Matt Dillon and 'Factotum' burn down Downtown's Fairmont

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The flames are fake, but an indie movie with a hot cast uses a flophouse's final days to film an authentically seedy tale

Local filmmaker Shelli Ainsworth, hired as the scene expert for the indie flick "Factotum" filming on location in the Twin Cities, was searching for some urban grit.

She wanted a place with "texture" harking back to Downtown's old Skid Row district.

The corner of 9th Street & Hennepin, home to the vacant and seedy Fairmont Hotel, fit the bill. The Fairmont inspired a Tom Waits song. His lyrics about bricks "scarred with jailhouse tattoos" and rooms smelling like "diesel" still describe the former flophouse on the edge of Hennepin Avenue's Theatre District.

"These places are vanishing," Ainsworth said, as she stood outside the old hotel's stoop amid a flurry of activity as film crews worked to prepare for a fire scene.

Other Downtown buildings she eyed are being rehabbed for condos -- not the look she needed for the film.

The worn-out, graffiti-stained Fairmont, 9 S. 9th St., is also in line for a makeover to make way for a new upscale boutique hotel.

But rehab work was a couple of weeks away when she approached the building's lead investor Ralph Burnet, who agreed to let crews use the space.

"Factotum," an adaptation of the 1975 Charles Bukowski novel set during World War II, is about a bohemian poet who aspires to a writer's job, but finds himself caught in a series of blue-collar jobs.

The film features a high-powered, well-respected cast, headed by Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny"), Lili Taylor ("Six Feet Under") and Fisher Stevens ("Bob Roberts") and will include several local actors.

Norwegian director Bent Hamer, who has teamed up with Minnesota-based executive producer Christine Kunewa Walker and New York producer Jim Stark, have also filmed Downtown at the Warehouse District's Cuzzy's Bar and Grill, 507 Washington Ave. N., and Nye's Polonaise Room, 112 E. Hennepin Ave., in addition to Chaska's Gedney Pickle Factory and Canterbury Park. Filming, begun June 14, is expected to wrap Saturday, July 17.

On the night of July 1, the Fairmont's smelly second-floor single-room apartments served as the backdrop to a rather tortured romantic relationship between Taylor's character, Jan, and Dillon's character, Henry.

Crews shot love scenes in a seedy corner room facing Downtown's ultra-chic restaurant Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave. S. Dillon working on his poetry at a cluttered desk in a cramped room facing the ProColor building, 909 Hennepin Ave. S.

"It's not exactly the Ritz," said Stark, who took a couple reporters and a photographer on a tour of the set earlier this month as crews worked to get back on schedule. "It's got a dramatic effect."

A local emergency-management team waited below in anticipation of the fire scene that was scheduled for around 10 p.m. but which didn't take place until hours later. Bright lights lit up the alley behind the Fairmont and an occasional plume of smoke poked out a second-floor window from a small smoke machine.

After shooting some heavy make-out scenes the night before, the director was onto a scene of relative chaos this night.

As Stark explained, Dillon and Taylor's characters were scripted to remain indifferent as smoke started billowing in the Fairmont and other apartment-dwellers fled.

During the tour, the actors paced the second-floor hallway, making occasion trips to a trailor parked next to the Art Institutes International, 15 S. 9th St.

A rickety staircase led to small, second-floor rooms. A narrow hallway with creaky floors ran between rows of rooms. Crews darted between the rooms, carrying cords and positioning lights.

Stark and Ainsworth said the Fairmont provided an authentic venue for Bukowski's urban novel. The novel spans a decade and the film will cover a series of months.

"I hope the film has a certain timelessness," Stark said. "We're using a lot of real people and real locations."

Dillon's bohemian writer character gets handed a janitor job after being rejected for a newspaper job. His work takes place in the St. Paul City Hall, where he polishes a large marble statute.

He handles the defeat with a sense of irreverence, humor and a heavy dose of alcohol.

Stark called Dillon, who sported a scraggly beard and a white tank top for the late-night scene, a perfect fit for the part.

"He has to be believable as a working man and as a poet and funny and sexy," he said. "It's not easy to do all those things."

The film is slated to be in theaters by spring 2005.

By then, the Fairmont is expected to have a whole new look as the Chambers, a high-end hotel based on a boutique hotel with the same name in Manhattan.