The movie “Tuscaloosa” takes place in that Alabama city. But look closely and you might spot a bridge spanning the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. A building on the Carleton College campus. A beach on Lake Superior.
Maybe even the director’s backyard.
Philip Harder shot every scene of “Tuscaloosa” in Minnesota, including key moments in and around his house, one of very few directly on the Minneapolis riverfront. (Stream it at Amazon Prime for $6.99 and iTunes for $12.99.)
Harder has created inventive music videos for Prince and the Foo Fighters and slick spots for Apple and Target. But this is his first full-length feature film, one he’s dreamed about for decades. Making it, he drew on his deep knowledge of the state’s film geeks and fishing spots.
“We were going to shoot it in New Orleans, a place where a lot of Southern movies are made,” he said. “I thought: I’ve shot in Hollywood a ton; I know how you fake stuff. Why can’t we do the same here?”
“Tuscaloosa” was set to hit theaters in mid-March, premiering in the Midwest as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. As coronavirus spread, the premiere was nixed, the fest postponed. So, for now, the film is streaming.
That’s just the latest twist in the plot to put “Tuscaloosa,” a novel by W. Glasgow Phillips, on the big screen.
Harder first read the book two decades ago, unable to predict how it would end. Set in 1972, it’s a coming-of-age story about Billy, a young man who takes a summer gig as a groundskeeper at the mental asylum run by his psychiatrist father. There, he meets Virginia, a wild-eyed patient who reminded Harder of McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next,” the asylum inmate played by Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning turn.
“She’s wild, but is she crazy? That’s a question mark,” Harder said. “She’s thrown into an insane place at an insane time.”
The story is set in a time of political and social upheaval, racial tensions and antiwar protests. The script, which Harder wrote, uses Billy’s friendship with Nigel, a black man who becomes involved with a radical civil rights group, to press issues of privilege. At the film’s start, Devon Bostick as Billy wears sunglasses, bell bottoms and a smirk. By its end, he’s bleeding in the back of a car.
“The book seemed ahead of its time,” Harder said. “It taught me about what we now call white privilege, the idea that racism can be institutionalized generation after generation.”
Stars and budget evaporated
Had Harder made the film in 2008, as he was set to do, he would have had a different cast, a bigger budget. Thora Birch, of “American Beauty,” was eager to play the lead, Minnesota Monthly reported back then. At another point, it looked like Evan Rachel Wood would star. But the economy turned and the movie stalled.
“The money never came,” Harder said.
So he kept making music videos, kept making commercials. But he couldn’t get “Tuscaloosa” out of his head.
A punk rock kid from Wisconsin, Harder shot his first music videos with a Super 8 he bought for $6, then a 16-millimeter camera that was headed for the trash. Even as he took on bigger names and bigger projects — a music video for Matchbox Twenty, a Gap spot starring Johnny Mathis — he kept experimenting with low-budget flicks with friends.
Patrick Riley, the film’s producer, got to know Harder drinking beers in his backyard. “I was just enamored with him having this low-key life in northeast Minneapolis,” Riley said, “while flying around the world making these million-dollar music videos.”
Riley, an entrepreneur and Harder’s neighbor, knew that this time they’d have to create this movie on a shoestring.
“We begged, borrowed and stealed,” said Riley, who declined to reveal the budget.
Veteran producer Scott Franklin, who met Harder in his early music video days, helped with casting. Actor Tate Donovan signed on first as Billy’s dad. Then Natalia Dyer, best known for her role as Nancy in “Stranger Things.” They shot most of the film over two weeks in fall 2017.
“Everything about the schedule was impossible,” Riley said.
But Harder knew the place, the people. Carleton College had a hall that looks like an old-school hospital, its lawn perfectly manicured. Northfield proved to be “a perfect stuck-in-time downtown,” Harder said. Weighing whether to build a set for a scene inside a police station, they decided to try the PNA Hall in northeast Minneapolis.
At first, Donovan was unsure.
“The name of the movie is ‘Tuscaloosa.’ What the [expletive] are we doing in Minneapolis?” he said by phone, laughing. But seeing the Carleton campus convinced him: “It worked out perfect.”
Donovan, known for voicing “Hercules” in the Disney movie and playing Jimmy Cooper in “The O.C.,” talked with Harder by phone and found him to be “very hardworking and very humble,” dedicated to telling a complicated story that deals with racism, sexism, mental illness.
“I trusted him immediately,” and Harder trusted him in turn, Donovan said. “He’s got a great combination of knowing the story and knowing what he wants, and being able to let it all go and let the actors bring what they can to it.”
Late one Friday night during the shoot, Harder called Donovan. “Listen, I know this sounds crazy,” he recalls Harder saying, “but would you mind coming over to my house tomorrow ... ” So on Saturday morning, Donovan headed over, and they shot a few scenes.
“Just him and I,” Donovan said. “I love that.” Normally on a feature film, shooting a scene requires “900 people to sign off on it ... every department has to have a meeting about it,” he said. This felt like guerrilla filmmaking. “It felt like being back in college, making films.”
‘A sacred place’ on Superior
Late in the movie, Virginia instructs Billy: “Take me to the beach.”
Wearing a white dress, she stands on the sand staring out at the blue ocean, the start of a scene that cracks her open.
That ocean is Lake Superior, that sand Park Point. “The sun stayed low,” Harder said, “making it look like morning all day long.”
He had shot there before: “That’s a sacred place for me as a filmmaker.” But the first time, it was in February, with windchill of 30 below.
In the early 1990s, Harder filmed a bleak, black-and-white music video for the Duluth band Low that’s become iconic. The three band members drag a boat across the frozen lake, the footage recalling early silent film. Then there’s the band playing, also in black and white, Alan Sparhawk staring straight into the slow-moving, never-blinking camera.
“Low’s music is so cinematic,” Harder said, “they inspired me to become cinematic.”
Harder and Low worked together for 10 Low videos over two decades, compiled alongside raw footage and outtakes in the 2013 film “Low Movie: How to Quit Smoking.” While editing “Tuscaloosa,” Harder used Low’s tunes as a placeholder. “Then I thought, why not?” The film incorporates new, original music the band wrote, plus rare live recordings that Harder captured.
Working with the young actors on that day in Duluth, Harder quoted a lyric from Low’s “Murderer”: “I’ve seen you pound your fists into the earth.” Bostick took the inspiration literally, pounding his fists in the sand.
That sand’s a little redder than it might have been in Alabama, but it still delivered the same thud.