"The Surface" aims to make stars out of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee
As a young boy growing up in Milwaukee, Jeff Gendelman was fascinated by Lake Michigan. He would often walk down to the lake and look out over the body of water, wondering "what if …".
"I think there was always a question on what actually can happen way out there," Gendelman said.
Many years later, Gendelman – now a writer and producer – has turned that childhood fascination into "The Surface," a feature film about two men (played by Sean Astin from "The Lord of the Rings" and Chris Mulkey from the upcoming "Captain Phillips") whose paths fatefully collide in the middle of a majestic if violently unpredictable lake. For Gendelman, it's a project that's been 18 years in the making.
"The premise has always been two strangers who are both at the end of their rope suddenly meet in the middle of the unpredictable waters of Lake Michigan," Gendelman said. "The script itself has been through 75 drafts and 100 polishes over the years, but it's still pretty much the same idea."
One key detail in particular has always remained in the script: The film would need to take place on Lake Michigan, the same body of water that sparked Gendelman's imagination so many years ago.
"Even though it's a universally themed story, it was always meant to be shot here," Gendelman said. "Even 18 years ago in 1995, when I penned the first draft, we needed Lake Michigan, not doubling Lake Michigan with the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic for Lake Michigan. It's just a different character, a different look."
Filming in Milwaukee was such an important part of "The Surface" that it was an important question for during Gendelman's search for a potential director. Gendelman noted many directors wanted to move the shoot to places like Florida, California, New Jersey or Canada (likely due to the tax incentives offered). In the end, he found his director in Gil Cates Jr., who was recently credited as a co-producer on "Jobs."
Gendelman's passion for the city – which he returned to seven years ago after spending over three decades mostly living in California and New York – attracted others to the project as well, including actor John Emmet Tracy.
A fellow Milwaukee native, Tracy is currently making a name for himself in Hollywood with small roles on AMC's "The Killing," Hallmark's "Cedar Cove" and the bizarre indie horror flick "American Mary." He also voiced Thomas Jefferson in the hit video game "Assassin's Creed III." He's also an accomplished stage actor, earning his degree from England's Rose Bruford College (Gary Oldman is an alum) and studying under acting legends like Lynn Redgrave and Uta Hagen. However, he still credits his time in Milwaukee and especially his time in MPS for pushing him toward acting.
"My teacher in fifth grade at Browning Elementary was named Mrs. Rodeen," Tracy said. "When she discovered my interest in storytelling and performing, she designated 30 minutes every Friday afternoon during which she gave me the classroom in order to perform something. I would spent the entire week, skipping recess and staying in, rehearsing and writing and directing a play. I used to have to bribe my friends to be in it by bringing candy."
Two years ago, while coming down from his current home in Canada to visit family in the Milwaukee area, Tracy met with Gendelman at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay. While overlooking the lake, Gendelman described the kind of movie he wanted to make.
"Jeff was explaining the story to me, his vision for the project and how important it was for him to do this project in Milwaukee," Tracy recalled. "It was so exciting and so inspiring. Anybody who loves this city knows what an important part the lake is. It's sort of like a heartbeat for Milwaukee. I just remember at the time thinking, 'I would love to be involved in this project someway.'"
Tracy's wish ended up coming to fruition as Gendelman offered the actor a small part. The role may be tiny – the whole cast is quite tiny, only consisting of about five people according to the cast list posted on IMDB – but according to Tracy, the experience of filming in Milwaukee was "really rewarding."
"It represented an opportunity to do what I love in a city that I love," Tracy said.
Gendelman's interest in Milwaukee wasn't merely for its scenery. A large part of what made the production so enriching for Tracy was the crew, made largely from professionals from around the Milwaukee area.
They couldn't be amateurs either, as the three-and-a-half week shoot involved battling one of Hollywood's most legendarily difficult co-stars: water. The most notorious victim of high seas filmmaking was Kevin Costner's famed 1995 bomb "Waterworld," in which the set sank and the budget rocketed up to a then-record $175 million.
"I had to adapt to a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D," Gendelman said. "The water itself you have to work with. You can't work against it. Then you factor in all the vessels and boats that we had to deal with. It's a wonderfully complicated logistical problem, so when you realize as a producer that there are 700 problems a day – even before you start shooting – okay, well that's just life."
Most of the responsibility fell on the shoulders of locally based cinematographer and co-producer Jimmy Sammarco.
"He was dealing with weather changes, light changes, waves, currents, all the things they tell you to not do," Tracy said.
The almost month-long shoot wrapped about two weeks ago, and "The Surface" is now off to the editing and post-production stage. From what he saw of the footage during the shoot and the buzz coming from those behind the scenes, Tracy noted Sammarco could end up being one of the film's stars. Alongside Milwaukee and Lake Michigan, of course.
"Not only will it entertain and inspire people, but it'll educate people to what how magnificent Lake Michigan is," Gendelman said. "The world should know a little bit about its tempestuousness and its majesty."
Perhaps it'll even lead to a new wave of Milwaukee in the movies.
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