'A love letter to Wisconsin': After a pandemic detour, 'Small Town Wisconsin' is ready for its in-person premiere in Milwaukee
Filmmaker Niels Mueller is a little surprised "Small Town Wisconsin" is going to debut on the big screen during the summer movie season.
Shot four years ago in Wisconsin, the independent movie isn't a franchise, doesn't have big-name Hollywood stars and isn't in any way connected to a comic book.
"I don't have anybody wearing capes in this film," said producer-director Mueller, a 20-year TV and movie veteran who grew up in Milwaukee and Whitefish Bay.
What Mueller does have is a movie that he was determined would depict the heart and humanity of Wisconsin.
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“There aren’t a lot of films that are made about people from our part of the country, and when you do see films set in Wisconsin or in the Midwest, they’re often made with an outsider’s eye and mannerisms and accents are exaggerated and there’s this, 'Aw shucks, look at the quaint people in the Midwest' kind of feeling, and I just wanted to avoid that … ," Mueller said.
“I wanted this film to authentically capture Wisconsin.”
After two years of screening in all-virtual film festivals — including the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival — "Small Town Wisconsin" is getting its theatrical premiere June 3 at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre, complete with a red carpet and appearances by the movie's cast and crew.
After a one-week run at the Oriental, "Small Town Wisconsin" will open in 17 Marcus Theatres across Wisconsin on June 10, the same day the movie will be available nationwide via on-demand services.
"Small Town Wisconsin" centers on a delinquent, far-too-often-drunk father (David Sullivan, "Primer") who, on the verge of losing custody of his young son (Cooper J. Friedman), takes the boy on one last road trip from their up-north hometown to the golden city of Milwaukee.
"Everything good comes from Milwaukee," father explains to son, "beer, Bucks, Usinger's."
Bill Heck ("I'm Your Woman," "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs") plays the deadbeat dad's best buddy, who goes along for the ride to keep his friend from going off the deep end. Kristen Johnston, the Whitefish Bay native and Emmy-winning co-star of TV's "Third Rock From the Sun" and "Mom," also stars, and Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt has a cameo.
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While "Small Town Wisconsin" has its comic moments — part of the trip to Milwaukee involves hunting for former Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas' house — at its heart it's a story about a man coming to grips (or not coming to grips) with a drinking problem, and what it's costing him.
It's also "on some level … a love letter to Wisconsin," Mueller said.
"There's a warmth and a beauty to Wisconsin that I wanted to be the backdrop for a story of struggle," he said.
Reminiscent of 'CODA'
The movie was made from a script by Wauwatosa writer Jason Naczek that had been put on Mueller's radar a decade earlier by a good friend from his days at UCLA's film school, director Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "Nebraska"), who is one of the executive producers on "Small Town Wisconsin."
"I approached Jason many years later and said, ‘I’ve never forgotten about the script,’" Mueller said. "Jason is a really wonderful writer. He wrote blue-collar Wisconsin really well … and he had this story I loved.”
With Naczek's blessing, Mueller — whose credits include "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," the 2004 Sean Penn drama that screened at both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals — adjusted the story to foreground the father's struggle with alcoholism and his prospects for a path forward.
"The film is absolutely about the possibility of redemption, and it has hope," he said.
In that respect, "Small Town Wisconsin" is reminiscent of "CODA," the heart-filled family drama that took home the Academy Award for best picture earlier this year.
"It's a family in struggle that is working toward some kind of healing," Mueller said. "It seems like there's an appetite for films that have that kind of message."
Shot in southeast Wisconsin
"Small Town Wisconsin" was shot in the summer of 2018. Palmyra, East Troy and Mukwonago stood in for the unnamed up-north town where the dad has burned nearly all his bridges. American Family Field and the Pfister Hotel have prominent cameos in the Milwaukee portion of the story.
But Mueller wanted more than Wisconsin settings; he wanted his cast to soak in the spirit of the state. Co-producers Scott Foley, from Marinette, and Josh Rosenberg, from Green Bay, reworked the shooting schedule so the cast could spend four weeks together rehearsing in Wisconsin.
The strategy worked better than Mueller had expected.
“I remember this one Friday night," he recalled. I had no plans for dinner, and I said, ‘I’ll call Kristen, see what she’s doing.’ She’s not picking up her phone. I called David Sullivan; he’s not picking up his phone. I called Bill Heck; he’s not picking up his phone.
"They’d all gone out to a lake house and spent the weekend together, just hanging out. They became a family unit, the actors — you can’t direct that. It was a charmed production, that’s all I can say.”
Pandemic forces a rewrite
However charmed the shoot was, COVID-19 forced a rewrite in plans for the movie's release.
“We were literally in the middle of our sound mix when the pandemic hit, and suddenly, everybody’s closing up shop — Cannes is closed, South by Southwest is canceled — and we were just facing this huge dilemma of, 'OK, now what do we do?'"
The production team huddled together and decided: “Why don’t we just hit the festival circuit hard? A lot of the big, nonmarket festivals are going virtual, and we just wanted to get this film out across the heartland.'"
"Small Town Wisconsin" ended up screening in 40 different regional film festivals, including the Milwaukee Film Festival; according to Mueller, the movie took home top audience or jury prizes at 20 of them.
“For us, the hugely positive experience was how many people loved the movie … ," Mueller said. "It had wider reach during the pandemic.”
This week, instead of watching on computer or smart TV, Mueller will for the first time see "Small Town Wisconsin" on the big screen with a big audience.
“It really is a dream of mine come true — first, the Oriental and Milwaukee Film (premiering the movie), and now Marcus Theatres stepping in to expanding our limited theatrical (release) through Wisconsin,” he said. “I’m really proud of this one.”
Contact Chris Foran at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cforan12.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 'Small Town Wisconsin' movie ready for in-person premiere in Milwaukee