Boom town: lights, camera, zucchini!

East Isles software developer shoots first feature-length film locally

A bright stage light illuminates a Kowalski’s checkout lane.

A fuzzy boom microphone dangles above the store clerk and a slender, auburn-haired woman.

Curious customers smirk and stare as they push their shopping carts past the scene.

“Alright, everybody quiet. Cameras rolling. Action!”

It’s not everyday that an Uptown grocery store becomes the set for a psychological thriller film. So the gawkers are understandable.

A grocery bagger stands on tip-toes to get a better view.

Over the blip of grocery scanners and the occasional rustle of paper or plastic, the actors exchange scripted small-talk at the register until the woman abruptly dashes for the exit.

“Wait – ma’am – your receipt!” blurts the clerk – the fourth or fifth time he’s repeated his line.

Brian Cwikla, a pasty, 33-year-old software developer, watches the scene with script in hand through the monitor of a sleek, digital video camera. He’s standing a few yards from the action, next to a display of warm, rotisserie turkeys.

The grocery store at 2440 Hennepin Avenue is one of several Minneapolis locations Cwikla has chosen to spotlight in his first full-length film, “The Room,” which he expects to complete by spring.

Sitting in a coffee chain shop near his East Isles apartment, he gushes mannerly praise on the actors, photographers and others involved in the project as if he were already giving a rambling Academy Awards acceptance speech.

“It’s just a great, great town to make a film in,” Cwikla said. “The concept was to highlight local businesses and artists to demonstrate the depth of talent that resides in the Twin Cities. It’s no longer necessary to move to New York or L.A. in order to pursue a career in film.”

And it is certainly less expensive.

Spaces that might have cost several thousand dollars to use in Los Angeles or New York have been welcomed to Cwikla’s crew for little or nothing but the chance to peer curiously at them as they work.

No spoiler

Cwikla is cautious about giving away too much of the plot, but “The Room” revolves around a man who is physically confronted by his subconscious, he said. He originally wrote it as a short film, but after read-throughs with his initial cast, he decided to develop it into a full 100-page script with more than 30 roles.

“It started taking on a life of its own,” he said.

His first script called for two locations – his own apartment and a psychologist’s office. The new length called for 15 locations. He turned to some of his favorite spots in town, and asked the Minnesota Film and TV Board for help with the other locations.

“A lot of these locations are beautiful,” Cwikla said.

Kowalski’s is the setting for “a much-needed break in a film that’s somewhat dark,” he said. A woman is following the main character and inadvertently flirts with the cashier.

“I love the look of that store. It just has gorgeous woodwork,” Cwikla said, continuing on about the produce section and the mini isles “that add layers for the action to take place in.”

The crew spent a late night filming at the 112 Eatery, where the main character meets a woman from his past.

“I love that restaurant,” Cwikla said. “It has a great ambience. It was the place I had in mind when I wrote the scene.”

The Dry Dock Café in the Designers Guild Building is featured in a scene, as is the exterior of the building and an office inside.

And the psychologist’s office was set up in the Hennepin Center for the Arts with a window view looking out onto 6th Street and Hennepin Avenue.

The land of Oz and Oreo

Cwikla grew up in Milwaukee and moved to Minneapolis a decade ago to earn a degree in software development at Brown College. He previously studied film at the University of Milwaukee but didn’t envision a career until he settled in Minnesota.

A few years ago, he decided to teach himself digital video editing. His learning project was a series of short movie trailer parodies staring his two cats, Oz and Oreo. Now, he talks with a sense of invincible beginner’s enthusiasmŠ I’m actually doing it. I’m actually making a movie.

Sam Fischer, the film’s photography director, said it’s helped tremendously with a low-budget film that Cwikla knows what he wants and has put the time into planning and detail.

“Nobody has been as well organized on any of the projects I’ve been on, and I’ve worked on $100 million features,” Fischer said. He said he chose the project because the script had an interesting story and strong character development.

By industry standards, “The Room” is “an extremely low budget” film, said Lucinda Winter, director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board. However, it’s still costing Cwikla as much as “a really nice car,” he said.

“This isn’t some kid with his Handi-Cam,” Winter said. “He is going about it in a very professional manner. I think he’s doing a lot of the right things.”

Cwikla was expecting to finish most of the filming this month, then start the laborious process of editing. By the end of spring, he hopes to be submitting applications to film festivals around the country.


Dan Haugen can be reached at [email protected] or 436-5088.