The scene was part celebration, part costume ball, part reunion. Amid a sea of women with hair teased into elaborate beehives, flips and pageboys, and men in dapper 1960s suits and yarmulkes, Joel and Ethan Coen wrapped up principal photography Wednesday on their black comedy “A Serious Man.”
The day before, 250 local extras had assembled at St. Louis Park’s B’nai Emet synagogue for a bar mitzvah scene featuring a comically stoned young man being called to the Torah. Wednesday’s finale there completed the life cycle, with most of the bit players reassembling to shoot a funeral scene.
The film was finished in 44 days - ahead of schedule and within budget - said location manager Tyson Bidner, who called the cooperation the filmmakers encountered here “exemplary.”
“We came to a place that’s laid back and relaxed and wanted to work with us,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that the brothers came home to make this movie,” triggering an outpouring of support.
For many of the extras taking a lunch break in a circus tent beside the temple’s parking lot on Tuesday, filming was a chance to rub elbows with Minnesota’s most celebrated moviemakers. For others it was a chance to reconnect with friends from days gone by.
Appearing in the film had special meaning for David King of Minneapolis, a background player in the congregation scenes. His late father, Mark, is a recurring character in the movie. The elder King taught the Coens Hebrew at the Talmud Torah school in St. Louis Park in the late 1960s, and died before they became Oscar-winning Hollywood heavyweights. The Coens must have liked him, David King said, because “they feature him and refer to him by name in a couple scenes in the movie.”
Dressed in a debonair period suit and tie with a black yarmulke bobby-pinned in place, King pecked away at a plate of barbecued chicken, rice and cherry Jell-O. “They needed middle-aged Jewish men for the roles, so I got in,” he said. “It’s also exciting to see lots of old friends I haven’t seen for a long time. The days are long, but it’s like a party.”
The film concerns Larry Gopnick, a Minnesota physics professor whose uneventful life unravels in the summer of 1967, when “F Troop” is on TV and the Jefferson Airplane is on the radio. His wife announces she’s leaving him for one of his pompous colleagues. His children are stealing his money. His socially inept brother is growing roots on Larry’s couch, and his beautiful neighbor insists on sunbathing nude just outside his window. Struggling for answers, Larry consults three rabbis to help him become a mensch - a serious man.
Several local actors scored principal roles in the film. Sari Wagner plays Larry’s departing wife, with Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus as their sneaky son Danny and daughter Sarah. Tim Russell of WCCO radio and “Prairie Home Companion” fame plays a suspicious police detective with his eye on Larry and Ari Hoptman is the head of Larry’s college tenure committee.
The project proceeded almost flawlessly, said Minnesota Film and TV Board executive director Lucinda Winter: “They had great luck with the weather staying warm and leaves staying on the trees.”
The only mishap occurred after the crew made over a St. Paul Super Valu supermarket to resemble a mid-‘60s Red Owl store. They erected a large Red Owl insignia on the roof. After shooting was completed - but before the head of the art department could achieve his expressed desire to buy the antique prop for a souvenir - it was dropped and shattered. There were no injuries; the production paid the owner a couple of thousand dollars.
The film was a good ambassador for further projects in Minnesota, Winter said. “Unlike ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ which shot in (St. Paul’s) Fitzgerald Theater and the three surrounding blocks, this one shot from Taylors Falls to Northfield and St. Paul to Bloomington, with big tents and equipment and trucks everywhere they went,” she said. “You couldn’t drive down Hwy. 7 this month and not know something major was going on. It really raised awareness of moviemaking as a business.”
“A Serious Man” is slated for release next September, exactly a year after photography began. Winter anticipates a major local premiere for the film, and is negotiating with the film’s producers over the details.
“As big a deal as I can make it is what I want,” she said.