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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Johnny Depp and Christian Bale make Wisconsin swoon with Public Enemies talk
UW alumnus Michael Mann prepping '30s gangster epic
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John Dillinger
John Dillinger

Wisconsin movie fans and media alike have been animated over the last few weeks with word that a major film from Universal starring Johnny Depp could be shot in the state this spring. The film is Public Enemies, a gangster epic set during the massive Depression-era crime wave personified by John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, Alvin Karpis and the Barker family. It is being directed by Michael Mann, a UW alumnus who discovered movies in Madison during the golden age of cinema on campus in the '60s. He was nominated for an Oscar as director of The Insider and producer of The Aviator.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, a detailed account of the rash of bank robberies, kidnappings, and shootings, along with the law enforcement response led by J. Edgar Hoover, that is often called the "Public Enemy" era. This term was initially promulgated in a 1930 list of gangsters from the Chicago Crime Commission that started with Al Capone, and was popularized a year later in the title of a movie that made a star out of Jimmy Cagney.

Today it's Johnny Depp's involvement that's attracting massive attention for Public Enemies. A subject of speculation in Hollywood since his connection to the role of John Dillinger was announced in early December, the film took a turn toward Wisconsin on the day after Christmas when the Baraboo News Republic reported that representatives of Universal Pictures were scouting locations to shoot the film in the Sauk County city to the northwest of Madison. The draw is the faade of the Baraboo National Bank and Courthouse Square downtown, both of which could pass as settings for 1930s bank robbery action.

Baraboo is, in fact, only one among several Wisconsin communities that have been scouted by representatives for Mann as potential locations for Public Enemies shoots. Others include banks and jails throughout the state, with the location scouts stirring considerable interest in each town they visit. In addition to the initial December inspection in Baraboo that was followed by a visit from Mann himself on January 5, scouts have made visits to all corners of the state.

A bank in Eau Claire, the old Vernon County Jail in Viroqua, the women's jail for La Crosse County and the Lafayette County Courthouse in Darlington have all been mentioned as well. On Wednesday, January 9, a production scout visited the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, reported the Oshkosh Northwestern, which said he also looked at the National Bank Building and the newspaper's own building in the city on Lake Winnebago. Then on Friday, The Daily Press in Ashland reported that a scout recently asked about, and shot photos of, the Northern State Bank, art-deco Bay Theatre and other locations around the town on Lake Superior. That area of the state was used as a location for the 1998 Sam Raimi film A Simple Plan. Doug Moe at The Cap Times even lobbied for Madison as a location.

All of this has generated considerable speculation about where and when Public Enemies might bring Depp to Wisconsin.

The fact that Wisconsin is even being considered as a production location is a result of new entertainment industry incentives that went into effect on January 1. Consisting of a 25% investment tax credit, a sales tax exemption and a 25% refundable tax credit for production costs, and other state assistance in the form of permits and security, these incentives are intended to build the entertainment and creative industry in the state as costs climb at more established locations. In return, productions would bring dollars to production locations and potential jobs for film crew personnel based in the state. The Film Wisconsin Incentives Bill was passed in May 2006, the successful first campaign of the newly minted Film Wisconsin task force.

Primarily through the Commerce Department and Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton's offices, the state has been immersed in negotiations with Public Enemies producers over the specific incentives package to be offered for any shoots this spring. The lieutenant governor was a vocal supporter of the incentives bill and continues to be involved in publicizing its benefits and successes (the latest being a screening deal with Marcus Theatres).

Lawton was set to make an official announcement as to specifics of a deal last Wednesday, but the press conference was abruptly canceled as the negotiating continued. The Lieutenant Governor's office confirmed last Friday that it had not yet been authorized to make any announcement regarding a deal or production locations in Wisconsin, but that there should be a statement within a couple of weeks.

While Universal and the state have not yet announced any specifics, information is flowing in the growing film industry hub of Chicago. The film trade publication Ruth L. Ratny's Reel Chicago reported on January 3 that the production schedule for Public Enemies will include shoots in Wisconsin. It reported there are plans for 45 days of shooting in Chicago and another 35 days in Wisconsin. The Little Bohemia Lodge, a resort in Manitowish Waters in Vilas County, was also mentioned. The still-standing lodge was the site of an infamous 1934 shootout between the Dillinger Gang and the FBI in which Baby Face Nelson killed Special Agent W. Carter Baum during his getaway.

IATSE Local 476 Motion Picture Studio Mechanics president Dick Oakes says he's heard about the basics of a shooting schedule for Public Enemies that will include some 45 days in Illinois and another 35 in Wisconsin starting around March 18 and ending around June 15. "It's a long time," he says. "You've got to figure it's around 80 days, and if you do five day weeks, that will be 13 or 14 weeks of shooting. I haven't talked to the production people, but that's what everybody has been telling us."

Oakes also notes union members in Chicago have been getting calls soliciting interest in working as crew on the film. "I don't know who they are or how many they have hired," he says. "We hope that we get a lot of Chicago people and a lot of Wisconsin people, and we definitely feel that we have a number of qualified people that can fill these positions."

Meanwhile, casting for Public Enemies is moving forward. A big splash came last Thursday when Variety noted Christian Bale is in talks to play Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who led the manhunt for Dillinger that ended at Chicago's Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934.

Actors in Chicago can also look forward to the production. Tenner Paskal & Rudnicke Casting of the Windy City is casting numerous roles in Public Enemies. A role selection list for aspiring cast members includes nearly 100 characters. These include Purvis; Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette; gangsters Harry Pierpont, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Tommy Carroll, Sam Cowley, and Ed Shouse; FBI agents W. Carter Baum, Clarence Hurt, Charles Winstead, and Martin Zarkovich; Chicago madam and informant Anna Sage and prostitute Polly Hamilton; Dillinger's attorney and Platteville native Louis Piquette; Al Capone's bodyguard Phil D'Andrea; Will Rogers; and J. Edgar Hoover.

The Chicago area is also the hometown of Michael Mann, who grew up in Highland Park, and is the setting for his debut feature, Thief, as well as a primary shooting location for his 2001 biopic Ali and the Christian Bale-as-Batman sequel The Dark Knight due out this summer. Meanwhile, Public Enemies wouldn't be the first John Dillinger movie shot in Wisconsin. That distinction goes to Dillinger, a 1991 made-for-TV movie. Starring Mark Harmon in the title role and Sherilyn Fenn as Billie Frechette, it was shot in Milwaukee, Mequon, and East Troy. This new film is at an altogether different level, however.

I happily join in the hype over any Public Enemies production in Wisconsin. I grew up in a Minnesota community that once was the site of a longtime hideout for many of these gangsters. And Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors. Crime thrillers are his wellspring, from early films like Thief and Manhunter to recent works like Collateral and the big-screen version of Miami Vice. His '90s triumvirate of The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider are all epic examples of the costume, crime, and procedural genres, respectively. Public Enemies looks like it plays to his strengths, justifying all of this anticipation.

Should Public Enemies shoot here this spring with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in the lead roles, it would be the highest-profile film ever shot in Wisconsin. That's not a bad way for the state to kick off its new subsidies offerings for the entertainment industry.

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