DULUTH - The blanket of a snowlike substance in the side yard of a Tudor revival on East Superior Street had nothing to do with this city's record-setting winter and everything to do with its burgeoning identity as a place to film holiday movies in the spring.
Filming wrapped Monday on "Rescuing Christmas," starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Sam Page — the 16th day of creative work that has spanned from Lincoln Park to a borrowed dining room in a home built by the turn-of-the-century Duluth architect I. Vernon Hill. It's the latest by MarVista Entertainment, the production company behind the super Duluth-y rom-com "Merry Kiss Cam" that was filmed in Duluth a year ago and released on Hulu in November.
"Rescuing Christmas" is the story of a Grinchy photographer who wishes away the holiday — and it works. Everyone's memories of Christmas are erased — even references on the internet. Like "Merry Kiss Cam," it's set in a city named Duluth — a nod to the hundreds of people who are involved in the production, starting with mostly Minnesota actors and crew members. It includes 116 locals who filled in as extras last week at Bayfront Festival Park.
In Hollywood, a lot of films are shot in Canada — but set elsewhere. Producer Mandy June Turpin said she likes to keep Duluth in the role of Duluth.
"Duluth is such a picturesque place, why not? It's a cute town that people want to visit," she said.
Turpin, the producer on all of the MarVista Entertainment films that have been shot in Duluth — which also includes the horror story "Body Language" — came by way of the Catalyst Content Festival in 2018, where she won the comedy competition with the series "Doxxed." She returned to Los Angeles with a recurring thought.
"Duluth, Duluth, Duluth," she said.
Her interest was helped along as she learned from the Upper Midwest Film Office about the stackable film incentives offered by both the city and St. Louis County. A percentage of money spent by productions is eligible for rebates. And now that she has been here a few times, Turpin has familiar faces in the crew and trust from the community, she said.
Minneapolis actor Rod Kasai plays a well-intentioned matchmaker in "Rescuing Christmas" — but he wouldn't reveal much more at the risk of dropping a spoiler. Kasai said he's found a welcoming community and clean, crisp air.
"It's scenic, beautiful and everyone has been a real joy to work with," he said. "You can tell there is a passion to get more projects like this because everybody is really happy."
Much of filming was done in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which was dressed in makeshift snow to resemble a small and seasonal downtown. Late last week, the action shifted to Bayfront Festival Park for a few days.
The low temperatures and wind were early obstacles, Turpin said, in addition to Duluth's lack of a production facility that can be retrofitted with sets.
On the final day of filming, the cast and crew took over the lawn of a house in the Endion neighborhood with lights, a craft services table, heat lamps and rolls of white insulationlike fluff in the role of snow. Crew members crammed into a kitchen with laptops on several surfaces as they monitored light and offered prompts for lines.
On the screen, Page and Kasai were incredulous about this thing called "Christmas," and the idea of its signature sweaters. Kasai's character mispronounces "Christmas," stressing the second syllable, before Cook's character storms out of the room.
MarVista will likely be back. Turpin said she recently met with the director of a hockey movie based on a true story — one Turpin would like to film in Duluth.