News Column

Lamb's book comes alive in Willimantic

August 13, 2014

By Michelle Firestone, The Chronicle, Willimantic, Conn.

Aug. 13--WILLIMANTIC -- Having his novel, "Wishin' and Hopin,'" come to life on the big screen is a dream come true for Mansfield resident Wally Lamb.

What has made the experience even more special for him, though, is having his friends involved in the production of the film, which finished shooting Tuesday in Willimantic.

Scenes were shot in front of the old cinema in Jillson Square in Willimantic, at the nearby Arts at the Capitol Theater, a magnet school, and at a house on Lewiston Avenue.

"I think it went fantastic," Lamb said this morning. " Synthetic Cinema did a terrific job on a

relatively modest budget and I think they knocked it out of the park."

One of his former Norwich Free Academy students, Andrew Gernhard, co- owns Synthetic Cinema International, a film production company based in Rocky Hill that shot the film. Lamb's former co-worker at NFA, Ken Lamothe, played the bus driver.

"I think this is so exceedingly cool," said Lamothe. "I'm just so glad they're able to film this in eastern Connecticut."

Lamb, who appeared at the filming later in the day, was an English teacher at NFA for 25 years, where Lamothe taught mathematics.

Lamothe said not only was he Lamb's best man as his wedding, but Lamb was his best man when he got married.

On Tuesday, Lamothe said he was honored to act in Lamb's movie.

"It was really neat shooting at NFA where he taught," he said.

Lamb was an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut for several years, where he directed the creative writing program in the English department.

The movie is based on his New York Times best-selling novel.

It takes place in Three Rivers, a fictional town in eastern Connecticut, and was shot in parts of Willimantic, Norwich and Jewett City.

Producer Zach O'Brien said the majority of the movie was shot at NFA.

"We did a full Christmas pageant at NFA," he said.

The movie is set in the 1960s and is a comedic Christmas story about Felix Funicello, a fifthgrader who attends the fictional St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School.

In the movie, Funicello is a distant cousin of Mouseketeer and teen movie queen Annette Funicello.

The movie was directed by Colin Theys and stars some wellknown actors and actresses, such as Molly Ringwald, singer Meat Loaf and Annabella Sciora.

O'Brien said the studio typically works 12-hour days, including crew clean-up time, and hoped to finish no later than 10 p.m. Tuesday.

While at Jillson Square, actors and actresses were involved in a scene in which a bus was headed to Hartford to participate in the "Ranger Andy Show," which was on television in Connecticut in the 1950s and 1960s.

During their bus ride, the children sang "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," annoying Lamothe's character.

When that song is sung, Lamothe said his character wanted "no part of it."

The magnet school shoot involved Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Midshipmen, who are like Boy Scouts but are the children of parents in the Navy, who attended the "Ranger Andy Show."

Employees from EastConn, the Hampton-based nonprofit educational services agency that oversees the Arts at the Arts at the Capitol Theater magnet school, watched scenes being filmed Tuesday.

"It's really very exciting and, in many ways, unexpected. But, what a wonderful cast," said EastConn spokesman Teddie Sleight. "EastConn is thrilled and so is everybody that was there."

The plan is to have a limited release of the movie, including dates in Connecticut and New York, before Thanksgiving.

Those involved with the film were headed to New York City today to shop the movie around.

"We haven't sold anything yet, but we know a lot of places that want to do it," said O'Brien.

According to Lamb, the movie will play on the Lifetime network around Christmas time.

Because it is a Christmas story, he felt the movie was appropriate for that channel.

"My other books are longer and more complex," he said. "I think this one just sort of fits the format they are looking for."

Though he has earned numerous awards for his novels, "Wishin' and Hopin'" is the first Wally Lamb novel that is being turned into a movie.

His honors include Connecticut Center for the Book's Lifetime Achievement Award, the Connecticut Bar Association's Distinguished Public Service Award and the Barnes and Noble "Writers for Writers" award. According to O'Brien, the process started when Lamb and Gernhard reconnected on Facebook.

Gernhard could not be reached for comment.

Lamb noted he used to live with his family on Lewiston Avenue in Willimantic, "so we brought the production back to the neighborhood."

O'Brien said the majority of the cast and crew are from Connecticut, with many of the extras recruited from towns across the state.

For example, Nancy Gatto of Old Lyme auditioned for the film, but when those conducting the audition asked if she had a child with her, she told them she had a grandson, Maxwell Gatto of Essex.

She got him involved instead.

"I wanted to introduce him to this because I thought this might be another interest," Nancy Gatto said during filming at Jillson Square.

Some of the extras spoke about their work while taking a break from the set.

"I think it's a great experience for him," said Daniela Markelon of Middlebury, mother of Colin Markelon.

She noted he was working on the movie with one of his closest friends and neighbor, Colin Martin, " which makes it even better."

" He's really liking it," Katie Martin, Colin Martin's mother, said of her son's experience. "He's never done anything like this before, so he's having fun."

Colin Markelon, who is 9 and in the fourth-grade, got involved due to his personal ties with one of the crewmembers. "My neighbor is one of the directors," he said.

One challenge of acting in the movie, he said, was that if something was funny, it was difficult "not to laugh."


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