For his first feature film, director/screenwriter Peter Livolsi chose to bring his stars, Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn and Nick Offerman, to a classic Minnesota small town, Chisago County’s North Branch. While the area’s unspoiled beauty enriched the quirky independent comedy’s summer 2016 filming, its real charm was something extraordinary.
The film, which is playing at the Lagoon theater, is inspired by the 2010 young adult bestseller “The House of Tomorrow” by Peter Bognanni, a Macalester College literature professor. Burstyn plays Josephine, a utopian futurist sheltering her 16-year-old grandson Sebastian (“Hugo” and “Ender’s Game” star Asa Butterfield) in a handsome glass-enclosed geodesic dome home.
The unique space reflects the revolutionary vision of Josephine’s late friend, architect and innovator Buckminster Fuller. She is preparing Sebastian to publicize Fuller’s vision. The boy works as a tour guide in the home, which doubles as a Fuller museum. Sebastian, raised on classical music and whale sound recordings, is entering a time of life when chasing girls and performing punk rock seem like innovative ideas. Who is the eccentric here, and who is the visionary?
A showplace home based on Fuller’s remarkable designs was essential to tell the stir-crazy story. It’s a specialized set you can’t find everywhere. But in North Branch, home to the Natural Spaces Domes construction company, it’s much easier.
Bognanni discovered a number of those bubble-shaped wonders in North Branch. An Iowa native, he nostalgically set his life-affirming story in “North Branch, Iowa,” a touch of creative license dropped when Livolsi adapted it for the screen.
“When we were in location scouting, looking for domes, we really cast a pretty wide net,” Livolsi said. “We looked in New York, all over the place. But Minnesota, for whatever reason, has a prodigious collection of domes. We met these wonderful people [owners Dennis Odin Johnson and Tessa Hill] who build all over the world, and they offered to let us shoot in their home for a couple of weeks.”
Computer-generated exteriors for the home created the right dramatic tone for the 18-day shoot, which drew significantly on local production talent, Livolsi said.
“Finding the dome we needed and qualifying tor the Minnesota tax incentive was the perfect confluence of what we needed.”
Real-life Fuller fan
About two weeks after sending his script to Burstyn, Livolsi discovered that the actress’ life story had significant parallels to her character’s. In 1972, about the time Burstyn was filming “The Exorcist,” she met Fuller, becoming an admirer and friend for the last 15 years of his life. Her personal film footage from the time, showing the pair in conversation as they share an excursion on his sailboat, gives the story an unusual sense of realism.
Livolsi said he never realized that Fuller “was a big, important person in her life, just as he was for her character. It was a very serendipitous thing.”
Filming in North Branch also gave Burstyn a memorable experience of her own: her first experience staying overnight in a dome of Fuller’s design, an event she said blew her away.
“I had never been in one before and it was thrilling, so beautiful,” she said. “I had no idea how lovely they were from inside because these were planted among trees” in a huge pine forest. “You feel like you’re living in nature.”
Burstyn, who won a best actress Oscar for 1975’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” doesn’t skimp on her praise for Fuller.
“Bucky was one of the great minds on the planet, so multi-dimensional in so many different professions and studies, whether it was physics, mathematics, construction or architecture or design or the future itself, ” she said. “He put forward many ideas that are still being examined and brought to fruition. ‘The Exorcist’ is an entertainment. I guess that’s important, too. But I loved seeing Bucky on film and his work referred to after all these years. Right now I feel we’ve lost track of how important it is to be planning for the future.”
The Burstyn-Fuller connection brought to the project another bonus. She talked her friend Offerman, a veteran performer at Minnesota comedy clubs, into joining the cast as a kindhearted leader of a Lutheran youth group with parenthood problems of his own.
“The whole point of the movie is that what my grandson learns from Bucky is that he must have his own ideas and find his own path,” Burstyn said. “I remember his talk at Carnegie Hall, and there was a standing ovation at the end. And he came out onstage, and he quieted everyone down and said people from all over the world are coming to his public events ‘because they want to know what to do to be of service. And I always tell them to look around, see what needs to be done, and do it.’ ”