For her first scene in the Twin Cities-shot feature “The Public Domain,” Emily Bridges takes a sunny August trip across the Interstate 35W bridge into downtown Minneapolis. She’s costumed for a summer afternoon spin in a light sleeveless blouse, driving her car with its windows rolled all the way down.
That scene presented the star with big challenges, including tearful shock when she witnesses the bridge’s collapse on Aug. 1, 2007, in her rearview mirror. But the biggest risk was asking the California native to bare her skin for take after take in the midst of last winter, one of the most frigid seasons on local record.
Bridges, daughter of actor Beau Bridges and niece of his Oscar-winning brother Jeff Bridges, dealt with the trials of the Arctic shoot like a Los Angeles trouper — even though “last winter was the coldest winter we had since 1847,” said the film’s writer/director, Patrick Coyle. His third feature, “The Public Domain” begins a run at Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis on Friday, March 27. Landmark Theaters plans a national release based on the local ticket sales.
Starring in Coyle’s feature was a trying but enjoyable way to begin “my first winter in Minnesota,” laughed Bridges, a film actress from early childhood who moved here last year to join a graduate program on arts and cultural leadership at the University of Minnesota. “We shot it really fast. When I saw the schedule I was a little nervous about going on with it. We’d have these insane days planned.”
Much of the film’s month of shooting was outdoors, said Coyle, whose earlier local productions were the 2003 Sundance entry “Detective Fiction” and 2009’s “Into Temptation,” starring Jeremy Sisto and Kristin Chenoweth.
“I froze so much I would come home and say to my wife, ‘Honey, I don’t know how I can do it anymore,’ ” he recalled. “She’d say, ‘You get out there and do it.’ ”
Coyle’s script is a tense yet darkly comic compilation of intersecting stories involving a half-dozen characters seven years after surviving the Minneapolis bridge collapse. “35W was kind of our Katrina,” he said, a catastrophe that left behind a feeling of survivor’s guilt. “There was an element of that with me when I started writing right after the bridge. Why them and not me?” Coyle’s story is less about the physical collapse than widespread emotional issues.
Bridges plays a young writer secretly confronting problems from her troubled childhood. Peter Christian Hansen, Mark Benninghofen and Sara Marsh also play characters with public images far from their private selves.
Coyle decided to keep his low-budget film’s focus here since his funding from the state’s Legacy Amendment dictated that he make a movie about Minnesota, shoot it in Minnesota, and use Minnesotans. It was “onerous and difficult” to work with those restrictions, he said, adding that directors “make our movies because we are crazy.”
The casting of Bridges was one of the feature’s biggest and best surprises, Coyle said. She was the sole unknown among those trying out for the role. “I know everybody in town and when Emily read for the role I had no idea who she was. And she was great! I said, ‘Who is she? Why don’t I know her?’ I really loved her before I knew she was part of a great acting tradition” reaching back to her late grandfather Lloyd Bridges.
Working far from home, Bridges said, came “in a period where I got really nervous about attending auditions. I was new to town and I didn’t know anybody, and here everybody knows everybody and it feels like when you go to an audition everybody knows each other. It was just like playing. I felt, ‘I’m not going to get this, so I might as well have some fun with it.’ ”
She felt “very attracted to the story. I remember watching all of that unfold [the bridge collapse], and it was years before I would have any connection whatever to Minnesota. Remembering that time and getting to talk to people, because everyone remembers where they were on the day the bridge went down — I think it’s kind of special to be part of that.”