Minnesota gets a new movie anti-hero in 'Wilson'

Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson play a divorced couple.
Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson play a divorced couple who meet 17 years after they divorce and seek out a daughter put up for adoption in the film, "Wilson." It film was shot at locations around the Twin Cities.
Wilson Webb | Twentieth Century Fox

Minnesota gets a new anti-hero this week.

Wilson is a curmudgeonly misfit, the kind of guy who will sit down right next to the only person on a bus, or in a cafe, and insist on talking. And usually about stuff the person doesn't want to hear.

He's the title character in a new movie, opening Friday in Minnesota, that was shot entirely in and around the Twin Cities.

He assails one poor man on a train who just wants to listen to tunes on his phone.

"Working man, eh?" Wilson asks. "Forty years from now you are going to be on your deathbed, saying 'Where did it all go? HOW DID WE END UP LIKE THIS?'"

"There's a lot of seats, you know, in this train," says the man.

"Wilson is a lonely, difficult, prickly, loudmouth, blowhard bachelor, who has alienated pretty much everyone in his life," said "Wilson" director Craig Johnson.

Wilson's creator, Daniel Clowes, describes him differently: "Wilson is his own man. He's one of the few characters I have created that really feels like a living, breathing, person."

Woody Harrelson, director Craig Johnson and screenwriter Daniel Clowes
Woody Harrelson, left, director Craig Johnson and screenwriter Daniel Clowes on the set of "Wilson."
Wilson Webb | Twentieth Century

Clowes added that the character is someone we all recognize from our own lives. He created Wilson in a critically acclaimed graphic novel. He then wrote a screenplay based on that book.

It's the story of how Wilson reconnects with his ex-wife, Pippi. She'd divorced him 17 years earlier. She then reveals they have a daughter, Claire, whom she put up for adoption.

When he finds out Claire lives nearby, Wilson barges into the restaurant where a flustered Pippi is working the dinner rush.

"I'll lose my job!" she hisses, as customers stare disapprovingly at the disturbance.

"Look! Look! It's your daughter!" Wilson insists, waving a picture. "Isn't she beautiful?" Pippi pauses, amazed at the image of the teenager in front of her.

"Excuse me," a diner interrupts. "We have tickets to 'Wicked,' and — "

"Hey [expletive]! Shut the [expletive] up! Can't you see that this woman is having a profound moment?" yells Wilson. The man backs off.

It's quintessential Wilson, and that's what attracted director Johnson to the project. "He is a jerk, but I saw him trying so hard to find his place in the world and I found that very moving," he said.

Johnson, who had just finished the indie hit "The Skeleton Twins" with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, knew he needed a special actor for Wilson. Someone who could play an unlikable character but have the audience stick with him for 90 minutes.

"I started with Woody Harrelson," Johnson said. "He was the only name on my list. And I don't know what I would have done if he had said no."

Laura Dern
Actor Laura Dern received a makeup application before filming a scene of "Wilson" at the Mall of America in Bloomington.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

Harrelson signed on, as did Laura Dern for the role of Pippi. Then Johnson faced the problem of where to shoot. The original "Wilson" story was set in the Bay Area of California, but making it there was way beyond the $4 million budget for his film.

"We had 54 locations in this movie," he said, "which is a lot for a 30-day shoot. And Minneapolis-St. Paul had everything we wanted, but more importantly it just had the right flavor."

Minnesotans will recognize locations from all over the metro area, including the Mall of America, the West Bank, Lake Minnetonka, Stillwater and many others. There's also a host of local actors in the film, and 70 percent of the crew behind the camera was made up of local talent too.

Johnson said another reason to shoot in Minnesota was the state's film incentive program, known as the Snowbate. It returns up to 25 percent of expenditures, which in the case of "Wilson" was just over $1 million.

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 on July 14, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News file

"We wouldn't have been able to do it there without the Snowbate," said Johnson.

After a screening at the at the Sundance Film Festival, Lucinda Winter, executive director of the Minnesota Film and Television Board, was pleased to hear other filmmakers ask where "Wilson" had been made.

"And when he said we shot it in Minnesota, you could tell there was a lot of surprise in the room, and that's a good thing for us," she said. "Hollywood is like everywhere else. They talk, and it's a referral business. So if you can get a studio like Fox Searchlight in, it makes everybody's job here easier."

Winter said there is already one movie scheduled to shoot in Minnesota this year, and she has high hopes for a second. She said details will be released later.

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