Lights, Camera, Action!
Local filmmakers and production companies
bring a little Hollywood to Connecticut
by Sarah Wesley Lemire
It’s an unseasonably warm October afternoon, but in Old Wethersfield it’s Christmastime.
Shop windows are adorned with garland, there’s snow on the sidewalks and the Hurlbut-Dunham House, a historic landmark located in the center of town, is gearing up for a holiday party.
Inside the 18th century Victorian, preparations are underway with tree-trimming and Christmas cards being hung by crew members, busily finalizing details before it’s time to shoot the scene.
It’s the last day of filming on the set of the Hallmark Channel film “Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane,” and with merely weeks to go before it airs, the team at Synthetic Cinema International is working under a short deadline.
“Movie days are long,” says Andrew Gernhard, producer and owner of the Rocky Hill-based motion picture and production company.
“Yesterday, I worked a 20-hour day; I got home at midnight and had to be up at 4 a.m. to get back to the set for 6 o’clock.”
However, the extended hours are worth it, considering film is what Gernhard is passionate about.
“I consider myself the most fortunate man in the world,” he says. “I love movies of every genre. I love working in movies, no matter how hard it is, or how awful or great it is.”
As a young filmmaker and fan of director Steven Spielberg, Gernhard got his start in 2000 after making a shot-by-shot parody of Spielberg’s “Jaws” – called “Trees” – which features a man-eating, great white – wait for it – pine tree.
By sheer luck, the release of the SNL-style spoof coincided with the 25th anniversary of the original, and Gernhard’s film went national.
“Every Blockbuster in America bought, like, 10 copies,” says Gerhard, laughing. “So 80,000 units on VHS of this stupid, awful movie called ‘Trees’ went all over the place.”
Capitalizing on its success, in 2004, Gernhard produced the tongue-in-cheek sequel, “Trees 2: The Root of All Evil,” which, unfortunately, wasn’t met with the same reception.
Discouraged, he took a break until distributers began contacting him, seeking more films.
He obliged, and since then, has been involved in the production of more than 30 movies, all filmed in Connecticut except for one.
While much of his early work is largely concentrated on horror flicks, more recent years have seen Gernhard producing a variety of other types of films, including the 2014 production of “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” a drama comedy based on the New York Times best-selling novella by acclaimed author and Connecticut resident, Wally Lamb. The movie, which aired on the Lifetime channel, starred Molly Ringwald and was narrated by Chevy Chase.
Gernhard says the movie was one of his favorites, along with the 2017 film “Romance at Reindeer Lodge.”
“That was a last-minute film for Hallmark. We actually had to make it and deliver it within six weeks, which is insane,” he says.
Despite the frenetic pace, he says, things went smoothly and it was a movie he truly enjoyed making.
“It was kind of great just to see all this fake snow and [it had this] magical atmosphere; there’s just something about it.”
Finding a niche in the genre, Gernhard has also produced “A Very Merry Toy Store,” starring Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez, along with “Christmas at Pemberley Manor” and “A Very Nutty Christmas.”
A Norwich native, he’s returned to his hometown to shoot many of his films and says that Connecticut is the ideal location, especially when making holiday movies.
“When anyone thinks ‘classic Christmas,’ it’s all New England architecture, landscapes, so I think that’s why a lot of these companies are interested in Connecticut … for that ‘Christmas in New England’ kind of feel.”
With multiple projects in current, pre- and post-production, Gernhard is flush with work, which he says translates into jobs for actors and film crews throughout the state.
And though he once aspired to be the next George Lucas, he says that his career and subsequent success in filmmaking is more than he could have hoped for.
“I look back at my life, and what I’ve achieved, what we’re working on, have worked on, and I could not have done it any better; I could not be happier with the way everything has turned out.”
Goodnight Film – Essex
A.D. Calvo didn’t get into filmmaking until later in life.
After working in software and technology for many years, as his 40th birthday approached, he began rethinking his vocation for two reasons: his father had passed away at a young age, and advances in digital technology allowed what had been a long-time desire, to become a reality.
“I had always wanted to be a filmmaker as a child, so I embraced the technology and jumped in,” he says.
Fueled by a quote he read suggesting that if you can become successful doing something you don’t like, you can do even better doing something you love, he took the leap in 2005, establishing Goodnight Films in Wallingford.
“I was not afraid at all because I felt like it was almost some destiny,” he says. “I really felt like this was exactly what I needed to be doing at this point in time.”
After making a few short films, Calvo penned the screenplay for his first feature-length project, “The Other Side of the Tracks,” a suspense film about a man haunted by the memories of his girlfriend, who was killed in a train accident.
Through a mutual friend, his script ended up in the hands of some Hollywood producers, who liked it enough to sign on as executive producers, giving it legs and credibility.
“We were able to get the film to Showtime on a two-year rotation,” he says.
The success of the project resulted in more work for Calvo, and soon he began production on another film, this time with a bigger budget and higher-profile actors.
“Then the Lehman Brothers collapse happened in September of 2008 and everything just unwound. So a year’s worth of work went out the window.”
Despite the setback, Calvo was eager to continue working, subsequently writing and directing a second independent film, before deciding to take a break in order to direct films written by other screenwriters.
Neither proved to be satisfying.
“All these films got distribution,” he says, “but I had a bar that I wanted to hit – critically, and in terms of if I looked back on the work and was happy with it. And I wasn’t quite hitting that bar.”
So, in 2013, he shifted gears, writing and directing “The Missing Girl,” a suspenseful, dark comedy centered around the owner of a comic book shop and the young graphic novelist he’s hired, which Calvo filmed in New London.
Starring veteran actor Robert Longstreet (currently appearing on the Netflix show “The Haunting of Hill House”), the film screened and was well-received at the acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, as well as making the rounds at multiple other accredited festivals throughout the country and in Europe.
In 2016, he completed his next project, “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl,” a horror movie filmed in and around Vernon, and currently featured on SHUDDER, AMC Networks’ subscription horror-film streaming service.
Calvo says because Connecticut is among the oldest states in the country, it serves as a great backdrop for his films, which often feature elements of loneliness, dread and atmosphere.
“I find that this area has a lot of texture,” he says. “We’re going to find a lot of those gothic or old New England villages and haunting kind of areas, or areas that are just stuck in time and have a period kind of feel to them, which is often so hard to recreate.”
When he’s writing, he often visualizes places in the state that he’s familiar with or has driven past. “It helps with the storytelling to have a sense of place,” he says. “Visually and physically, Connecticut has been great and inspirational to my stories.”
In sum, Calvo has done six feature films and is currently working on his seventh, a follow-up to “Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl,” which begins shooting next year.
“We’re hoping to take it to another level – bigger budget, bringing on bigger names, talent,” he says.
If things go according to plan, it’ll be released in 2020.
As for Calvo, who recently relocated Goodnight Film to Essex, he hasn’t looked back since making his leap of faith more than 14 years ago.
“It’s the art; you do it because you love it,” he says. “It’s been a humbling but very rewarding experience.”
Shadow | Vale Productions – Cromwell
Somewhere along the way to becoming a lawyer, Cromwell native David Gere became a model, actor, stunt man and film producer instead.
A student at Providence College in Rhode Island in 1996, Gere took a film class where he was introduced to Peter Farrelly, an alumnus, as well as director and writer of hit films like “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.”
“We initially had a casual meeting and then I was offered a role in ‘Outside Providence,’ a film starring Alec Baldwin based on a book Peter had written,” Gere says. “That started my journey on set and earned me entry into the Screen Actors Guild.”
For nearly a decade, Gere worked as an actor, accumulating an impressive IMDB list of credits in films like “War of the Worlds” and “Rocky Balboa” and the television series “Gossip Girl.”
He also performed stunts in more than 18 movies, including “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Purge: Election Year.”
But acting didn’t always prove to be an easy gig.
“I would drive to New York City, have a one-minute audition and not have any idea of the context, if I had a shot at the role, or what the feedback might be, and [I’d] turn right around go back to Connecticut, always kind of wondering.”
That uncertainty proved to be a catalyst, motivating Gere to become more involved in how things operated behind the camera, as opposed to in front of it.
“Really, the decisions are made in the boardroom, or among the executives or producers in terms of how films are structured, who gets in films, whether they’re independent or studio,” he says, “and I felt this propensity towards wanting to learn more, to understand it. It’s a big mystery when you first start out, especially as an actor.”
While continuing to act, Gere began branching out, making connections and becoming increasingly involved in the business end of film production.
“When I got into a position to learn the business, I realized that I really might have a good mind for producing, and started to produce some smaller, independent films. I played them close to home in Cromwell, Middletown, realizing that I could get some help from friends and family and resources I had access to.”
Before long, he began producing larger projects, shooting both locally and nationally from New York to Los Angeles.
Since 2012, he’s been involved with the production of more than 40 films including “Bleed for This,” the story of boxer Vinny Pazienza, starring Miles Teller and “The Opposite Sex,” a comedy featuring Mena Suvari and Kristin Chenoweth.
In addition to working with several different production companies, Gere, along with partner, Chelsea Vale, recently launched Shadow | Vale Productions, a production company based in Los Angeles and Cromwell.
He strives to do as many films in Connecticut as he’s able because it allows him to give back to the state and his community.
“I’m just so grateful for being able to do what I love, involving dozens, if not hundreds, of people that I know in these projects.” Gere says he’s pleased that he’s been able to “give a break” to the many crewmembers and actors from Connecticut who have played a role in his films.
Gere is currently in production on several films, including “My Adventures With Santa,” a holiday film shot in Meriden, Middletown and Cromwell, starring Denise Richards, Barbara Eden and Patrick Muldoon, which is set to be released in 2019.
He’s also working on a new project for Netflix, as well as a crime thriller called “Five Times Thirty-Eight,” slated to begin shooting in Connecticut next year. His recently completed film “Vault,” a period crime piece, is scheduled for a spring 2019 release.
“I want to continue to make great feature films,” he says, “and up the ante in terms of the scope. I want to really play some great projects to Connecticut and continue the longevity of that process for myself, my company, and all the people I work with here.”