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“70s Alabama in modern Minnesota”: Q&A with “Tuscaloosa” director Philip Harder

If you were on campus during Fall term 2017, you may have noticed that for a couple weeks there, Carleton seemed to have been turned into a Hollywood film lot. Cameras were everywhere: crews capturing vintage scenes in front of our beloved Laird, old-fashioned cars loitering around the Weitz and Alumni Guesthouse. Wonder no more what mystery film was being shot on the grounds of our campus that golden autumn. The film, directed by Philip Harder and starring Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things), Devon Bostick (Okja), and the rapper YG, is called Tuscaloosa and centers around a coming-of-age story set in 1970s Alabama. Tuscaloosa was adopted from a novel by the same name by Glasgow Phillips and explores the turbulent socio-political events of the Vietnam era, young romance, and a murder mystery. The Minnesotan electronic band Low also contributed to the film’s music.

Making Tuscaloosa (whose trailer you can check out here if you want to catch some glimpses of Carleton in 70s attire) has been a dream of Harder’s since he read the novel some 20 years ago, but he was only logistically able to start production in 2016. Given the film’s political nature, the filmmakers figured premiering it in 2020—an election year—would emphasize the conversation it intended to incite. The film premiered back in October 2019 at the 50th Nashville Film Festival.

The film was supposed to have its Minnesotan theatrical release in April at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival as a part of its Minnesotan Made programming, but the festival was postponed due to COVID-19. In its stead, Tuscaloosa has been recently made available on Amazon Prime and Apple TV. 

Harder has long been involved with filmmaking, having worked on music videos for Prince, the Foo Fighters, and Hilary Duff, but this is his first time directing a feature-length film. I recently had a conversation with Harder about his experience filming on Carleton’s campus.

Felipe Jimenez: What were you looking for when scouting locations, and what made you choose Carleton to shoot in?

Philip Harder: The architecture of Laird Hall (and the beautiful campus grounds in front of it) provided a great match.  Then other campus locations fell into place quickly, including the Doctor’s home and garage a few blocks away, downtown Northfield, and the Train Depot. These clustered locations provided us a centralized way to manage the production. Northfield is over an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, where most of the production was from, so being able to get it all clustered in one place really made those journeys out of the big city more feasible for our crew and our tight schedule. Additionally, Carleton and Northfield were very inviting to our production, and we were able to involve students as extras and assistants. I think the school really appreciated being the center of an artistic endeavor of that scale.

FJ: How did you choose which scenes to film at Carleton?

PH: The entire film was shot in two weeks, so we looked for as many locations in Carleton and Northfield as we could to be a stand-in for 1972 Tuscaloosa. We were delighted by the vintage locations and the ease of production. We were also shooting in early October, so the autumn light provided a beautiful quality to the movie. As far as specific scenes, it came down to what Carleton had and what we actually needed them for. The beautiful exteriors that became the Hospital and Billy’s house were the main draws, so of course we filmed those scenes there. We tried to film as much of our outdoors around there as possible to preserve a unified feel. But a lot of interiors we filmed back in Minneapolis, where we had familiarity, shorter commutes, and studio space.

FJ: What was the most difficult part about shooting on campus?

PH: Our biggest challenge was that classes were in session at Carleton as we were shooting. This meant we had to “lock up” the grounds in front of Laird Hall when shooting exteriors. We scheduled those exteriors on weekends, but filming in this kind of environment is always challenging as students are trying to make their way across the campus, and then have to wait until we cut a shot. And keep in mind—filming only on weekends in a shoot that was only a week long meant we were very limited in our time on that set. Thankfully Carleton was very helpful in working with us. They were very generous in giving us permission to film and the ability to lock down sets at all, and they even helped us scout locations—it was on their advice that we found the beautiful old house that served as Billy and his father’s home. In reality, that was university-owned housing a block away from campus. [The house Harder mentions is Wade House, otherwise known as CANOE house]

FJ: How long was the shoot at Carleton?

PH: We shot for about one week at Carleton and in Northfield. Our shoot was very restricted by the actors’ busy schedules. Natalia Dyer and Marchánt Davis could each only be in Minneapolis for about half of that week, and were only on set at the same time for a single shoot day. So we had a very tight schedule. After formal production wrapped at the end of that week, we did do a few pick up shots here and there, using body doubles, wide shots, and so on. But 95% of the film was shot over that one week.

FJ: Are there any particular memories from the shoot that you would like to share? 

PH: One of our first great moments happened months before the shoot, when we were location scouting at Carleton. We had a college employee show us around campus, being extremely helpful in showing us sets both indoors and out. And we had my kid, a college student at the time, dressed in full 70s clothes to double for Billy in the location photos. Those photos gave us the first solid insight into the look of the movie. It blew us away with how good it looked. Seeing the 70s outfits on an outstanding southern-style estate really made us believe in the decision to shoot 70s Alabama in modern Minnesota.

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