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Front Row Seat: 'Merry Kiss Cam' comes home to Duluth

Dozens of people packed the Zeitgeist Zinema on Sunday for a screening of the new holiday movie filmed in Duluth. Carmody Irish Pub hosted an afterparty in what's now advertised as the "home of 'Merry Kiss Cam.'"

A chalkboard sign near a bar door reads, "Open - 12 am / ca$h only ATM inside / home of Merry Kiss Cam."
On Sunday, a chalkboard sign outside Carmody Irish Pub advertises the Duluth venue as the "home of 'Merry Kiss Cam.'"
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "Merry Kiss Cam" is not a documentary. Let's just put that out there.

A Bulldogs hockey jersey, with yellow dog illustration and black signatures across the front, hangs from the ceiling of a bar interior at night.
A Bulldogs jersey signed by cast and crew from "Merry Kiss Cam" hangs in Carmody Irish Pub on Sunday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

No, the UMD Bulldogs are not chronically hapless, nor are their playoff hopes entirely determined over the course of the holiday season. Locals also know that you can't just step onto Superior Street and hail a cab, and that Canal Park foliage does not pop green in December.

As feel-good Christmas movies go, though, the Duluth of "Merry Kiss Cam" is about as real as a setting gets. This is, after all, a genre where the North Pole is routinely posited to have a terrestrial land mass, and where one of recent years' most popular entries was set in the fictional European kingdom of Aldovia.

You actually can visit Duluth during the holidays; in fact, some people call it the Christmas City of the North. You'll indeed find ice-crusted piers leading to the Aerial Lift Bridge, just like they do on screen.

You can totally have a romantic dinner date at the Apostle Supper Club, you can absolutely order tiki drinks at the False Eye Doll Lounge, and you can even go cheer for the Bulldogs at Amsoil Arena. The arena doesn't look quite the same inside as it does in the movie (interiors were filmed at the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center), but Zamboni ridealongs are totally a thing.

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And, most definitely, you can belly up at Carmody Irish Pub. When "Merry Kiss Cam" producer Mandy June Turpin walked into the bar Sunday night, owner Ed Gleeson was there at the door to greet her with a warm hug. "You saved my business," he said.

Carmody's was, properly, the site of an after-party following a screening of "Merry Kiss Cam" at Zeitgeist. Before Turpin's arrival, Gleeson told me that in a challenging business environment, the film appearance was a real boost for his bar.

Both of the Zeitgeist Zinema screens were required to accommodate demand for Sunday's free event, and many of the attendees were directly involved with the "Merry Kiss Cam" production. Even the movie's local canine star showed up to walk the red carpet in a matching ribbon.

The romantic comedy has been available to stream on Hulu since Thanksgiving Day, but Duluth Mayor Emily Larson waited to see her city on the big screen. "Have you seen the movie?" she asked, munching popcorn in the lobby. I had, but I wasn't about to spoil any surprises.

"When we make investments in the creative economy in this community, it works," said Larson, standing in front of a Zinema screen a few minutes later to greet the audience. "Thank you for believing in an amazing community that has big stories to tell, and big audiences ready to receive it."

When the film rolled, there were cheers for Turpin's screen credit as well as for that of Duluth-raised actor Bailey Stender. (Costar Nathaniel Fuller, a Guthrie Theater standby, doesn't have the same marquee value in the Northland.) Carmody's appearance got cheers, the Lift Bridge got cheers, and Rory the dog's reaction shots brought down the house.

Producer Turpin, seeing director Lisa France's film in a theater for the first time, was emotional as she took the mic for a post-screening panel. "Everybody was really awesome," she said. "They were like, 'Come film here, and we really are open to everything that you're wanting to do.' And Los Angeles ... isn't."

During the post-screening panel, Ashley Grimm, St. Louis County commissioner representing western Duluth, pointed to the film industry's economic impact. "For the $1 million investment that St. Louis County did," said Grimm, citing the total amount of the county's film and TV production rebate, "we have at least $4 million invested directly into local businesses."

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Turpin has recently completed Duluth production on another movie. "Body Language" has "a much different vibe," said Grimm, who visited the set.

That thriller features actor Christina Milian — a celebrity whose star wattage is an order of magnitude beyond even the well-known performers in "Merry Kiss Cam." Details on "Body Language" have been closely guarded, but Turpin revealed that in the recently wrapped movie, "we kill people by setting them on fire."

The actor is part of the production for "Body Language," a movie currently filming in Duluth. "Wish you were here," Milian wrote in the caption of a photo taken at Fitger's.

Duluth can do dark, as filmmakers and crime novelists have amply demonstrated. Nonetheless, it was also a perfect setting for the much sunnier "Merry Kiss Cam," the producer said. "We didn't change a thing when we shot this movie," said Turpin. "It was a love letter to you guys."

When she called production company MarVista Entertainment to ask about making "Carmody" the surname of the movie's fictional bar owner, Turpin said, she sent a picture of the bar's exterior by way of illustration. "I go, 'Look at this sign! ... We can't change the sign.'"

According to Turpin, she's now advocating for yet another movie to be shot in Duluth. "I'm fighting producers in L.A. not to take it to Canada, going, 'No, Minnesota!'" The producer credited Upper Midwest Film Office staffers Shari Marshik and Riki McManus for "tirelessly advocating" for the Northland film industry.

"What you don't see on the screen," said Larson, "is for every one person that shows up (on camera), there are dozens of people who have put in time building sets, building costumes, doing workforce, doing lighting, doing script production."

"How many times have we seen the arts funding cut?" asked Grimm, rhetorically. "That's what gets cut, because we're not thinking of it as economic development. We're not thinking of it as retaining youth and getting people here and having them stay here, but we should."

Turpin alluded to hearing some grumbles from Duluthians at the "Merry Kiss Cam" portrayal of the Bulldogs as a team on a losing streak.

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"We made the Bulldogs ... (in the movie) they weren't winners, like they are (in real life). We know they are!" The crowd laughed as Turpin continued, "We know there were a couple of people that weren't happy about that."

In fact, the script was originally set in Chicago, centering on the NHL's Blackhawks. "I said to MarVista, 'What about Duluth?'" Turpin remembered. Scouting locations on a snowy April evening, Turpin and the UMFO staff took an early look at the Apostle Supper Club, then made their way to Carmody's.

"We met Eddie (Gleeson), and Eddie was like, 'I'll shut the place down for a week, two weeks, three weeks, whatever!' And we were like, that was our bar," said Turpin, calling Gleeson "the most amazing, accommodating, lovely person in the world."

By Sunday night's premiere party, a chalkboard outside the bar advertised Carmody's as the "home of 'Merry Kiss Cam.'" A Bulldogs jersey signed by members of the movie's cast and crew hung in a place of honor, and when line producer John Duffy walked in, he was greeted by a cry of, "It's the Duff man!"

Interior of a moderately crowded pub, with several people sitting at the bar and a dozen or so more relaxing around tables.
Carmody Irish Pub hosts a "Merry Kiss Cam" screening after-party Sunday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Despite the Hollywood VIPs in attendance, it felt like just another Sunday night at the downtown pub. Customers casually occupied the barstools where stars Katie Lowes and Jesse Bradford flirt in the film, and the movie's red Santa mailbox out on Superior Street had been reclaimed for its more accustomed use as a Zone 1849 meter station.

Whether any superfans show up to eat handfuls of fresh snow, as Bradford and Lowes do in the film, remains to be seen. Scheduling dictated that the film be shot in summertime, so the onscreen snow required movie magic including the production of artificial flakes. The illusion won't fool seasoned Northlanders, but, again: not a documentary.

"We are really wanting to shoot in Duluth for, like, the next five years," said Turpin at Zeitgeist. "There's so many beautiful places that we can shoot here, and there's stories to be told."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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