It's lights, camera, action on Thursday for the Woody Harrelson movie "Wilson," on location at the state prison in Stillwater. When I learned that the Fox Searchlight movie had chosen the Minnesota Correctional Facility for one of its scenes, it immediately brought to mind the new ban on cameras that I wrote about in February. Prison officials abruptly changed their news media policy to prohibit photos or videos of inmates, because cameras are considered "contraband." I wanted to see whether Hollywood earned an exemption to that rule.
Apparently not, according to records I received from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Last week, I filed a public record request with the department to determine what kind of deal it struck with the movie makers. On Wednesday, I received a chain of emails between corrections officials and Michael Hartel, the Fox Searchlight location manager, negotiating the one-day shoot. A June 2 email from Hartel indicated the crew wanted to film mostly exterior scenes, and "Interior scene of our main character talking with a guard in a large cell block."
He also offered a deal to film inside a cell block: "In the past, at other prison facilities, we bought a double feature film for the inmates of a cell block and it gave us four hours of time while the inmates were out watching the movie in another area of the prison, we quickly shot our scenes for the film. I realize that might not work here, but is there a world where we could get a small window of time to shoot Woody with a few background actors in a cell block?"
The answer: no. Amanda Evenski, the department's communications and media coordinator, wrote Hartel that filming between a fence and the wall of the prison was acceptable, as well as possibly the "inside lobby, sally gate area." "At this point, it doesn't seem like we can approve filming on the inside due to our policy of cameras inside prisons."
After confirming the company had liability insurance, the state granted permission for the filming earlier this week. The film crew agreed to protect the image of the prison: "No depiction of the Property shall be defamatory to the Owner or the Property and the Property will be used in a manner that is consistent with the goodwill and name that the Property and the Owner enjoy in the marketplace."
I'm not sure what marketplace the state prison operates in, but I'm sure that's boilerplate. The state has some skin in the game with the production of "Wilson": The movie makers get a 25 percent "Snowbate" incentive from the state of Minnesota that could refund $1.5 million of the estimated $6 million production cost.