Hollywood on the Prairie


Set in St. Louis Park in the 1960’s, the film A Serious Man by academy award winners Joel and Ethan Coen is the story of an ordinary man trying to find his equilibrium. In the film the main character, Larry Gopnik, is a professor at a small Midwestern university. His wife is leaving him for one of his colleagues. His unemployed brother is sleeping on his living room couch. He is hassled by his children, his neighbor, and one of his students. Struggling to become a serious man, or at the very least to be taken seriously, he seeks advice from three rabbis.

In preparation for the film, staff from the production company approached the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest for help in recreating the look of Minnesota Jewish life in the 1960’s. The call came in late on a weekday afternoon in Fall, 2007. The voice on the other end of the line was working on deadline, needed lots of scanned photos, and couldn’t say much about who needed them or what they were for. The subject matter was specific: Jewish teenagers circa 1967 socializing in an educational setting.

And so began a year-long relationship between the Coen Brother’s advance team for A Serious Man and JHSUM. Using photos from the St Paul JCC collection, the JHSUM portrait files and the teen photos folders in the Steinfeldt Photography collection, JHSUM staff found visuals to fit the set and costume design specs right down to those stylish madras shirts, stretch headbands and sunbeam wall clocks. Photos of St. Louis Park houses and businesses from JHSUM collections provided location scouts with the authentic look of a 1960’s neighborhood.  JHSUM also collaborated with a legal research firm to verify the fictional status of characters in the film. Read film analysis by Minneapolis Star Tribune film critic Colin Colvert presented in JHSUM sponsored talks at B’Nai Emet and Temple Israel.

Above (l-r): Costume designer, Mary Zophres with JHSUM photos used as inspiration. Mary putting the finishing touches on an extra’s costume.

So I started doing research at the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. Let me tell you, that was the mother lode of research. They had the greatest research photographs I had ever seen…I didn’t have a handle on how to costume this movie until I saw all those marvelous pictures JHSUM gave us to use. When those pictures came, it was all right there in front of us!
Mary Zophres, costume director

Click here to read the Los Angeles Times’ article about costume design with Mary Zophres.

We had fun mingling on the set with film world movers and shakers, and appreciated the crew’s delight at getting photographic content that resulted in strong, authentic costumes, hair and interiors.