On set with the Hallmark film shooting in New London

New London — It might have been Valentine’s Day, but inside Mitchell College’s Red Barn on Thursday, it felt very much like Christmas.

Wreaths hung on windows, garlands draped along walls. Strings of white holiday lights glowed around doors and from beams overhead. Standing in the middle of the expansive room was a towering Christmas tree, bedecked in silver and gold ornaments.

The reason for all this calendar-confounding Christmas spirit: this was the set for scenes being shot for a Hallmark Christmas movie.

The romantic drama, which will premiere sometime in November on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, has been filming in various southeastern Connecticut locations — everywhere from Camp Niantic to Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford.

Producer Andrew Gernhard couldn’t say much about the movie, but we know this: The movie is titled “Holiday for Heroes” and, according to an Entertainment Weekly story about Hallmark, it focuses on a woman and a soldier “who exchange letters for a year before their worlds collide.”

The stars of the show

The stars are Melissa Claire Egan, best known for her roles as Chelsea Lawson Newman on “The Young and the Restless” and Annie Lavery on “All My Children,” and Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and John Hawkes in “Underground.”

Also in the cast is Patti Murin, who is portraying Princess Anna in the current Broadway stage adaptation of “Frozen” and was Dr. Nina Shore on “Chicago Med.”

This is the latest film produced by Synthetic Cinema International, which is based in New Britain. The company has shot a number of its movies in southeastern Connecticut, including last year’s “A Very Nutty Christmas,” which starred Melissa Joan Hart and aired on Lifetime.

On Thursday, as the three-week “Holiday for Heroes” shoot was wrapping up, the segments being done were much lower-key than the day before, when 200-some extras filled the Red Barn for a huge, boisterous party scene. This time around, scenes included Egan's and Blucas’s characters bringing a Christmas tree into the barn and having a conversation. A separate sequence on Thursday was dialogue-free, as Egan came into the renovated barn — a vision of rustic chic — that her character owns. With an air of contentedness, she walked slowly in, took off her red coat and slipped on an apron, placed a record-player arm onto an album and poured coffee beans into a machine emblazoned with the words “Red Barn Christmas Roast.”

The process of making a movie is exacting, with great attention not just to acting and emotion but also to every detail: move a rug a little here, have Egan push her hair a little more away from her face there.

And when everything is ready to go, of course, come the calls: “Quiet, please” and “Action!”

Making it look like Christmas

During its shoot, “Holiday for Heroes” has made its way around the region. Stonington Borough became a Christmas wonderland, with holiday greenery lining buildings along Water Street. The area around Norwich City Hall likewise was bedecked with fake snow and a Christmas tree.

Social, a café on Water Street in Stonington Borough, served as the café that two of the main female characters own in “Holiday for Heroes,” although it’s called AJ’s Café in the movie.

Tom Piacenza, Social’s owner, looked back on the five days of filming inside his business and said, “All in all, it was a great, fun time and a great experience. They were all fantastic people to work with ... I have only good things to say about all of them.”

The days were long, starting between 7 and 11 a.m. and running until anywhere from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., he recalled.

Since this is a Christmas film, the crew gave the café a thorough holiday redecorating. Garlands, wreaths and lights adorned the interior, and Social's countertops were festooned with ornaments. The air conditioning unit was wrapped to resemble a Christmas present.

“It was like the Christmas Tree Shop came here and just dumped all their inventory,” Piacenza said, chuckling. “They really go overboard with the decorating. I have to laugh because I’ve never seen it be decorated like that.”

Then there was the fake snow. Piacenza said with a laugh, “That stuff makes a mess. I’m still vacuuming it up here and there.”

Extra! Extra!

Mary Tucciarone, who owns Tucci Design, located across Water Street from Social cafe, was one of the extras on the project. She spent two hours on set, and her part consisted of walking back and forth outside Social, while a camera inside filmed a scene facing outward. All told, three groups of four people or so did the same, being directed on where and when they were supposed to walk on the sidewalks and cross street.

She estimates they ran through the routine 20 or more times. It was extremely cold out that day, but she was bundled in a warm coat and a red hat and red velvet scarf. Those were Tucciarone’s own clothes, and the film people appreciated the splashes of color her accessories brought.

Tucciarone was asked if she wanted to be an extra inside the café, too, but that would have meant an additional four-hour commitment.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it’s an obligation for time,” she said. She added, “The people were very nice ... I didn’t come in contact with the actors or actresses who were in it, but the production crew itself was very, very nice, just fun people.”

From ‘Hope Springs’ to ‘Holiday’

“Holiday for Heroes” shot in Noah’s Restaurant in the borough, too, running from 5 p.m. on a Sunday until 1:30 a.m. that Tuesday. It’s not the first movie shot at Noah’s; that honor goes to “Hope Springs,” the 2012 comedy starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

The “Holiday for Heroes” scenes filmed there included an eggnog-making competition.

And, yes, the filmmakers brought in a slew of holiday decorations to make the place as Hallmark holiday-ish as they could.

Andrew Field, co-owner of Noah’s, said, “I believe their motto is to get as much Christmas in every frame as humanly possible.”

And indeed they did, with decorations galore.

“It was pretty impressive. They certainly are skilled at their craft,” said Field, who took down the restaurant’s Valentine’s decorations to make way for Christmas.

He was impressed, too, by watching the whirlwind of it all, from art to sound to lighting, as the film folks set things up, completed the scenes and then took everything down.

With so much filming going on in the borough for “Holiday for Heroes,” Field said, “It was a great opportunity for Stonington and the village especially, and I’m sure Norwich, the same way. It’s a very interesting process and (I’m) ultimately glad we were a part of it.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

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