film rebate program, 'Wilson' shoots across metro

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Filming at MOA
Director of Photography Fred Elmes, center with camera around neck, other crew members and actor stand-ins prepared to shoot a scene of "Wilson" at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., July 14, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The biggest movie to be made in Minnesota in several years is being filmed currently in the Twin Cities.

  Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern star in "Wilson," an adaptation of a Dan Clowes graphic novel. It tells the story of a cynical middle-aged man who after the death of his father tries to reconnect with his drug-abusing ex-wife and discovers a daughter he has never met.

  Scenes for the film were shot Tuesday at the Mall of America. The shooting was a hopeful sign for Minnesota, which has struggled to compete with other states and Canada that offer bigger rebates to filmmakers.

  Such mega subsidies are becoming less common, making Minnesota a more attractive film location.

  Publicists for "Wilson" tightly controlled access on the set at the mall. But the presence of movie-industry bigwigs created a huge buzz for people who work there.

  "Love that it's at the Mall of America!" exclaimed Karen Ingram, who works at the nearby Nordstrom restaurant.

  She's not the only one stoked about a little Hollywood coming to Minnesota.

Lucinda Winter
Lucinda Winter, executive director of the the Minnesota Film and TV Board, chatted while visiting the set of "Wilson" at the Mall of America.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

  For Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, the movie set validated efforts to persuade state lawmakers to provide incentives for the film industry. It also showed what can happen when Minnesota woos filmmakers with promises that they can find just the right scenes in flyover country.

  "This sort of marks to me, 'We're back,'" she said.

  Winter has a lot riding on the success of such a high-profile movie. Over the years, the "snowbate" program to offer film companies rebates that reimburse them for up to 25 percent of production costs in the state has ebbed and flowed.

  In previous years, when the Legislature cut funding to the program, films that could have been set in Minnesota were shot in places with more generous incentives. Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino," for example, went to Detroit.

  But Winter was particularly heartbroken when Minneapolis lost "Juno" to Vancouver, Canada, because of that city's competitive tax incentives.

  "As I'm watching 'Juno,' this Minnesota story, and I see mountains in the background in Vancouver, seriously I wanted to stab myself with a fork," she said. "It was just so disheartening."

New sign
A store sign was changed for the filming of a scene of "Wilson" at the Mall of America.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

  Minnesota lawmakers eventually restored funding for rebates to film companies and a couple of years ago the incentives fund received its largest appropriation of $10 million.

  Over the next two years, Winter will have over $5 million to work with. Still, the effort to ensure continuing state funding is difficult. That's why Winter hopes "Wilson" demonstrates to lawmakers that program is paying off.

  Behind her at the Mall of America was a gaggle of camera and sound people, many sporting plaid and facial scruff. Nearly three-fourths of the crew are local people and the vast majority of acting roles also went to Minnesotans.

  The cameras focused on a small table outside Nordstrom where Woody Harrelson, who plays Wilson, sat across from his character's teen daughter, who is sobbing uncontrollably. But producers promise that the movie will be funny.

  St. Paul also proved an ideal setting. Producer Mary Jane Skalski, a Detroit native, said her team shot scenes at Mancini's Char House & Lounge, the Como Town amusement park and the downtown farmers market.

  "We wanted it to feel like a mid-size city — not too big, not too small," Skalski said. "We wanted to find a progressive city that had changing elements."

Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern
Actors Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern were viewed on a monitor while filming a scene of "Wilson" at the Mall of America.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

  Although the graphic novel on which the film is based takes place in Oakland, Calif., Skalski said it was more important to find a city that wasn't overtly East Coast or southern. She said the script covers a number of years in which Wilson's neighborhood gentrifies, and those changes needed to look convincing.

  Skalski said her team probably would not have chosen Minnesota if it weren't for the rebate program or the scouting work done by the Minnesota film board. She said she was surprised to find such "phenomenal" acting in Minnesota, adding that about 70 percent of the roles went to locals.

  That's good news for Brian Suerth of Minneapolis, who is working as the second camera assistant. Suerth, who called "Wilson" the biggest movie he's ever worked on, said he is excited by the idea of more movies coming here and showcasing his home state.

  "We've got beautiful locations, we've got a talented crew base," he said. "And I think it's also for me personally neat to see something set some place other than California, New York and the usual places."

  Suerth said more unconventional film settings lend themselves to more interesting movies.

  The Minnesota Film Board hopes to next land a TV series. They say a hit could put the Twin Cities on the map the same way "Breaking Bad" did for Albuquerque.