Lights... camera... Wisconsin
by: Steve Prestegard
Northeast Wisconsin is known for many things, but a location for filming is not one of them. That perception may change this year, thanks to four movies that either were filmed or are being filmed in Northeast Wisconsin.
The best known is "Public Enemies," which depicts gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd in their 1930s Midwest crime spree. "Public Enemies," which was filmed in Oshkosh and several other Wisconsin locations during 2008, is scheduled to be released around July 1.
According to published reports, "Public Enemies" was estimated to bring in more than $5 million in economic impact, offset by the $4.6 million in tax credits the production received, during filming between mid-March and June.
Burgoo Films of Neenah has produced "The Hungry Bull," described as "an off-beat, whiskey-soaked comedy that chronicles the misadventures of a lovable pair of misfits searching in vain for love and the perfect fish fry."
Two other films also are in the works — "Nephilim," about a priest and a detective searching for fallen angels during the end of the world as depicted in the Book of Revelation, and "Project Solitude," about a professor’s psychological experiment.
These movies have taken advantage of a state effort to promote the state as a place to film.
Film Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization, is "working to create a thriving motion picture, television production and video game industry in the state." Film Wisconsin’s Web site includes a list of film crew members and vendors, a synopsis of state labor laws, a weather almanac, an in-development guide to shooting locations, and a list of Wisconsin-based film festivals, including the Wildwood Film Festival in Appleton April 18.
"The Hungry Bull"
The Hungry Bull is a legendary restaurant in Menasha."It used to be a place you’d go after bartime," says Hunter Adams, a Neenah native who studied film at the University of Wisconsin and in France for one year. "There’s only six seats in the place, so there’d be a line of people behind the seats, and as one seat popped up, another person would take it."
Adams, the producer, director and co-writer of "The Hungry Bull," was "definitely intrigued by the idea of shooting a film in the Fox Valley. I’d never seen a film shot in the Valley. There’s a lot of interesting landmarks."
Adams a Menasha resident Kip Irish wrote the film about a man who leaves town after his father commits suicide. Several years later, the man returns "with the idea of looking for the girl he left behind," says Adams, only to discover that she is dating his best friend in high school. The hero then moves in with his late father’s best friend, a widower.
"We kind of sculpted a storyline and characters around the storyline we had in mind," says Adams. "They’re kind of playing fictional versions of themselves. Most of them are actually from the area."
Adams and Irish are submitting "The Hungry Bull" to film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, with the idea of getting general release in the spring, with a PG-13 or R rating. "Creating these worlds — making a storyline happen — is what intrigues me," says Adams. "It’s a totally new universe, with these characters."
"Nephilim" and "Project Solitude" are being produced by Appleton native Susan Moses, a veteran Hollywood producer. Moses was a banker in the 1980s when "the banking industry was changing — it was becoming more electronic and less personal — and I wanted to be doing something that was more creative." She became the president and chief financial officer of a company that financed films of less than $2 million, "and being involved with that company, I became more interested in the creative process."
Moses describes the producer’s role as "the catalyst that helps to connect the writer, the director, the talent, the key creative members of the crew, and the money. Without one of those things, you don’t have a movie."
The production design for both movies is being done by Cyndee Sweatland, who grew up in Green Bay and lived in New York and Boston before returning to the area. Sweatland describes her job on the movies as designing "the eyes and visual for all the scenes you see," including such areas as artwork, props and the movie’s color palette.
"My father was an extraordinary artist, and that’s what I wanted to do," says Sweatland, who created scenery for the Harlequin Players productions in which her father acted. "I knew before I got to high school that I wanted to do scenery for theaters." After living in New York for 10 years and then working in a Boston commercial scene shop, Sweatland returned to the Green Bay area in 2000 for family reasons.
"Nephilim" is the melding of movies and comic books. Writer and movie director Danny Wilson plans three movies; the first scene of the first movie will start where the last of 12 comic books ends. Computer games and merchandise also are planned.
"Nephilim’s been my life for over 10 years now, so I’m looking forward to shooting this," says Wilson. The genesis of "Nephilim" came in a Catholic high school, where Wilson, bored with math class, would put comic books in his textbooks. When those were confiscated, Wilson substituted the Bible. When Wilson got to the Book of Revelation, a depiction of the end of the known world and the second coming of Jesus Christ, "I thought, this is great; there should be a movie about this. I wanted to depict Revelation in a comic-book universe."
"The movie’s about a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding priest and an ex-homicide detective and two archangels. The priest and the detective work together to stop fallen angels from ending the world by bringing back the Nephilim."
"Nephilim" stars Danny Charvet, who played Craig Field on "Melrose Place" and Matt Brody in "Baywatch" and appeared on "Dancing with the Stars," as Fr. Markus. Huyen Thi, Wilson’s wife, plays Sue Lynn, a detective looking for her disappeared daughter. Veteran character actor John Savage also stars. The detective "makes a specific decision that gives her the ability to see in her dreams what the succubus is doing, and she follows those visitors," says Wilson.
Wilson’s experience with comic books has carried over into how the movie was created, through storyboarding, drawing of each scene before it’s filmed. "With storyboards, you can show what you want to be [computer-generated special effects], and what you don’t," says Wilson. "There’s no second-guessing."
"The storyboards Danny has are a rarity," says Moses. "It’s the technique Alfred Hitchcock used — every frame of a movie was framed before the film ever rolled."
Filming on the $5.2 million movie will take place over one week in Milwaukee, one week in a warehouse-turned-soundstage in Green Bay, and three weeks on location in the Green Bay area.
"Since it begins at the end of the world as we know it, we felt we had to do it in an area that wasn’t as pretty as it might have been," says Moses. The movie was set to be filmed in Bulgaria until Moses attended a film locations expo in Los Angeles, where Film Wisconsin officials were exhibiting.
"We realized that the dollar vs. the euro had flip-flopped, and the production company wanted to be paid in the euro standard, and so we were going to be paying a premium for everything we were buying there," says Moses.
The Wisconsin film credit, she says, "is cash — it’s not just a tax credit — it’s cash in your pocket, so that makes it a pretty appealing thing."
Director of photography Bernd Heinl performed the same role for "Milwaukee, Minnesota," which was filmed in Milwaukee. "He was familiar with the architecture we were looking for, at least in the Milwaukee area," says Moses.
One challenge was finding a church for a filming location. Neither the Green Bay Catholic Diocese nor area Lutheran officials allowed the production to film in their churches, Wilson says.
"There are followers of the Nephilim that are ufologists, there are followers of the Nephilim that are conspiracy theorists, there are followers of the Nephilim that are religiously inspired," says Moses. "The curiosity factor behind the Nephilim is pretty phenomenal."
"Project Solitude" stars Eric Roberts as a professor conducting a psychological experiment with a family of seven in a secluded woods. The film also stars Wisconsin-born Richard Riehle, who has acted in more than 200 films and TV episodes, perhaps most notably as the quartermaster Kendric in the Civil War film "Glory."
The co-writer and director is Rustam Branaman, an actor and producer with a long list of film credits.
"As I was acting, I always admired great directors," says Branaman. "I watched all the great films, and I was like, man, I’d like to do that someday." The spark came when Branaman worked with actor, director and producer Billy Bob Thornton, who had just written "One False Move," which won six awards and was nominated for seven other awards. "He was the first guy who was sort of the catalyst for me to write," says Branaman.
"Project Solitude" is a thriller about a sociology professor who, says Branaman, "decides to do a human variable experiment involving a central authority figure." The professor takes a family of seven into "an extremely isolated woods for 10 days to live off the land. And then people start dying, and no one knows who’s killing people."
Filming in Suamico ended Dec. 23. The film is projected to reach theaters in late 2009, with probably a PG-13 rating
Coming to a theater near you
Independent filmmaking has become popular in the past decade. "The problem with independent filmmaking these days, so many people are making independent films that it’s not making the film, it’s getting a return on your investment," says Adams.
Financing, says Adams, "is always difficult. The nice thing was we were operating at a low-enough budget — our cinematographer was a NYU graduate; he was looking for something to put his name on — we got him basically for beer."
The cinematographer is now producing music videos for Kanye West. Adams’ next project is called "Cheesehead," a "crime thriller/love story," which Adams plans to shoot next winter. Adams is considering creating eight 30-minute Web episodes to "create an online universe for the series." "We’re scouting for a small town," he says, "somewhere in Wisconsin."