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Seeds of HBO’s ‘How to with John Wilson’ were planted in Somerville

City Council members honored the filmmaker and his ties to the area during a meeting this week.

John Wilson, the filmmaker behind the HBO series "How To With John Wilson," at his favorite discount store in New York.ADAM POWELL/NYT

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Before he had a hit show on HBO, John Wilson honed his craft in Somerville.

Earlier this month, the New York-based filmmaker and former Somerville resident’s series, “How To with John Wilson,” closed out its third and final season, after garnering praise and an Emmy nomination for its singular style and odd, heartfelt — and often unsettling — storytelling.


To celebrate the show and its ties to the area, the Somerville City Council on Thursday honored Wilson with an official citation for his contributions to the local scene — including the bizarre short film “People Parade,” part of which was shot outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts near his old apartment in the city.

“It’s not every day that a former Somerville resident goes on to get a show on HBO and three years of well-deserved critical acclaim,” Councillor Ben Ewen-Campen, who is a friend of Wilson’s, said in an interview before this week’s meeting. “It’s also a good reminder that we have just an incredibly vibrant arts community here that is very much under threat as it gets more and more impossibly expensive to live here.”

For the occasion, we checked in with Wilson via email about his time in Somerville, sneaking into Harvard University, and an MBTA bus cameo in one of his old videos.

What brought you to Somerville?

I lived at 44 Lincoln Parkway in Somerville from 2009 to 2011. After I graduated from [Binghamton University in New York] I kind of wanted a change of scenery, and my childhood friend, Chris Maggio, had just graduated from BU so I just decided to move to Somerville on a whim.


How did your time here influence you?

I fell in love with the area and spent a lot of time at the Harvard Film Archive going to screenings. The Cambridge Public Library also had all of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, so I was able to burn through his entire filmography fairly quickly which influenced me a lot. I would also sometimes eat three meals a day in the Harvard dining halls because we found a way to sneak into the dorms without anyone noticing. I eventually made friends with a handful of people there and they didn’t care that I wasn’t a student.

One of my earliest friends there was Ben Ewen-Campen, who lived with a bunch of other people on School Street. They were all such great storytellers and I really looked up to them. A lot of my closest friends in NYC right now are people that I actually met in Boston during those years.

Were you shooting films here back then?

I shot at least 20 short films while I was living there — “People Parade” being one of them. I was mostly shooting on my Hi8 camera and the seeds of “How To...” were definitely beginning to form aesthetically.

I worked at [Cambridge Community Television] for about two years while I was living there. I taught intro to film classes for community members and even had them act in some of my stuff. “People Parade” was largely shot on location at CCTV when it was still on Prospect Street in Central Square.


There are some scenes in “People Parade” that look like they were shot at a local Dunkin’.

Yes, good eye - that was the Dunkin’ Donuts in Somerville. I tied a bag of ashes to the back of an MBTA bus and let it drive away. Still not sure what happened to it.

Spencer Buell can be reached at Follow him @SpencerBuell.