Rewind 30 years and The Wilmette Theater overwhelms its block on Central Avenue much as it does today.
The protruding marquee, the tucked-in box office and the slick off-white masonry continue to define the theater’s facade. Plenty has changed inside its walls and behind closed doors, but its reliable shell made it an ideal filming location for a mid-1990s coming-of-age story.
The Wilmette Theater was one of several local backdrops for the cast and crew of “Screams From the Tower,” a throwback comedy written and directed by New Trier High School alumnus Cory Wexler Grant.
“We grew up coming to this theater,” said Grant about he and friend Jon Runnfeldt, a producer on the movie. “And it’s a total thrill to get to show our lead character (Julien) coming into this beautiful landmark.”
Grant, Runnfeldt and company spent most of the evening on Monday, Aug. 8, filming at the theater, including both interior and exterior scenes. The duo said they also filmed in Highland Park and Chicago, as well as at other Wilmette sites, such as Wilmette Junior High School and Highcrest Middle School.
The movie set — anchored by a busted-up Chevy Citation hatchback parked under the theater marquee — caught plenty of attention from the evening crowd in downtown Wilmette. A multitude of onlookers stopped and smiled to enjoy classic filming sights and sounds, like the tracking camera, the clapperboard, “Quiet on the set” and “Cut!”
Grant said shooting in Chicago is special, both for the locations and the people.
“In Chicago, in general, you don’t deal with the LA or New York people who are used to filming,” he said. “So (people here) are much more generous with their homes and their time. There’s a greater sense of community and willingness to help.”
Much of the cast and crew also hailed from Chicago, he said.
Wilmette has welcomed its share of movie sets over the years, including major motion pictures like Matt Damon’s “Contagion” in 2010 and John Hughes’ “Home Alone.”
“Screams From the Tower” is Grant’s second feature and a significant change of pace from his first, “Painter,” a psychological thriller released in 2020. The new film is based on Grant’s and Runnfeldt’s teenage years on the North Shore in the mid- to late ’90s.
Just like the pair, the main characters of the movie, Julien (Richie Fusco) and Cary (David Bloom), have a radio show at their high school. When the radio show takes off, the friends must deal with the popularity and scrutiny that comes with the success, all the while pushing the line of what they say and do on air.
“Not to give too much away but they have that classic moment where friends separate and then come back together,” Grant said.
Adding complexity to the story, Julien lives with obsessive compulsive disorder and is challenged to handle the newfound notoriety. Additionally, both Julien and Cary are gay and in the closet, and when one of them comes out, both must respond in a less-tolerant 1990s environment.
Grant and Runnfeldt said while sexuality and health are essential parts of the characters, they are not the story.
“There’s OCD in it and there’s the gay stuff in it, but that’s not really about that,” Runnfeldt said. “It’s about the characters. … And I think a lot of people responded to that in the script, especially the OCD treatment. (The OCD) is just a villain that’s trying to take this guy down … and the creative expression is the way out of mental anguish.”
Grant said he avoided writing in LGBTQ+ tropes, such as “religious persecution” or “an unrequited crush,” and instead stayed true to his experiences about growing up.
“I thought that might be a funny premise: two outcast, in-the-closet gay kids who had a radio show as their only form of self expression,” he said. “I thought it would make a very funny kind of 2022 take on a John Hughes comedy — with a gay bent.”
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