It's a frigid, snowless dusk at the northernmost end of Loring Park, the dawn of the shooting day for Stuck Between Stations. Along Willow Street, a hamlet of trailers sit with their rear hatches flung open, the cargo holds sheltering camera gear, lighting rigs, and a few crew members taking refuge from the whipping wind. Just a half-block up, heated by a gas generator, is a Dutchman RV, from which director Brady Kiernan emerges into the cold with the night's first cup of coffee.
He strolls down to the basketball courts, brightly lit by flooders mounted on the backboard. A skeleton crew of a half-dozen grips is wiring a boom mic for the night's first scene—a walk-and-talk between star and co-writer Sam Rosen and Zoe Lister Jones, the female lead. Kiernan peers at a monitor on a dolly camera to frame the shot—beyond the darkened penumbra where the shooting lights end, and above a treed horizon, the lighted spire of St. Mark's Cathedral hits the twilight sky.
Stuck Between Stations is the dream of its cast and crew, a 50-strong band of actors and producers, cameramen and grips, composed almost entirely of locals. It's a homegrown indie feature that was written by Rosen, a young local actor who cut his teeth at the Jungle Theater before trying his hand in L.A. and New York City. It attracted Kiernan, a Minneapolis director who made his name on Doomtree documentaries and P.O.S. videos. It boasts a roster of local producers in Spencer Kiernan (Brady's brother), Todd Cobery, and Jasmine Reid, who has been active in local film for almost a decade. And by its first days of shooting, it's a project that has attracted the star power of big-print names like Josh Hartnett, Atmosphere's Slug, and Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos.
"It came from a place of desperation," says Rosen, bellied to the bar at Uptown's Muddy Waters beside Brady Kiernan two days after the Loring Park shoot. Rosen and his co-writer, Nat Bennett, had a script in development hell, and their patience had run out. But when he tells the tale, he hardly seems put upon. "We just got frustrated with waiting and waiting for a bigger-budget production. We wanted to make something now."
It took Bennett and Rosen two months during spring of '09 to turn out a script, a comedy about a soldier returning to Minneapolis on grief leave, who spends one night exploring the underbelly of the city with a long-lost friend. And when it came time in June for Bennett and Rosen to find a director, they knew where to look.
The Minneapolis film community, because of its relatively modest size, is a tight braid of cast and crew. Put in a few years on local productions, and you'll likely have been connected, at least tangentially, to many of its major players. Rosen had worked with Kiernan on a previous feature, which debuted at 2009's South by Southwest, and Rosen knew that he'd find a willing confederate in the veteran local filmmaker.
Kiernan liked the script. He wanted in. By the start of autumn, he had a pre-production schedule, a cast, and a crew. He was ready to shoot.
"This project has been a collection of serendipitous turns of events," says Kiernan. "We just happen to know someone who knows someone who can get us into First Avenue to shoot on a Friday night. And we just happen to know someone who knows someone who knows Slug. We're blessed."
Despite being a top-flight market in theater, literature, and music, Minneapolis has a film community that is often overlooked. After a spate in the '90s that saw major studio productions coming to Minnesota three times yearly, the 2000s have seen the stream choke to a trickle.
The drought of feature-film action in Minnesota is due in part to the tax rebate rate offered to filmmakers by the state. While neighbors like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa offer rebates of between 35 and 48 percent of every dollar a filmmaker spends within their borders, Minnesota's rate is a modest 15 percent. With a few notable exceptions like A Prairie Home Companion and A Serious Man, the Twin Cities have struggled to attract film crews.
"My dream would be for Minneapolis to turn into Austin, Texas," says Kiernan. "Austin has Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and John Sales making films, building a feature film community there." He shrugs. "The thing Minneapolis doesn't have yet is Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and John Sales."
Stuck Between Stations sits in a brief shooting lull. After 10 days at First Avenue, the Walker, and Loring Park, a day in New York awaits. If all goes well, the film will wrap in early November, when Kiernan and his colleagues will tour it to festivals like Sundance and Toronto in the hopes of securing distribution. As Kiernan points out, a success for Stuck Between Stations will be a victory for local film.
"Minnesota needs a breakout indie film to have a sustainable scene," he says. "It needs a director to have success, and want to make another film here."
Kiernan smiles, holds up his hands, and crosses his fingers.