Justin Baldoni dreamed of making “Clouds” in Zach Sobiech’s hometown.
But when it became financially impractical to shoot in the St. Paul suburbs where the late musician inspired the world with songs and courage, the director insisted on the next best thing: Bring Minnesota to Montreal.
More than a year before the film’s Friday premiere on Disney+, movers rolled into the Sobiechs’ driveway in Lakeland and packed up half of Zach’s bedroom, including Vikings jerseys, guitars, pillowcases, a buffalo doll nearly ripped apart by the family’s dog, and the red plaid shirt the teenager wore when he first shared his chart-topping anthem “Clouds” on YouTube.
All made the trip across the northern border and ended up appearing on screen.
“I not only wanted to respect the family, but I wanted to include them and real things from their lives,” said Baldoni, who played love interest Rafael Solano in the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” before setting his sights on directing. “Doing that creates energy that comes through on screen in ways you don’t even know.”
For Fin Argus, a relative unknown who beat out hundreds of candidates to land the leading role, the most important touchstone was Zach’s crutches.
Even when cameras weren’t rolling, the 22-year-old actor/musician found himself leaning on them in more ways than one.
“If I was confused on what to do, I’d squeeze them to ask Zach to guide me,” said Argus, who also contributed an original song for the movie based largely on excerpts from Zach’s journals and love letters to his girlfriend, Amy Adamle. “I’d say to him, ‘I’m just a vessel. I’m here to portray you the way you hopefully would want.’ ”
Shortly before shooting began last fall, Argus and “Jumanji” veteran Madison Iseman, who portrays Adamle, joined Baldoni for a few days in Lakeland, where they got to know the family. The highlight for both actors was sharing beers in a basement with Zach’s friends and siblings.
“There was less pressure to say the right thing,” Argus said. “We were just kids playing Settlers of Catan. Those moments, when everyone was allowed to be vulnerable, helped the most.”
It wasn’t Baldoni’s first trip to Minnesota.
In 2012, he spent a week with the Sobiechs for an episode of his YouTube docuseries, “My Last Days.” Before he left, he promised his new friend that he’d do everything in his power to tell his story and raise money for osteosarcoma, the rare form of cancer that would take Zach’s life on May 20, 2013.
When Laura Sobiech’s book, “Fly a Little Higher,” came out a year later, Baldoni pitched Mom the idea of turning it into a feature film.
“You certainly have to have a level of trust in the person you’re handing the narrative off to,” Laura Sobiech said. “Justin was the right person because the two of them connected in a really beautiful way. I knew he had the drive, but also the sense of responsibility to present Zach in a way that was true and honest.”
Both Laura and Baldini lobbied state legislators to sign off on tax rebates so the Warner Bros. production could shoot in Washington County. The campaign failed.
“I was really bummed we couldn’t shoot here,” Laura said in a virtual interview from home. “It was this community that got this story to where it is now. I really wanted that to be showcased. But it wasn’t going to happen that way.”
Both Laura and her husband, Rob, did get a chance to visit the Montreal set. Before that, Laura had a coffee date in Brooklyn with Neve Campbell, who had been cast to play her.
Laura and her friends marveled at how the “Party of Five” actor picked up so many of her mannerisms, like the way she rubs her neck when under stress.
But not everything in the movie rings true.
In one scene, the parents have an emotional fallout after Rob arranges for Zach to have a car. In actuality, that argument took place in Mexico. In the film, a climactic concert at Minneapolis’ Varsity Theater is set at the fictional Metropolitan Theatre (Baldoni said Varsity owners wanted too much money for permission to use their venue’s name).
A Stillwater High School teacher played by comedian Lil Rel Howery is actually a composite character representing several key players, including Hubbard Radio executive Dan Seeman, who was instrumental in getting Zach a record deal and putting “Clouds” in heavy rotation on KS95.
“It’s not a documentary. It’s a Hollywood rendering,” said Seeman, who did get to play an extra when he paid a visit to the Montreal set. “What the movie did get right is the essence of Zach and the impact the song had. Those parts were honestly represented.”
The movie’s most authentic moment arrives during the closing credits, with footage of the cast mixing with their real-life counterparts during the last “Clouds” choir at the Mall of America.
“To sing with those people was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life,” said Campbell, who also used that trip last December to visit Zach’s grave site. “That room was full of thousands of people searching for kindness, inspiration and joy. They’re in search of something positive. Zach’s message was that you don’t have to wait to find out you’re dying to start living. Don’t live in fear. Take control of your life. That’s a good message for us right now.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin