Wisconsin is burning up in the midst of full-blown movie fever this week, as the film Public Enemies arrives in the state for the first of what is expected to be many shoots around Wisconsin. The downtown of Columbus, a small town located less than 30 miles northeast of Madison, is being transformed by production crews in preparation for shooting over the next couple weeks. Its residents, along with numerous movie fans, expectant extras, the media, and people simply hoping to glimpse the film's star Johnny Depp are getting ready for the opening of what can easily be considered the biggest Hollywood production ever in Wisconsin.
For those who don't already know, Public Enemies is a new production from Universal Pictures that tells the story of the final exploits of the notorious Depression-era gangster John Dillinger and the efforts of the FBI to end his rash of bank robberies and jail breaks throughout the Midwest in the early '30s.
It is based on the book Public Enemies (subtitled America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34) by Bryan Burrough, a widely acclaimed true-crime history published less than four years ago. Moreover, the movie is being produced and directed by Michael Mann, a UW-Madison alumnus who is renowned both for his meticulous approach to filmmaking, as well as for his predilection for filming crime epics like Heat and Collateral, or in a procedural vein, The Insider. In other words, it bears all the signs of aspiring both to prestige pic and blockbuster status.
Most significant, though, at least to many folks talking about the film, is its cast. For starters, Dillinger is being played by Johnny Depp, a leading role that may be his most direct character after nearly a decade of iconic and idiosyncratic turns as Sweeney Todd, Jack Sparrow, and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. Playing opposite him as FBI agent Melvin Purvis is Christian Bale, another star who is returning to the screens as Batman in The Dark Knight this summer, and is also set for leading roles in the Killing Pablo adaptation and as John Connor in the next Terminator sequel. Rounding out the top of the poster and playing Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette is Marion Cotillard, the French actress whose acclaim for a Best Actress Oscar win as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose was followed last week by a controversy surrounding remarks she made last year about 9/11. It doesn't really get much more tabloid or big screen than this.
Rounding out the cast so far are a handful of well-known supporting actors playing infamous gangsters (Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Frank Nitti) who were caught up with Dillinger during the crime wave.
While several major Hollywood productions have been shot in Wisconsin over the last few decades (notably The Last Kiss and Back to School in Madison and Mr. 3000 and Major League in Milwaukee), there's been nothing of this magnitude or star power ever shot in the state. No wonder there's so much excitement.
The role of new tax credits for filming in the state, among the most generous in the nation, is the essential factor in the production coming to the state. That the first film to take advantage of these offerings is so high-profile is about as big of a score as the law's backers and other film boosters could have hoped for.
Public Enemies is set to be shot in multiple locations around Wisconsin over multiple weeks this spring. While Universal has not and likely will not release many details about its plans, several locations are already known.
The Rhinelander Daily News has reported that a resort in Manitowish Waters will be used as one location; this town is also the site of the Little Bohemia Lodge, the historic site of a shootout between Dillinger's gang and the Feds and another likely location. Other locations that have been reported as sites include a bank building in Richland Center and the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Other sites spoken of regularly include the Capitol in downtown Madison, as well as other locations in Ashland, Oshkosh, Milwaukee, and elsewhere. One location that doesn't look to be in the running is Racine, the site of a 1933 robbery by Dillinger. The primary attraction of selected locations, notes director Mann, is the historic building exteriors found in the targeted cities.
Other scenes are set to be shot in the north side of Chicago, and at the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana, both the sites of actual locations in the Dillinger saga.
The show starts in Columbus, though, where a major bank robbery scene is currently scheduled to be shot on St. Patrick's Day in the heart of the Columbia County seat's historic downtown. As reported last week by WISC and the Portage Daily Register, word of the city's scouting and subsequent deal with Universal swiftly led to set visible preparations, as production crews got to work on the signage and other trimmings of businesses on historic buildings in its downtown. The set preparations accelerated this week, with the Daily Register reporting the closure of streets over March 10-20 and the scheduling of the shoot on Monday, March 17.
The Mayor of Columbus speaks
Quite a bit of information about these plans is detailed in a message sent by Columbus Mayor Nancy Osterhaus to the city's newspaper and other media. She writes:
Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi… now those are names of people we usually don't connect with Columbus. But it's official. Day One of the filming of Public Enemies is set to happen right here in our city. What excitement. What a wonderful opportunity. Public Enemies is a Michael Mann film based on a book by the same name written by Brian Burroughs. It tells the story of some of the 1930s gangsters including John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd. This was also the time period of the birth of the FBI. During 1933 and 1934, John Dillinger was Public Enemy Number 1. (Maybe Dillinger can give me a break for a couple of weeks ?.)
The location manager for Wisconsin said that we will feel like we are being invaded when the full film crew arrives in town. I can hardly wait for the invasion. Construction crews are on site transforming our downtown business area. Once the transformation is complete, there will be semis loaded with lights, camera, action pulling into town. We estimate over 300 people working on location on the first day of shooting including extras, car owners and drivers, technical crews, actors, directors, and producers. It's hard to imagine! It will be fun!!!
I am very impressed with the professional group of people from Universal Studios who are in Columbus doing the transformation work. They have put a lot of time and resources into creating plans for our downtown. Each building will be a unique business that would have existed in 1933-4. In addition, Universal has assigned a representative for Columbus who works with business owners and the city to solve problems. We have a construction foreman leading the set changes. After filming is complete, he will lead the team to restore our downtown. Universal is using our local resources whenever possible. They are eating in the restaurants, filling cars with gas, buying lumber at the lumber yard and hardware at the hardware store. They have contracted with Heartline Ambulance for their services. This is making a huge impact on our local economy!!
And have you noticed all those TV cameras in town. We have been featured on channels 3, 15, 27 and 47 this week. On Tuesday channel 12 out of Milwaukee came to do a feature for their Sunday evening magazine show. The host, Mike Anderson told me that as he approached our downtown he knew immediately why Hollywood chose Columbus. He was very excited about our beautiful historic architecture and spent all day filming historic buildings and interviewing people around town for their feature.
I'm getting lots of questions and here's what I know:
Columbus, enjoy your moment in the sun. It is good for us all to have a chance to receive national attention for our beautiful city.
- Highways will be closed to through traffic from March 10 - March 20. Most of the downtown streets will remain open to local traffic, but the four corner area will be closed off for construction so you will need to find alternative routes.
- Downtown businesses will mostly remain open. You may need to park back a bit and walk up to the business. Of course parking will be limited in the downtown area over the next couple of weeks while the crews and filming are working.
- Universal Studios is hiring some of our city staff to perform work for them. They will be paid by the City and Universal will reimburse the City for our expenses. They are using the services of Public Works, Water & Light, Police, Fire Department and have contracted the ambulance to stand by during construction.
- The City of Columbus is fully insured under Universal Studios during construction, shooting and take down.
- The studio is planning to make "fake" snow in our downtown area. They told me that they believe that their snow looks more "real" than our snow… got to love Hollywood!!!
- At this point filming is expected on March 17th.
- Construction includes new awnings on many buildings, changing glass to make it glare resistant and changes to facades, doors and window frames. Building owners will be given the option to keep the awnings and changes, or their building will be returned to its original state.
- There are many old cars in this movie. Cars will be coming in from all over the state and will need to be "dressed" for the movie. This involves getting them dirty so that they look more natural... now I've been able to do that pretty well lately all by myself.
No more information has been released by the production, but one Columbus business owner has announced that one scene is set to be a bank robbery. The building housing the West James Gallery was formerly the First National Bank, and will stand in as one again in a sequence featuring Depp pulling off the job and taking leave in a getaway car. Pending weather and other circumstances, the shoot in Columbus could last longer than a single day, meanwhile.
The Greencastle robbery getaway car
On October 23, 1933, Dillinger and his gang nabbed some $75,000 from a bank in Greencastle, Indiana. It's this robbery will be one scene shot in Columbus. What's special about this scene is the getaway car to be used by Depp: a 1932 Studebaker Commander owned by Historic Auto Attractions.
Museum director Eric Hoffman issued a press release on Monday about the vehicle's impending use in the film. He stated:
Universal Pictures Public Enemies starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis will be using the actual car that John Dillinger used in the robbery of the Greencastle, Indiana bank. The film will be released in 2009 from director Michael Mann who was responsible for such films as Miami Vice, Collateral, and Heat.Hoffman went on to note that the car was to be picked up from the museum on Tuesday morning in preparation for the impending shoot.
The car will be loaned to the film from Historic Auto Attractions in Roscoe, IL. It was John Dillinger's getaway car when Dillinger and his gang robbed the Central National Bank in Greencastle, IN, in October of 1933. It was the largest bank robbery up to this point in history, totaling over $75,000. This robbery will be retold in the film and feature the actual car from the actual robbery. It is sure to be one of the greatest pieces of trivia in film history!
That's hardly the only car scheduled to be used in Columbus, though. As reported by Melanie Conklin in the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday, the full scene will feature some 50 vehicles, including one car (a 1931 Dodge to be driven by Madison architect Kelly Thompson-Frater) that was used in pursuit of Dillinger back in the day.
Casting calls continue in Wisconsin
Antique cars such as these were the target of the first casting call held in Madison, back in late January at the Overture Center. This was followed a couple of weeks later by another at Monona Terrace seeking extras for upcoming shoots in the production, including that scheduled for Columbus.
Multiple hopefuls attending the casting call in downtown Madison have stated that they've been contacted by the production and solicited to be extras. "Unfortunately, they only need me for one day, as a pedestrian, but hey, I'm in!" writes one excited fan.
More casting calls in Wisconsin are one the way, with two scheduled for this weekend. The first is at the Italian Conference Center in Milwaukee's Third Ward from 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday, March 7. The second will be at Carl Traeger Middle School in southwest Oshkosh from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 8. Instructions for those trying out at these calls are the same as those issued for the one in Madison back in mid-February, with rough height and weight requirements, along with a request for hopefuls to turn out in approximate period dress and hair styles.
There are also numerous casting calls that have been announced in the Chicagoland area.
Shooting in Madison?
One major question is whether or not any scenes in Public Enemies will be shot in Madison itself. The Capitol downtown is where scouts for Universal have focused their energies in the city, specifically scoping out offices and meeting rooms that can stand in as Washington, D.C. locations featuring J. Edgar Hoover, one of the primary cast members that has yet to be announced.
The state has not yet received any formal request from Universal to shoot inside the Capitol, though one may be filed at any time.
Meanwhile, Enemies author Burrough gave voice a month ago to what has been a prevailing online rumor about the part, namely that Hoover would be played by Val Kilmer, an actor who appeared in Mann's Heat in 1995. An interview last week with a principal at the special effects studio KNB bolsters this rumor, with the FX man claiming Kilmer was involved with the production. Of course, nothing has been announced nor confirmed at this point.
Rumors of movie star sightings are already running rampant around the state, and will only increase as the St. Patrick's Day shoot in Columbus approaches. The Rhinelander Daily News reported on February 28 that Depp spottings were already running rampant in the north woods of Wisconsin. Today, the Portage Daily Register noted that fans of the actor are already making pilgrimages to Columbus. Just wait until he actually does show up in Wisconsin.