They just shot a Steven Soderbergh movie at this UM-Dearborn professor’s house

November 18, 2020

Dale and Anne Thomson’s Detroit home recently played host to actors Ray Liotta and Benicio Del Toro.

 UM-Dearborn Political Science Professor Dale Thomson in front of his home in Northwest Detroit.
UM-Dearborn Political Science Professor Dale Thomson in front of his home in Northwest Detroit.

You may have seen recent news stories that the new Steven Soderbergh film, which is set in 1950s Detroit, is also being shot in Detroit. It’s generated a bit of local buzz because of its big name cast, which includes John Hamm, Ray Liotta, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon and Julia Fox ("Uncut Gems"). The crew is using several locations for the film, and it turns out one of them is Political Science Professor Dale Thomson and CEHHS Lecturer Anne Thomson’s Northwest Detroit home. Recently, we caught up with Dale to dish about the experience — and, of course, see if they got to meet any celebrities. 

So how did your home end up being one of the shoot locations?

Basically the production team was looking for homes and they put the call out in our neighborhood newsletter. I didn’t see the initial call out — Anne had seen it — but then they came around knocking on doors, and they asked if we wanted our house to be considered as an option. We didn’t think it was likely because they mentioned wanting a house with a 1950s kitchen, and ours had been renovated. But they scheduled a visit, walked around, and then three days later, Steven Soderbergh showed up to check out the house. 

And did you get to hang around while he toured the house?

Yeah, it was pretty cool. He was super quick, which I guess is his process. They came in, and the art director and location scouts walked him through how they thought different spots in the house could be used for different scenes. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes, and then they called us — maybe even later that day — and said, ‘We want you for Frank Capelli’s house.’

And Frank Capelli is...?

Ray Liotta is Frank Capelli.

Wow, cool. And did they tell you about the parts of the movie they were going to shoot with him at the house?

They did. But I can’t really share that! The studio is pretty tight about that. I mean, I don’t have that many details, but they did tell us some stuff because there were a couple of things they wanted to make sure we were okay with. And they had to explain how they were going to change the interior of the house to make it look like the 1950s.

Tell us about that.

So first they moved all of our furniture out of our first floor and our main bedroom upstairs. They repainted everything. They replaced all the light futures and light switches so they were push button switches. They put up wallpaper from the 1950s in our dining room; I guess they have a warehouse they go to in New York for actual 1950s wallpaper. In the kitchen, they took out our appliances and put in old appliances. They replaced all our cabinet and drawer fronts and built new ones. They replaced our faucet with an old one and put formica over our granite countertops. They stocked it with food cans from the ‘50s, and they installed drapes, and carpeting and furniture from the period. The level of detail was pretty amazing. For example, I noticed in our bedroom that they put a container on the dresser for loose change and they had cufflinks from that time period. They also put ashtrays everywhere, because back then, everyone smoked. They even used cigarettes from that time period. It really was a little shocking to see the transformation. In many ways, it reminded me of my grandma’s house. It looked great, but it definitely didn’t look like our house anymore.

That sounds really cool, but also kind of invasive. Did that process make you and Anne feel a little nervous — like they were going to mess up your house and all the work you’ve done to it over the years?

There was definitely a part of me that felt like that. They didn’t paint over any of our natural woodwork, so that was good. But when they’re done shooting, they walk you through and ask if there’s anything you want to keep. And then they restore everything back to the way it was. I mean, they even take pictures of the inside of your cupboards to make sure everything is put back exactly right. And they did paint one room that really needed painting.

So did you get to watch any of the filming, as a homeowner perk?

No, but we did drive by one night before they were actually filming to see them setting up. And I guess our nextdoor neighbor, Lloyd, almost interrupted a couple of scenes! It was a night scene and he came out to chat with the people on the front lawn, and they had to ‘shhhh’ him because they had just started filming inside.

So it sounds like other than Soderbergh, you didn’t get to meet any celebrities.

I didn’t! It does seem like it should be a perk. Like, we should get a photo or get them to sign something. But I’m sure they don’t want their actors to get hounded every time they do something on location. Plus, of course, the COVID rules made it so you really couldn’t have extra people in the house. It’s funny because they were looking to rent out a second house on the block so they’d have a place for the actors to hang out. But I guess they didn’t end up using it, and the actors ended up hanging out in our basement! And our basement is OK. But it’s not super finished, and the ceiling is so low. I kept thinking,  ‘Benicio Del Toro is down there in our basement, and he’s kind of tall, and he’s going to nail his head on a low-hanging rafter.’ But I guess it worked out OK.

One last question: You had to vacate your house for the filming, so where’d you end up staying?

Yeah, it’s funny because initially we were thinking we’d rent a beach house somewhere because Anne and I are both teaching online. But we have a dog and we have a family member who’s battling cancer, so we decided to stay close. The thought was that we’d rent a place that was super walkable to restaurants and shops. But those places were all booked. So we ended up in Lovely Livonia at 5 Mile and Merriman, and later, in a hotel. So it wasn’t quite as glamorous as we anticipated. But we could walk to the Kroger and the Tropical Smoothie, and we did have a big yard for our dog to run around in. So it was all good. We were very much longing to get back to our house, though, and we’ve really missed our neighbors. In fact, as we were packing up initially, it almost felt like we were moving, and it was an almost melancholy feeling. So I think we’ll appreciate our house and our street in a whole new way.