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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Our man in Columbus: Prepping the town for Public Enemies with Johnny Depp
A resident's perspective on the rural Wisconsin town's transformation into a movie set
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Credit:Rod Melotte

OK, raise your hands if this is you.

You have lived in Madison for more than ten years. You have driven north on Hwy 151 more often than you can remember, and have noticed the road sign that says "Christopher Columbus Museum Next Right" so many times it doesn't even register anymore. Yet, you have never made that right turn to drive into little Columbus.

A compelling reason to do so has just been introduced, of course. All of a sudden Columbus is on the radar. I guess having Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and recent Oscar winner Marion Cotillard showing up to shoot a major, block-busting, action-adventure motion picture will do that.

Why Columbus?

You see, this town just a short half-hour drive from downtown Madison has managed to keep almost all of its historic buildings not only intact, but in shape at the same time. Downtown Columbus is lined with beautiful buildings that were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. That's what drew producer and director Michael Mann and Universal Pictures to Columbus to shoot scenes for the John Dillinger saga Public Enemies.

Residents of this tiny forgotten town are all atwitter, of course. It's not like we were looking for attention, but when you have a diamond in the rough you would like someone to look at it once in a while.

They are looking now!

Starting on Monday, the Wisconsin DOT closed access to the downtown area so Michael Mann and company could fix up Columbus to look like 1933 Greencastle, Indiana. Then work on the set began last week. Awnings started coming down, street lights were removed, and yellow lines in the road and curbs were painted over. A tattoo parlor is being transformed into a bridal shop, for example, while the old First National Bank (and now the West James Gallery) is being transformed into the Greencastle Bank.

With this, Columbus, oops, Greencastle will become the setting for a bank robbery getaway scene, scheduled to be shot on Monday, March 17.

As I was personally excited about the movie, and being a writer of sorts, I started a little blog named Public Enemies -- Columbus, with photos of the town's transformation and my take on the entire process. (Another blogger has been snapping photos of the downtown, too, and publishing them on Hollywood Wisconsin, as are the folks at Colonial Carriage Works.)

I even went to a casting call for the experience, but did not make the cut. From reports I am getting from people that did get the call maybe it's good I missed. Some people cast as extras that I have talked to are having odd dreams and can no longer function in daily life, as all they can think about is the movie -- I call it Public Enemies-itis. Even standing in line for the casting call people were stressing out.

Why the excitement? It's just a movie?

This is no I Love Trouble with Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts, which shot around the region in the early '90s. This is Johnny Depp. His last four movies have grossed close to three billion dollars world wide.

Columbus is hopping with movie buffs from around the world. They wander the streets looking in all of the windows of the "new" shops which carry all of the latest products needed to survive and thrive back in 1933. The detail in the construction is truly amazing. And this is only the outside of the buildings.

Houses are also a possibility for shoots, as discovered by my stepdaughter while snapping photos of the crew this week. I was told that Michael Mann actually did do the "picture frame with his fingers thing" at one of the houses being considered.

But the real action will be in the center of town, where Depp's Dillinger will make his escape after robbing a bank, complete with lots of gunfire. Many 1930s autos, including the actual 1932 Studebaker Commander used by Dillinger in his Greencastle heist are slated for the action. Meanwhile, snow has been removed from the outdoors set, and will be replaced with an artificial variety so two police cars can crash into a fake snow bank.

So how are Columbians taking this all in? I laugh at myself at times. I'll be shopping in the grocery store and see someone buying huge amounts of deli food and he looks... different, and both my wife and I will whisper to each other, "Shhhhhh -- I think that is one of the crew." Of course a day later we will see the same guy with his family peering in windows downtown and rubber necking his way down the vehicle-less street.

The city is alive with excitement. The downtown has never been so busy. Hard Heads, a sports bar in the middle of the action is having a gangster-themed party on Saturday night.

If you are planning on trekking to Columbus -- be warned, space will be limited and the actual timing of the shoot is being kept a secret. There's a good chance of rain on Monday, so the schedule will be pretty fluid. You are not guaranteed to see anything, but when entering Columbus you will be diverted to special areas where hopefully you will get to see the set and hear the word, "ACTION!"

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