DULUTH — A romantic montage early in a new Hulu holiday movie finds its couple cuddling while strolling on Superior Street, sharing popcorn at Duluth Candy Co., and peeking from the windows of the train on the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
The sporty rom-com "Merry Kiss Cam" was filmed here earlier this year — and is very much set here.
"This is about as Duluthy as it can get — in all the right ways," said Mayor Emily Larson, who called it a "beautiful love letter to Duluth." "Anyone who has set foot in our community will love dissecting all the locations, the local brands being worn and the small inside jokes in the background."
There are sweeping shots of Lake Superior's shoreline and the photogenic Aerial Lift Bridge mixed with subtle locals-only winks in the movie: the Oliver Inn, Apostle Supper Club, Greysolon and more.
The cast and crew set up in Duluth this past spring. The movie, directed by Lisa France and produced by Mandy June Turpin, landed on Hulu on Thanksgiving Day and is the talk of the town. A thread on Reddit critiques the main characters' willingness to eat snow.
The main characters are a made-for-Duluth cultural mismatch: Danny Carmody Jr., (played by Jesse Bradford) inherited a downtown bar-cum-clubhouse for dejected Bulldog hockey fans (played by Carmody Irish Pub); Jess Woods (Katie Lowes) is a brooding abstract artist whose dead fiancé was the community do-gooder behind the Duluth Art Institute. He's about to get a building named for him.
Danny and Jess get caught on the Kiss Cam during their first date at a Bulldogs' game, and the lip lock that follows seems to be a lucky one. The Bulldogs score, ending their epic losing streak. The more games the couple goes to, the more Kiss Cam-famous they become. And their Jumbotron puckers seem to be guiding the home team toward the playoffs.
The games are played at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center — where local businesses have advertisements along the boards of the ice rink: Vikre Distillery, Toasty's, Blacklist Brewing.
In addition to the handfuls who ended up in the crew, there are featured actors with Duluth ties. Benny Elledge, who plays a Bulldogs superfan, probably didn't have to dig too deep. He studied theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Another Bulldogs booster, played by Bailey Stender, is a regular at Carmody. She grew up in Duluth and got her start in local theater.
The actor providing play-by-play commentary during games is a longtime local sports journalist who has been doing this work at actual Bulldogs' games for decades. "Merry Kiss Cam" is Tom Hansen's first acting gig since a college variety show. His real game days require more improvisation — "you're a storyteller as it happens," he said — but in the movie he relied on the script.
"Obviously the Bulldogs have won several National Championships" in real life, Hansen said. "But that's the movie business, right?"
Christina Woods, the real executive director at the Duluth Art Institute, said she felt her organization was a secondary star of the film. It's frequently mentioned and Jess teaches school-aged children at the institute's Lincoln Park space.
"I love the through-story about the Duluth artist," said Woods. "That was amplifying what we really do. We have an impact in the community and the person being featured was a leader in the organization. I feel like they got us."
A gallery show at the start of the film shows walls filled with Jess Woods' abstract art pieces. In reality, the work was made by new-to-Duluth artist David Austin, who happened to have his work displayed at the Depot's Great Hall on a day when the filmmakers were scouting locations.
"They shouted down from the balcony, 'How would you like to have your art in a movie?'" he said.
The filmmakers ended up renting his pieces — and he and his wife were hired for set design and construction on the opening scene.
Even Danny Carmody's dog, who provides an unconditional ear as he sorts through his romantic woes, is a local. Rory is a scene-stealing 8-year-old boxer-lab mix who lives with Kevin Jacobsen and Annie Harala.
"They gave her time to sniff around the room and get comfortable," said Harala. "She had lots of treats."