Courtesy Ten Ten Films
Emily Bridges in The Public Domain
When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed on August 1, 2007, 13 people died, 145 were injured, and countless thousands experienced the terror vicariously, through constant media coverage and the sight, visible for months, of an empty space where a bridge ought to be.
Events like the bridge disaster send a ripple of fear through our collective consciousness. Yet we all absorb and process that emotion in different ways. Fear can paralyze and destroy; it can breed anxiety, addiction, guilt, depression, and anger—but it can also motivate and inspire. Local filmmaker, actor, and writer Patrick Coyle has attempted to capture some of the psychological complexity of this emotional ripple effect in his new film, The Public Domain.
“The genesis of the movie came from discussions I had with a friend who had just crossed the bridge when it collapsed and saw it go down in her rear-view mirror,” Coyle says. “We talked a lot about survivor’s guilt, and how an event like that impacts everyone—not just the people on the bridge.”
The Public Domain is Coyle’s third feature film. His first two—Detective Fiction (2003) and Into Temptation (2009)—were critical (if not commercial) successes. Likewise, The Public Domain should secure Coyle’s reputation as one of the most serious and interesting filmmakers in town—which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your tolerance for movies that make you think.
First of all, in writing the film, Coyle dispensed with all the easy, obvious plot options. Whatever your expectations may be for a film “about” the 35W calamity, The Public Domain will defy them. The characters are not based on real people.
Families who lost loved ones in the collapse are not involved in the story, and neither are most of the survivors. In fact, only two of the characters were actually on the bridge when it fell; the rest are relatives, friends, or business associates whose lives are affected by the event, but in subtle, sneaky, unpredictable ways.
Set seven years after the bridge tragedy, one of the main plot lines involves an advertising executive who should have been on the bridge when it collapsed, and feels guilty about creating, and profiting from, an ad campaign for an insurance company that exploits people’s fear from that day. But that’s not all. Because Coyle is one of those writers who loves paradox and ambiguity, the story also involves actors and a casting agent for whom this same ad campaign represents a valuable payday.
The city, too, is a kind of character—but again, not in the way you might expect.
The Public Domain derives its title from a fictitious Minneapolis bar where the lives of the central characters intersect, but this is no Cheers. The Minneapolis Coyle portrays is not a city of clean glass buildings and convenient skyways; it is a gritty, urban landscape of back alleys and warehouses, of streets lined with dirty snow and block after block of bleak brick buildings. Most of the people in this movie are struggling to get by because something in their lives gave way when the bridge collapsed, whether they were directly involved or not. The bar is a brief sanctuary, but eventually these people have to go out and face their lives again, even if they don’t quite know what they’re struggling against.
“I know people will find this confusing, but this isn’t a film about the bridge collapse,” Coyle explains. “It’s a film about people, and the bridge just happens to be part of their life experience, whether they like it or not.”
Besides being shot locally, one of the pleasures of watching Coyle’s film is that it is cast almost entirely with local actors. Mark Benninghofen, Emily Bridges (actor Beau Bridges’s daughter), Michelle Hutchison, Peter Christian Hansen, Jim Lichtscheidl, Sara Marsh, Randy Reyes, James Williams, and many other familiar faces from the local theater scene are in it, and you can thank those legacy amendment dollars that it even exists. This is a local film in every sense of the word, except that the bridge collapse itself was a global story, so the connection is universal.