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One summer day in 2008, St. Olaf College got a call from the Coen brothers.
The filmmakers were looking for a 1960s-era lecture hall for their new movie, "A Serious Man." Did the Northfield college have one?
Yes, just the one. When the Coen brothers came to check it out a few weeks later, "you could just tell they were pretty in love with it," said the film's location manager, Tyson Bidner.
A week of prep, a day of shooting, a film premiere and a couple of Oscar nominations later, the college is left with quite a bit of pride -- and something much more tangible. In that empty hall stands a blackboard, two stories tall and covered in physics equations, built for a key dream sequence.
"We just had this chalkboard -- a valuable piece of film history," said St. Olaf spokesman David Gonnerman. "We were trying to figure out what to do with it."
The college hopes that value will soon pay for some real-life tuition.
The lead of "A Serious Man" is a physics professor, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, so much of the action -- or inaction, in many cases -- takes place in classrooms, offices and hallways.
The Coens had "a very specific vision" for the lecture hall in a dream sequence toward the film's end. It was Bidner's job to find it.
He and others scoured the Twin Cities with a checklist: large lecture hall, 1960s-era, stadium seating, space up front. They called universities, made visits and took photos. Finally, they found the one in St. Olaf's Science Center 282.
The building had a bonus. It was set to be renovated and until then, would be empty.
"It was a fortuitous thing," Gonnerman said. "It couldn't have happened any other way."
Enlisting the experts
The film's art department paneled the hall's entire front wall with blackboard. Then an artist, working alongside a retired St. Olaf professor, covered it in physics equations appropriate to the time.
James Cederberg, a St. Olaf professor emeritus of physics, designed the equations on another chalkboard in a different scene.
"They didn't provide very much specific information," he said. The script focused on "a philosophical question rather than a mathematical one. In the end, I outlined the historical pieces of evidence that led to it."
While the huge chalkboard didn't have to make perfect sense -- it was a dream sequence, after all -- the smaller one needed to. Cederberg consulted books and journals from that era and wrote out the equations himself.
But he hasn't admired his handiwork. He and his wife prefer Netflix to the theater, and they haven't seen the film yet.
On to 'True Grit'
The film crew happened to show up during St. Olaf's Fall Visit Days, when prospective students check out the college. While that made an already bad parking situation worse, it added flair to the campus tour.
"It was kind of a bonus," Gonnerman said.
Both Bidner and a producer on the film later spoke with students about the making of the film. Other filming spots -- including Bloomington's Normandale Community College -- held similar talks.
Next weekend, the college will auction off a chunk of that chalkboard at its Black and Gold Winter Gala fundraiser. With a Coen-signed certificate of authenticity, it could be one of the big-ticket items.
Proceeds from the event benefit current students through the college's Partners in Annual Giving. Last year's gala raised $75,000 from 250 attendees. This year, the goal is $100,000.
Meanwhile, Bidner and the Coens are working on their next film: "True Grit," a remake of the famous western.
"They've moved on," Gonnerman said dryly. "I told them I could try to make the campus look like the Southwest."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168
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