Published July 18. 2014 3:06PM Updated July 19. 2014 5:20PM
Norwich — Behind Norwich Free Academy’s Cranston Hall on Friday, the buff-and-polished parked cars were vintage. The assembled kids looked like proper 1960s Catholic-school students — the boys in maroon blazers, ties and slacks, and the girls decked out in classic jumpers — hanging out at recess. The nuns looking on were dressed in full habit.
This is the feature-film world of “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” Wally Lamb’s best-selling novella set in 1964. Synthetic Cinema International, based in Rocky Hill, is shooting the movie adaptation of this tale of 10-year-old Felix’s life during one Christmas season in fictional Three Rivers, Conn.
Friday was the second of a 23-day shoot in and around Norwich.
Wyatt Ralff, who had a small role in “Moonrise Kingdom,” portrays Felix. The starriest names, though, are in the supporting cast. Meat Loaf plays a priest, and Cheri Oteri, formerly of “Saturday Night Live,” is a nun.
Here’s how this project came about: Andrew Gernhard, who is Synthetic’s co-owner and producer, grew up in Norwich and was a student of Lamb at Norwich Free Academy. Gernhard said they reconnected on Facebook a couple years back, and he eventually asked Lamb about turning one of his books into a feature film. Lamb’s novels have been optioned by companies but have yet to become movies.
Lamb is an executive producer on “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” although John Doolan wrote the screenplay. Colin Theys, another Synthetic vet, is directing.
Lamb popped into the set on Thursday and is expected to return. He might even make a cameo appearance as a janitor putting up Christmas decorations, Gernhard said.
During its decade of existence, Synthetic has become known for making monster films and thrillers — including the zombie film “Steve Niles’ Remains” that it shot in Norwich in 2011. It’s now expanding its range. Synthetic’s biggest steps outside of that past style are “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” along with a romantic comedy and an inspirational release.
It’ll be a fast turnaround for “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” Gernhard expects it to be out in late October or November, with a limited theatrical release and then TV play.
For the shoot, NFA has been transformed. A modern classroom has, thanks to furniture and props, morphed into a 1960s throwback. The desks are retro, the Venetian blinds are wooden, and the map pulls down, old-school style. A faculty lounge has been rejiggered to become the mother superior’s office, with an entryway that’s been carpeted and painted a vibrant red.
The “Wishin’ and Hopin’” storyline takes place in November and December, which brings certain challenges when the shoot is taking place during the summer. Two student extras joked with each other about what the actual temperature was when they had to do an outdoor scene while wearing black fleece jackets — 87, 90, or 100 million degrees.
Digital work will help the July scenes look as though they happened in December. Gernhard said the exteriors will be color-corrected to look more like winter, and the filmmakers will digitally insert snow into the landscape and steam coming out of the actors’ mouths.
Some of the extras are from the region. Liz MacAdie of Norwich gets to be a nun. It’s not her first time in a movie filmed in the city; she was part of “Everybody Wins” starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. She also knows Wally Lamb, since he was a student teacher at NFA when she was a student.
Others, though, are from far afield — New York, Boston — and come with plenty of credits. Olivia Pungilore, 12, of Boston, for instance, appeared in the movie “Ted.” Emily Weiner, 11, of Windsor played Tiny Tim in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol.”
Good times have already been had. Anna Greenwald, 13, of Marlborough happily recalled filming a scene Thursday in which a creature gets loose during class.
“It was a lot of fun. We had to act bored, then we acted like there was a bat in the room and freaked out,” she said.
There was no real bat, just a laser pointer to show where the kids should look and where the bat will be inserted later on.
The nun who has a bit of a breakdown during that scene is played by Oteri, who, Gernhard said, is a big Wally Lamb fan. She told Gernhard that “She’s Come Undone” is her favorite book and wanted to meet Lamb. She did, and Tweeted a photo of them together.
When it comes to fandom, Gernhard might be the most enthusiastic, though.
“I’ve been a fan of Meat Loaf since I was in junior high, so me getting to be in a car, talking to him about anything was the highlight. I almost cried,” he said. “My entire life is dictated by basically three subjects — ‘Dr. Who,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ and Meat Loaf.”
“Wishin’ and Hopin’” will continue filming at locations ranging from Charlene’s Diner in Jewett City to Main Street in Norwich.
“NFA has been phenomenal,” said Gernhard, who graduated in 1995. “I couldn’t ask anything more.”
Folks at the school even dug out some 1960s items from storage for the movie, including shelving and old cast-iron hydraulics for doors.
Gernhard said he loves that Lamb wrote the book “about Connecticut and wrote it about Norwich and New London, basically.”
“It’s rare to shoot in the place the writer or the screenwriter thought of,” he said. “I mean, last time we were shooting in Norwich (with the zombie film), we had to turn it into Reno.”
Editor's note: This version corrects the spelling of Anna Greenwald's name.