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Film students get inside look at Coen brothers movie

By Becca Heistad '09
October 23, 2008

Movies are the end products of extensive, collaborative efforts that begin long before any filming takes place, Tyson Bidner, location manager for Joel and Ethan Coen's film A Serious Man, told about 75 film students and faculty during a presentation Oct. 20 at St. Olaf.

Tyson Bidner, location manager for Joel and Ethan Coen's film A Serious Man, spoke to St. Olaf film students about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a movie. Note the giant blackboard that was filled with equations for the movie.
"Whether you're making a student film or a $20 million film, it's the things you do before the filming that make it a success," Bidner said during his presentation in room 282 of the old Science Center, one of two rooms used in the filming that took place Oct. 16-17.

Bidner was the second member of the production team for A Serious Man to provide students with insight into the film industry. Bob Graf, the film's executive producer, spoke to members of the St. Olaf Film Club and local community members who gathered Oct. 17 to watch No Country for Old Men, another film directed by the Coen brothers that Graf worked on as an executive producer. No Country for Old Men won numerous awards, including four Academy Awards -- among them Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

As a location manager for A Serious Man, Bidner was directly involved in the selection of St. Olaf as a filming site for the Coen brothers' latest project, a black comedy revolving around a college professor and his dysfunctional family set in Minnesota in the late 1960s.

In the 1990s a number of movies were shot in Minnesota, but Bidner explained that many of those types of films have since moved to places like Toronto, where the cost of filming is cheaper. However, because the Coen brothers grew up in St. Louis Park and the storyline has some autobiographical elements, it was important for them to film in the Twin Cities, even though it added to their $15 million budget.

Bob Graf, left, executive producer of A Serious Man, shared his career experiences with the St. Olaf Film Club and community members. Professor of English and Boldt Distinguished Chair in the Humanities Diana Postlethwaite led the discussion.
Bidner's role in the production process is to deliver the types of locations the directors are asking for, which often involves a lengthy search process. "You may be given as simple a line as 'classroom, dream sequence,'" Bidner said. "And you have to go from there."

Bidner said St. Olaf's old Science Center was an ideal option for scenes at a small college because the architecture of the building, constructed in 1967, perfectly fit the time period of the movie. The production team was especially drawn to the rooms' dimensions and raised-tier seating, Bidner said. Another bonus, he noted, was the fact that the building is scheduled for renovation and the rooms could be altered to meet the needs of the film crew.

After giving students an introduction to location management, Bidner walked them through the scenes shot in the Science Center, which will translate into three to four minutes of screen time, and the details that went into constructing the sets. He explained that the enormous, equation-covered blackboard, which stretched to the top of the lecture hall ceiling, was used for a dream sequence in the film. To make sure the equations were accurate, the production team called on the services of retired physics professors Duane Olson '53 and James Cederberg. Any inaccuracies in those equations would be noticed by some filmgoers, Bidner said.

"For the people who know [what equations like this look like], that's the kind of thing that would bother them and ruin the whole movie," Bidner said. The processes before and after filming are often what make the difference between a Titanic-sized success or a failure, according to Bidner.

Bidner commends St. Olaf for working to establish a film studies concentration. "I think it's very important to have that base of film knowledge and film studies," he said.

"Filmmaking is not an individual process; you have to work together because you can't do it all on your own," Bidner said. "This is where that team of people comes from: college."

Chairs were set up for the Coen brothers and other members of the production team on the St. Olaf set of A Serious Man.
Film students react enthusiastically
The film students who heard Bidner speak relished the opportunity to get an inside look at the Coen brothers' production process.

Alexander Johnson '10, an English and media studies major interested in film production, attended Bidner's presentation outside of any course requirement. "I felt it was such a unique opportunity that wasn't worth missing," Johnson said.

Many students interested in film industry careers found it interesting to learn about the responsibilities of a location manager, a job that is often overlooked but critical in the filmmaking process.

"I thought it was great to get some first-hand information from someone who is really in the depths of what happens behind, and in front of, the camera," Sam Mariotti '09 said.

Film students generally found having the Coens on campus to be a rewarding experience, not because of the brothers, per se, but because they were able to witness the amount of work that goes into making an upper-echelon film.

"What I took away [from the experience] was how important teamwork is when making these large-scale movies," Johnson said. "Bidner mentioned that when a group of experts come together, a lot of good things can come out of it, and that can definitely expand beyond film too."

As an amatuer filmmaker, Mariotti says she understands how much effort goes into a film from so many different people.

"I never see a movie without watching the entire credit sequence at the end," Mariotti said. "I think that big-name directors and actors especially often get a lot of credit for something that is a completely collaborative effort."

Mariotti and others like her will have more than Bidner's name to look for at the end of A Serious Man; St. Olaf College also will appear in the credits.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or