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'Merry Kiss Cam' finds cinematic Christmas bliss in Duluth

Like many holiday films, the feature was shot in the summertime. Yes, that meant making fake snow — in Duluth.

Director Lisa France, in white long-sleeve shirt, talks with her crew before filming a scene for “Merry Kiss Cam”
Director Lisa France, in white long-sleeve shirt, talks with her crew before filming a scene for “Merry Kiss Cam” on the main floor at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — The weather was brisk June 13, with late afternoon temperatures in the low 50s. Standing in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview, Katie Lowes and Jesse Bradford could have passed for tourists wearing light winter coats to guard against the chill. The presence of Christmas trees and a film crew, though, indicated that it wasn't a typical summer day at the hotel.

The crew for a feature film called "Merry Kiss Cam" ushered guests through the lobby in waves, between takes of Bradford and Lowes walking to the elevator and having a flirtatious conversation. At one point, as the actors waited for the lift their characters were taking upstairs to dinner at the Apostle Supper Club, a young guest peered out from behind the elevator, plastered against the wall in an unsuccessful attempt to stay clear of the camera's view.

"Cut!" said director Lisa France, smiling at her crew. "I love stuff like that. That makes me laugh so hard."

“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France smiles as she watches a scene
“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France smiles as she watches a scene near the lobby on the main floor of the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The filmmakers were in high spirits, nearing the end of a three-week Duluth shoot that was going swimmingly. "They're not kidding when they say 'Minnesota nice,'" said producer Mandy June Turpin. "Everybody was very encouraging."

"Merry Kiss Cam" was the largest film production brought to Duluth this year by a series of new financial incentives, said Riki McManus, chief production officer at the Upper Midwest Film Office. The movie was entirely shot on location at venues including the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center ice rink — its seats filled with extras sporting Bulldog colors.

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"It was written for the Chicago Blackhawks, and they said, 'Now that we're bringing it to Duluth, let's just switch everything,'" explained McManus. "They're putting a lot of our local businesses, a lot of Duluth, up on the big screen. I almost think of this as a love story to Duluth."

"It's been a great time," said John Duffy, unit production manager. "Lincoln Park, Heritage arena, Fitger's, the rooftop of Fitger's, Carmody's bar, and just a whole bunch of other places."

Despite the film's very visible production presence, important details about the movie remain under wraps according to standard industry procedure. Bradford and Lowes star as a couple who have a meet cute when they're featured on the "kiss cam" at a hockey game. (A "meet cute" is a scene in which a couple, who will become romantically involved in the future, meet for the first time. A "kiss cam" is when a sports venue kills time between plays by putting a series of presumed romantic couples up on a video screen, encouraging them to kiss.)

Media photography of the actual scenes being filmed was not permitted, both due to contractual issues and to avoid spoilers. The title alone, though, gives away one important fact about the film: It's set during the holidays.

“Merry Kiss Cam” producer, Mandy June Turpin, talks about filming a movie in Duluth
“Merry Kiss Cam” producer Mandy June Turpin talks about filming a movie at the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Why make a Christmas movie in Duluth, but schedule the production at a time of year when the city's all-too-copious natural snow is utterly absent? Turpin said this was simply the window that worked best for scheduling reasons. "You'd be surprised how many Christmas movies are shot in summer months," she noted.

The timing entailed making some artificial snow, but for the people on the production who flew in from Hollywood, early summer in Duluth felt nippy enough to get them in the spirit. "If you look out here, this looks like winter," said Turpin — and sure enough, the Radisson's harbor view, as seen on an overcast June day, made a plausible December cityscape with the festive decor in frame.

Like Lowes and Bradford shrugging into their cozy coats, Duluth played its role with aplomb. "This hotel looks so great," said France as she peered into a monitor. Although the Radisson had been dressed with holiday trimmings to set the scene, the 1970 hotel's groovy vibe was largely good to go.

"We've embraced everything about Duluth," said Turpin. "If we used a storefront, we kept their names. ... What we did with Carmody's, we changed the character's name. Our lead character, his last name is now Carmody."

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Until recently, a celebrity like Lowes — known for roles in ABC's "Scandal" and Netflix's "Inventing Anna" — turning up at the Duluth Candy Co. might have dropped jaws. Film production, though, is becoming an increasingly routine feature of Northland life thanks to incentives at the city, county, and state level.

Like many of the producers bringing cameras to Duluth, Turpin first connected with the city at the Catalyst Content Festival. Upper Midwest Film Office staff have pointed to Catalyst as a key connector between Duluth and a wide network of filmmakers who are increasingly ready and able to look to new horizons for shooting locations.

That's especially true of independent productions like "Merry Kiss Cam," which wouldn't necessarily have the budget to build elaborate sets — and given that fact, would just as soon use locations that haven't already appeared in a lot of other shows.

“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France, left, talks with her crew as they before to set up a secondary shot
“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France, left, talks with her crew as they before to set up a secondary shot for a scene on the main floor of the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"She came in 2019," said McManus about Turpin, "and said, 'Wow, this looks like a really good place to shoot.' People are always astounded at the locations that we have here. And so she came back ... and said, 'Wow, you know, now that you have the incentives, hold on to your seat belts, because it's gonna get crazy.' And it has been crazy. And it's been lots of fun."

"I talked to David Siebert, who (co-)owns Duluth Candy, and I said, 'I'm going to bring a movie back here one day,'" said Turpin. "So this time I walked back and I said, 'Hey, do you remember me? We're back with a movie!'"

"It used to be where you'd go to a back lot at Universal or Fox, and you'd shoot New York," said Turpin about the increase in authentic location photography. "Now you're able to go to these actual places that people are writing stories about."

While the production of a feature like "Merry Kiss Cam" will necessarily involve some outside professionals, Turpin said that a larger pool of potential workers with experience in the myriad aspects of film production would have allowed her to hire more locals — an opportunity she would have embraced.

The crew of the film “Merry Kiss Cam” get the camera ready to shoot a scene
The crew of the film “Merry Kiss Cam” get the camera ready to shoot a scene near the lobby at the Radisson Hotel Duluth-Harborview on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"We flew people in from all over the place, and it's because (locals) weren't used to the scale of it," Turpin explained. "Like when a director asks for a lookboard, and some wardrobe people go, 'What?' ... Then you explain it to them, and they go, 'Oh, OK! Well, next time I'll know.' I think that's the trickle-down effect that will start to happen."

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Organizations including the Upper Midwest Film Office and Zeitgeist are working to create or facilitate training opportunities. "If we can encourage more productions to come here and start teaching and mentoring people, I think that would really help," said Turpin.

Aside from the direct economic benefits, having Duluth showcased on the big screen (as well as on a lot of smaller screens) can provide an ego boost for locals — and a tourism boost if that helps inspire viewers to bring their own love stories to the Zenith City.

"Businesses are having a good time," said Upper Midwest Film Office board member Dan Stocke. "People on set are having a good time. My friends and a bunch of people in the city of Duluth went out and were extras in the hockey set, and they were just tickled to death about it. So there's a real energy around this thing, and that's really good to see."

“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France, right, breaks out into laughter after a person leaned into a shot while the crew filmed a scene
“Merry Kiss Cam” director Lisa France, right, breaks out into laughter after a person leaned into a shot while the crew filmed a scene on the main floor of the Radisson Hotel in Duluth on June 13.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

It will likely be many months before Duluthians have a chance to see their city showcased in rom-com style; screening and distribution details have yet to be determined. Still, if the vibe captured onscreen is as warm and comfortable as the situation on set, "Merry Kiss Cam" will be worth the wait.

Between takes in the Radisson lobby, makeup and costume crew ran in to touch up the details of the actors' looks. Lowes and Bradford were relaxed and patient, making small talk and listening attentively for France's cues. When the camera rolled — literally, along a short track near the lobby windows — crew members huddled back against the wall, monitoring the shot or checking their notes.

"Our two leads both come from Los Angeles, and when they landed in Duluth, they just fell in love with it," said Turpin. "We've been walking into the same restaurants and the same coffee shops and (servers) are like, 'Hey, Mandy!' I've been going to the same coffee shop in L.A. for years, and you don't get that."

A group of Duluth stakeholders are convening around a vision for a soundstage and film production campus. The next step: securing a location, and the funds to build it.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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