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Across the Tracks. Making movies in Milwaukee?

Mar. 26, 2008
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Afteropening scenes around the kitchen tables of their homes, the two very different teenage girls at the heart of Tracks finally meet in the girls-room mirror at school. They don’t like what they see at first, but find each other again through the Internet and become fast friends.

Catherine (Amanda J. Hull) comes from a solid though not entirely perfect upper-middle-class family where mom takes an interest and sets expectations. Claire (Rebecca Rose Phillips) is lowermiddle-class; her mom snarls at her from across the room. When Claire is called into the school office because her mom’s check for the hot lunch program bounces, Cat gladly settles the account for her new friend.

Tracks, the debut feature from Milwaukee writer-director Josh Rosenberg, was inspired by a headline in the local paper. “I had read an article on two girls from Oak Creek who were hit by a train. They only knew each other for a few weeks,” he says. “I wondered how you could know somebody for such a short time and die like that. It’s such an intense conclusion.”

Rosenberg decided to imagine a pair of high school girls and develop a story for the characters. For Catherine, her relationship with Claire becomes an unanticipated downward spiral into the more dismal end of teenage wasteland. One of Rosenberg’s best decisions was to tap the well of Milwaukee stage actors. Some of the faces will be familiar to local theatergoers. Lee Ernst plays a small role as Catherine’s dad. Jim Tasse is more prominent as Claire’s weaselly and abusive father. Claire’s eyes visibly shrink when he returns unexpectedly from a bluecollar job up north.

UW-Milwaukee acting instructor Raeleen McMillion can be credited for the casting. She introduced Rosenberg to Hull and Phillips, students from the university’s theater program. Although they are a few years older than the characters they play, they inhabit their roles with easy naturalism.

The decision to use stage actors was wise, given Tracks’ limited budget for time and money. Several recent local movies have suffered from using unseasoned actors who might have delivered better performances if they had had the luxury to redo their scenes until getting them right. Rosenberg’s cast was capable of getting it right on the quick.

Scott Foley from UWM’s film department took charge of cinematography, lighting the digitally filmed scenes to their best advantage and occasionally developing new ways to incorporate the cheap and easy visual technology of today’s teens, including cell phone cameras, into the visual flow of filmmaking.

Rosenberg works at the Downer Theatre and incorporated the cinema and surrounding neighborhood as well as other familiar local settings into the production. One scene was filmed inside the polished marble pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava wing. “The thing I experienced most about Milwaukee was people’s willingness to help out,” Rosenberg says. “A family that lived near where we were filming opened their house to us. They let us use their bathroom and provided us with lunch. People were so gracious and lent a hand in any way possible. I don’t think you’d find that everywhere.” Tracks will be screened at 12:45 p.m., March 29, at the Oriental Theatre.


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