When Bill Holmquist was hired to work on the 1997 Oliver Stone film U Turn, he lied and said he knew where Superior, Arizona was in where the film was set to be shot. “I had no idea and I had lived in Mesa for about 15 years,” he says with a laugh. “I got on the phone with my wife and said ‘Where the hell is Superior?’” They both agreed it was “east or something.”
Holmquist has been the construction coordinator—think project manager for set construction—on over 70 films, including There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Raising Arizona, Tombstone, Twilight, and the recently wrapped Independence Day: Resurgence. He recalls arriving on set for U Turn and finding Superior’s historic district completely boarded up. “The town was not in good shape in 1996. It was pretty bad actually,” he says. His orders were clear: “We’re going to re-do the whole street,” they told him. “We’re going to open this town up.”
The Town of Superior initially gave him the run of his building on Main Street as a construction shop while U Turn was being filmed. “They asked me if I wanted to buy the building and I didn’t want to buy the building. I wanted to leave actually,” he admits. When U Turn wrapped, Holmquist explains that the town talked him into working on remodeling the Belmont Hotel. After completing the hotel, he bought his shop building and “one thing led to another […] I got to know everybody up here and I got hooked into the whole thing.”
Since then, Holmquist has been an unwavering advocate for the town of Superior, particularly its historic downtown, working to purchase and restore a number of buildings including those that now house Porter’s Cafe, Random Boutique (his wife Jenny’s shop), and the newly opened SunFlour Market. Holmquist let GMT in on a little secret: the beautiful bar in SunFlour Market is from U Turn, and the building served as a diner set in the film. After buying it, he rehabilitated the building and “it became a real place instead of just a movie place.”
It’s not hard to see the impact that the fictional version of an open Superior Main Street he created for U Turn continues to have on Holmquist. Ever since then, he’s been working—building by building—to make it a reality. “I got hooked into this place and I always tried to make it a better place and get things open, remodel buildings—that was the goal, to try to get it going, which I think it is now,” he says.
The counterpoint to the very tangible work of fixing up buildings is the pressure he has put on Professor Glenn Wilt Jr., better known as Dr. Wilt. Wilt owns a number of buildings in Superior that are vacant, many of them neglected and crumbling. “I’ve been a crazy man trying to get Wilt in the right direction,” says Holmquist. “It has been a constant battle for me.”
Holmquist says that Wilt’s impact on the community reaches far beyond his buildings. “What happens is the kids suffer. So, all those minimum wage jobs—the kid that’s doing the coffee, or the kid that’s cleaning something up, whatever it is—those aren’t there because of him.” Holmquist is, in a sense, the anti-Wilt—buying historic buildings, restoring them, and shepherding the growth of local businesses in Superior.
Two things that continually come up when Holmquist talks about what made him fall for Superior are the people and the quiet. A lot of the time at work, “I am in total chaos,” he explains. “I get off the plane, I come back here, and I just relax.” On set, Holmquist oversees multi-million dollar budgets, operates on tight timelines, and manages a team of carpenters, painters, sculptors, plasterers, and laborers.
He got started in Hollywood in his early twenties, when he responded to a full-page ad in the LA Times. All the studios were hiring for all the trades, he remembers, so “I stood in line. I was just a kid.” He was brought on as a prop-maker, essentially a carpenter, and worked his way up through the ranks to construction coordinator. Holmquist offers a simplified version of where his job fits into making a movie. “The production designer designs the look of the film and then we create it.”
The first step for every new film he works on is an interview with the production designer. Holmquist admits. “When I was younger, it was a little nerve wracking, … I had to prove my experience.” Now that he has years of know-how, he says that his interviews are pretty much just an opportunity for the production designer to decide whether or not he or she likes him. These days, “I’m usually older than the people who are interviewing me,” says Holmquist. He has also seen resumes more or less go by the wayside during his time in Hollywood, saying that before he even walks into an interview, he knows the people there have scoped him out on IMDb, and he has most certainly checked them out, too.
On set, first “the designer starts designing the show. They start drawing up concepts. We try to start budgeting,” explains Holmquist. After some back and forth, “We get the budget right, we get the concept right, and then everything goes to approval.” Once the plans are shown to the director and the director gives an OK, they start building fast. “The timelines are incredible because they show up regardless,” says Holmquist of the uncompromising production schedule. “It’s not like doing a house,” when you can have a three or four week delay. His job is to always stay ahead of the production team. “If they catch you, that’s not good,” he says.
There’s a timeline for taking everything down, too, called a “strike schedule.” Because they shoot in places like people’s houses and commercial buildings, Holmquist and his team not only have to tear everything down, but make sure everything is in the same, or better, condition than it was when they started. Then, it starts all over again. Holmquist works on two to three movies a year.
He steals time in Superior every chance he gets. “If I got time off, I’ll spend a month here,” says Holmquist. Over the years, he’s gotten flack for spending so much of his time, energy, and money in Superior. “There were all of these naysayers, all of these years,” says Holmquist. People grilled him: “What are you doing up there?” and “Why are you investing all of your money there?”
A few days before Christmas, when I visited him in Superior, he was excited to show me the flying pig that he had just hung up in his shop window—a nod to the critics that didn’t believe in the potential that Holmquist saw in Superior. “It took so long for it to change, but it’s changing really fast right now. We’re so happy about it,” says Holmquist of the many positive changes that are sweeping Superior right now: new businesses are opening at a steady rate, murals are being painted, the Magma Hotel is being remodeled, and community events are more successful than ever.
“I couldn’t wait to put that pig up,” says Holmquist. “The pigs are now flying in Superior.”
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.