Making movie magic in Minnesota: A day on the set of Wilson

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Director Craig Johnson gives notes to his teen actors, including Isabella Amara (seated)

It's not every day you see Laura Dern jump on Woody Harrelson's back to prevent him from beating the hell out of a mouthy teenager, but it's also not every day you see a film coming to life at the Mall of America. 

After plans with another mall fell through, the Mall of America played last-minute host to the film crew behind Wilson, the latest big movie to be filmed in Minnesota. Starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Dern, the film follows the eponymous character as he tries to piece together his family, despite his curmudgeonly ways. 

The movie is based off of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel of the same name, which chronicles several years of Wilson's life through one-page comic-style vignettes. Clowes has also penned the screenplay, but it'll be a more cohesive, fluid story that audiences see onscreen. 

"Dan Clowes did a really wonderful job," says producer Mary Jane Skalski. "If you're familiar with the graphic novel, you'll be able to identify the moments [from the book]... but he's put them in such a way that if you don't know it, it doesn't feel like you keep turning a page."

City Pages spent part of the day on set at the mall, watching movie magic happen and accidentally running into Harrelson.  

Scenes from the set

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From left: Jane Williams, Cerah Tymoshuk, and Beez McKeever

It's day 17 of filming, and the film crew has taken over the first-floor space outside of Nordstrom.

Enormous white sheets hang from the third floor railings like ship sails shielding the ground from the morning sun streaming through the vaulted skylight. Carts teeming with equipment, including cameras, monitors, cords, and props, are packed into a cordoned-off area where mall security guards steer gawking shoppers away. 

There are cafeteria-style tables everywhere, scattered randomly and a bit too close to the black tile fountain nearby. Some of them have half-drunk cups of Orange Julius and Starbucks. One table in particular stands out.

There's a trio of people seated at the central table, barely visible behind a gaggle of plaid and brewery-tee wearing crew members. Behind the table looms a bright Orange Julius sign.

Harrelson dresses the part of the lonely misanthrope trying to win back his ex-wife, scruffy faced with a gray jacket and retro hipster glasses. Dern wears a bright pink tee with an off-black vest over a denim pencil skirt and some tights. A wardrobe stylist comes by and snips away some stray thread from Dern's sleeve, just above her faux bicep tatt. 

Across from Harrelson and Dern at the table sits Isabella Amara, who plays their daughter Claire. Vibrant purple streaks run through her dark hair, covered by a broad-brimmed hat, which is getting lint-rolled by a crew member now. Her glasses match that of her character's father and her clothes look like something out of Ghost World for the 2010s. 

Director Craig Johnson crouches between Dern and Amara, animatedly coaching the trio through the scene. He steps back and takes his place behind a covered monitor, about to watch things unfold. 

"Nice and quiet everybody," a crew member shouts to the crowd, waiting for the chatter to die down. "Roll sound." The clapperboard snaps and marks the first take. "Rolling!"

Hysterical bawling pierces through the white noise of the mall. Amara cries her eyes out, shoulders heaving as Dern and Harrelson try to reason with her, comfort her. But they're all in character, and it's almost alarming how loudly Amara's sobs heave and cut through the entire rotunda as her character receives some unexpected news. 

It's 10:35 a.m. when the cameras start rolling, and they're done with the first take in two minutes. Johnson walks over to Amara and gives her some feedback as she gets a makeup touch-up after blotting her tears with a tissue. Thirty seconds later, it's time for take two.

In the background, there are guys just out of the camera's eye directing extras to start milling about and having silent conversations with each other while Amara's sobs crescendo. 

"And cut." It's 10:46 a.m., and it's time to tear down that setup so the crew can focus on another angle, this time facing Harrelson and Dern. Within seconds, the crew deftly wheels huge cameras around the roped-off space, re-lights the area, and sticks a faux restaurant sign on top of the Dr. Martens storefront. By 11:16 a.m., Amara's proved herself a trouper, cries still echoing outside of Nordstrom.

A few minutes later, it's time to set up for a different scene to rehearse before the real thing happens. This time, Amara's sitting by herself on a bench when another teenage girl and two guys come up to her, taunting her until she pushes past them.

At that point, Harrelson and Dern burst out from behind a pole, next to a sunglasses kiosk. Harrelson grabs a kid in a red shirt by the collar, knocking him into the kiosk. Dern attempts to pry Harrelson off the teen, but to no avail. 

The director calls cut and gives the actors some notes on blocking, and they're at it again in a minute. This time, however, Dern (who is slightly taller than Harrelson in some black ankle booties) actually hops on top of her character's ex as he roughs up the teen, sending them all tumbling to the ground. 

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They all come up laughing and dusting themselves off, ready for the next practice run. 

Why Minnesota? 

Skalski says that the Minnesota Film Office convinced Wilson's team that the Land of 10,000 Lakes was the right backdrop for their story. But that's not the only reason the movie crew is buzzing around the Twin Cities right now. 

Without Minnesota's Snowbate program, Wilson wouldn't be here. 

"I won't lie," Skalski says. "The fact that Minnesota has an incentive plays a big part to shoot here." Thanks to the incentive program, the production will see a 25 percent return on what they spend here. 

The "Snowbate" program makes Minnesota a competitive market for filming, which could mean a lot for the local economy as well as the local community of filmmakers and performers.

It takes a lot of infrastructure and know-how to get things rolling on any film set, especially in places other than entertainment capitols like California and New York. If there isn't the necessary equipment for filmmaking already around, it's less likely those spots will be used as movie locations.

However, Skalski explains that the more films are made in places like Minnesota, equipment houses will be likely to see a prime opportunity to get their foot in the door of a burgeoning cinematic community. Some of the most recent notable films shot in Minnesota include Dear White People, A Serious Man, and The End of the Tour (which also filmed for a short time at the Mall of America). 

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Even though the graphic novel Wilson is based off of takes place in Oakland and Chicago, the Twin Cities ended up being the perfect spot for the film. "We wanted it to feel like a mid-size city," Skalski says. They needed a progressive city that had varying levels of change and gentrification to chart the passage of several years time. While the script doesn't specifically name Minnesota as the setting, Skalski says they aren't hiding it either. (Case in point: Filming at the iconic mall.)

"It just gave us every look we wanted," Skalski says of Minnesota. All told, the movie will shoot at over 50 locations around the Twin Cities, including a prison. "Prisons are always difficult places to shoot," she says, but explains that when the crew came out to look at locations they realized they could make it all work right here in Minnesota.  

"We looked on paper at a number of places, but this was the only place we came and looked at on the ground," Skalski says.

Living up to our Minnesota Nice identity, Skalski says that the community at large has been very supportive and accommodating of the film crew. She also revealed the crew has enjoyed eating their way through the Twin Cities, giving a shout out to Bar La Grassa, 112 Eatery, and the Local as some of their favorites.

"We all really love it here. We just keep reminding ourselves you can get quite a doozy of a winter." 

Dressed for success 

Most of the crew working on the film is actually homegrown talent, according to Minnesota Film and TV's executive director Lucinda Winters. There are over 100 crew members on board, with about 75 percent hailing from Minnesota as part of the film and television crew union. 

Days on set can be long, but Wilson's Minnesotan trio of wardrobe stylists are game. 

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A day in the life of a wardrobe stylist starts early, sometimes before dawn. At a previous shoot for Wilson at Como Town, stylists Jane Williams, Cerah Tymoshuk, and Beez McKeever had to be on set at 5 a.m. in order to get things ready. 

"We're in early and out late," says Williams, who also used to do costume work in New York. Tymoshuk adds that work days usually average out at 12 hours, but can sometimes stretch to 16 or more. 

For Williams and Tymoshuk, the day begins with prepping the clothes that have been chosen by the designer and setting them up for the lead actors to get dressed before scenes. Once on the set, they pay attention to shooting and keep track of wardrobe continuity throughout the film. If a character is wearing an established costume — one that's already been shot in a previous scene — then it's just a matter of making sure the costume looks the same and pieces don't get misplaced.

McKeever gets called on set for the bigger days when there are anywhere from 25 to 100 extras who need to be dressed. McKeever has been in the industry since the mid-'90s, so she's a seasoned pro having honed her chops on productions like Mystery Science Theater 3000. There's an art to choosing the right clothes for background extras: no bold colors or loud logos should take away from the principle action in a scene, but folks milling about having their silent-yet-animated conversations in the background should still look natural.

"Our designer has chosen a really muted color pallet," McKeever explains. "We have the talent bring in multiple options for us, so I pick out something that's not quite 'mud' but something that's a muted color that tells our story." She references the scenes they're working on that day, noting that a place like the mall showcases a "weird variety," from fashionable young people to normcore parents. 

Above all, Tymoshuk says their job is to "anticipate the needs of the actors and make sure they're taken care of with their clothing."

A chance encounter with Woody Harrelson 

Before the morning's 10 a.m. call time for press, I once again unwittingly stumbled into Harrelson. (You can read about that first Harrelson sighting here.)

While looking for my contact at the crew's off-site "base camp" before going over to the set, I was told to find someone on a headset in the sea of trailers. Looking at my watch and realizing it was nearing call time, I made a beeline towards that person across the lot.

"Good morning!" said a familiar, chipper voice in my periphery.

"Good morning!" I replied, realizing only afterwards who'd greeted me on his way to another trailer.

Harrelson asked how I was doing, and I found the words to ask him the same without losing my cool. Just as quickly as the conversation began, he was off doing last-minute preparations before a van brought him over to the mall. 

It was a small, kind moment: The type that gives another drop of truth to all the stories about just how darn nice Harrelson has been to everyone during his time here. While there's no shortage of Minnesota Nice toward the folks shooting Wilson, it's good to know there's some coming back, too.

Got any great Harrelson or Dern sighting stories? Share them in the comments below or send tips to Tatiana Craine


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