Minnesota Made TV

Erik Stolhanske, Rob Perez, and a Hollywood-tested crew banded together to film a sitcom pilot in Uptown. Here's the skinny.

Rob Perez directing the Minneapolis sitcom West Lake.
Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Rob Perez directs the pilot for "West Lake" in a Lake Calhoun penthouse.

Ever wonder why none of the TV shows set in Minnesota—Mary Tyler Moore, Coach, FX’s Fargo—were actually, um, filmed here? Neither did we, really, until we found out Rob Perez, the Californian-turned-Twin Citian who wrote the 2002 Josh Hartnett flick 40 Days And 40 Nights, was shooting a sitcom pilot set in Minneapolis, actually in Minneapolis.

The show is called West Lake and takes place in Uptown in upscale condo building The Edgewater. Co-written by Minneapolis novelist R.D. Zimmerman (in whose Calhoun-view penthouse the bulk of the show takes place) and starring Minneapolis-bred writer and actor Erik Stolhanske of Super Troopers and Beerfest fame, and former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo, WL is your classic tale of raging agoraphobe Ian (Stolhanske) and his openly gay former football player best friend/neighbor Tanner (Tuaolo) getting by in the Twin Cities amidst a cast of zany characters from their building West Lake, not the least of whom is Ian’s ex-wife.

Production of the pilot wrapped in early June and Perez and co. have been editing since with plans to shop it to everyone from major networks to Netflix when it's done. In the meantime we caught up with Perez to talk about the endeavor.

You wrote West Lake with local author R.D. Zimmerman. How did the idea come about?
R.D. and I were looking for something to write together. We came up with a setting—his condo—then worked backwards, finding the most interesting characters who would live there.


What made you guys set it in Minneapolis and film it at R.D.’s?
Well, we set the pilot there. I never thought we’d actually shoot it there, but after making a handful of short films on my own, R.D. and I quickly realized that making a pilot was doable.

You’re not from here originally, and the way I’ve heard it, Josh Hartnett’s the one who first talked you into coming to visit. Then you basically ended up crashing at his Minneapolis home when you were testing the proverbial water.
I came here originally in 2007 to make a film called Nobody. I directed that in 2008, finished it in 2009, and realized I liked living here. I like the seasons. I like the people. The world has changed. I dont have to live in Hollywood to do what I do anymore. I have to go back for meetings and things, but I’d rather hang my hat here. I recently started making shorter pieces and commercials. I made a short film for the Walker, and just kept going.

What makes this such a solid film environment?
Well, it's a handsome landscape. That helps a lot. There’s a good talent pool of actors here from the theater scene. The production crews are great if you know where to look for them. The hard part is coming up with a story worth telling, then telling it, and telling it well.


You shot the West Lake pilot with a local crew and local actors including new MN Film & TV Board president Erik Stolhanske. Do you think it’s possible to produce the actual TV series using all those same people? Is that even a goal?
The talent to tell a story is here but it's a matter of having a good story to tell, then telling it well. The goal is to create a world enticing enough that you laugh, get invested in the characters, and want to tune in next week to see what happens.

The way I see it, if the pilot does get optioned by a network, there are a few potential scenarios: 1. The studio will keep it set in Minneapolis but film it in LA. 2. The studio will keep the concept and characters the same, but change the setting to LA or NYC and film it there. 3. The studio will keep it set in Minneapolis and film it in Minneapolis. In trying to sell the pilot, how hard will you lobby for #3? Is that realistic?
Trying to predict the future is a game I stopped playing long ago. Our goal is to tell a story well. We hope someone sees a story, sees characters they’d like to see more of. This story could certainly be told in almost any other city but we chose to set it in the Twin Cities because we like it here. We hope to make more here.

When something like this doesn’t work out, which is obviously a possibility, is there still something to be gained from the experience for the people behind it and for the Minneapolis film and TV scene in general?
Failure is always a possibility, but you can’t win if you’re afraid to lose. You get up to the plate, swing the bat, give it your all, and hope for the best. If it doesn't work out, I’ll try again. I’ll have already learned a lot. Tomorrow I’ll learn more and wish it were yesterday, but it doesn’t work like that. If I continue to tell stories and get better at telling stories, then this little adventure has worked out.