Action! What it’s like on set as Hallmark movie shoot wraps in Noank
Noank has been transformed over the past few weeks. The quaintness of the seaside village has remained, but other things have magically morphed.
The sign on the iconic Carson’s Store has been replaced with one proclaiming: Sand Dollar Café. Near the town dock, a 40-foot Ferris wheel materialized.
On Friday, a carnival popped up at the foot of Main Street. Beyond the bounce-house castle and blue-and-orange balloon archway, vendors selling arts and crafts lined a walkway. Strings of decorative white lights crisscrossed overhead.
The carnival was crowded, with everyone cheerful and decked out in summertime dresses and shorts-and-T-shirt combos. Mothers walked with their children. Girls held cotton candy.
And a couple strolled through the carnival, chatting. Then the young woman saw something, grabbed her companion’s hand excitedly, and they scampered off to the right.
The couple were actors Chad Michael Murray and Aly Michalka, and they and the carnival were all part of a Hallmark movie being filmed in Noank.
It’s titled “Sand Dollar Cove,” and it stars Murray, who is best known for his role as Lucas Scott on “One Tree Hill,” and Michalka, who acted on “Hellcats” and “iZombie” and is part of the music group Aly & AJ with her sister.
The movie is produced by Synthetic Cinema International, which is located in Rocky Hill and has shot numerous productions in southeastern Connecticut for Hallmark and Lifetime.
It will be a quick turnaround for the production team; “Sand Dollar Cove” is set to premiere on Hallmark on June 26.
Friday’s carnival shoot — which included a scene with a band playing and people dancing — was the culmination of the filming, and it drew a whole array of enthusiastic extras, along with some folks from the neighborhood who stopped by to watch.
An adventure for the day
Kate Rice, who moved from South Carolina to Pawcatuck with her husband and two kids in 2019, was picked from applicants to be one of the vendors in the carnival scene. She handcrafts modern hoop wreaths for her Rice Wreath Co.
The experience of being on the set was “just fantastic,” she said. “It was just a really fun, upbeat adventure for the day ... It was not a regular day. It was something special and extra.” She laughed, adding that it’s the “one time my wreaths have been in a Hallmark movie.”
It was also a rather long day — Rice was there from 8:30 a.m. to about 10:30 p.m. — but she said that, when the filmmakers were resetting for scenes and the extras were just waiting around, it allowed downtime for her to meet the other extras and socialize.
“After 2020, that was really a highlight to me because I’m outgoing, I love people, I crave that social interaction,” she said. “ ... It’s been a long year of staying close to home and not getting out.”
She noted that everyone on set had a negative COVID-19 test and was screened, and most people she talked with had been vaccinated.
A return extra, a first-timer
“Sand Dollar Cove,” meanwhile, was Mystic resident Bryce Breen’s third time on a Synthetic production. He was a background performer in “Stalker’s Prey 2,” had his home used as a location for “Stalker’s Prey 3” and was background again for this film.
The local work of Synthetic, he said, gives people a chance to be in a movie who might not otherwise have that opportunity.
“To really see behind the scenes what goes into making a movie is just a wonderful experience,” he said.
Cassie Adam lives in Ledyard but grew up in Groton Long Point and decided to apply to be an extra with her 3½-year-old daughter Elora.
“I thought it would be fun — in our hometown, a movie being filmed, and I remember when I was little and ‘Mystic Pizza’ was being filmed, and I auditioned for that,” said Cassie, who ended up not getting into “Mystic Pizza.” “So I figured I’d bring my little girl ... It’s fun to know we can go back and watch it and be like, ‘There I am!’”
For the first part of the shoot, she said, she and Elora had been doing “the same thing over and over again. Pretty much, we’ve just been walking up and buying (carnival) tickets.”
A new identity for Carson’s
The story for “Sand Dollar Cove” comes from the 2015 novel of the same title by Nancy Naigle. It’s set in the fictional seaside town of Sand Dollar Cove, which was located in North Carolina in the book but is in Connecticut in the film. The tale centers on a real estate development project manager whose company wants to build a resort on beachfront property, and she is tasked with acquiring that land. The resident who holds the deed for that land, though, wants to keep the town’s pier as it is. And romantic sparks fly between the two.
Andrew Blacker, who runs Carson’s, said a location scout came in about a month ago and explained that the production was looking for a place that could be the café in the movie. The film folks, of course, made some changes inside and took out items with the names Carson’s or Noank on them.
They did keep some of the charming vintage elements at Carson’s, though.
Andrew’s brother Kevin Blacker said, “The majority of Carson’s has been the exact same since 1954, you know, with the soda fountain and the counter and the stools.”
The production team maintained all that and used other items, such as classic-style straw holders and pie plates.
And it’s not only Carson’s that will have some screen time; Andrew Blacker will appear in “Sand Dollar Cove,” too. He will be a stand-in for Murray during a scene where the main male character sails.
“I was walking my kids to the bus last week, and the director said, ‘You know, Andrew looks quite a bit like Chad. Do you think he’d be interested in being a photo double for the sailing scenes?’” Blacker recalled.
He was. Blacker grew up in Noank and, having lived on the water, has sailed quite a bit. The filmmakers had him sail a 51-foot Hinckley around Stonington Harbor while they shot some footage.
Seeing the movie magic at work has been impressive, especially for longtime Noank residents like the Blackers. Kevin recalled that, as he and Andrew watched the film crew set up the Ferris wheel on town dock, with the neon lights illuminated, “My brother said, ‘We’ll never see this again in our life.’”
‘Nice showcase for Noank’
Although the village won’t be called Noank in the movie, there is a good chance that some viewers will see the charming locale on film and want to visit.
“I think it’s going to be a really, really nice showcase for Noank,” Andrew Blacker said.
He added that it will be for Stonington, as well, since several scenes were shot there, including at Tom’s News, the Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer House and Wamphassuc Point.
Carson’s, which dates back to 1907, was bought by David Blacker — Andrew and Kevin’s father — in 1979. He retired in 2013, and Andrew has run it since, though all the family members still help out in various ways.
“My father has worked really hard to preserve the image of Carson’s and to keep it as a family-oriented and wholesome place,” Andrew said. “He said if anybody ever wants to film, it’s totally fine for them to film — we just want to make sure there’s never any negative connotation associated from a film with the store. He’s protective of the store and of its image. We were really happy because Hallmark is so family-oriented, we felt like it was a really good fit.”
Like a movie set
“It’s been a lot of activity in Noank,” Kevin Blacker said. “Usually, things are pretty quiet. I always joke with my girlfriend — we walk around at night, and it’s almost like we live on an empty movie set down here. It’s become real seasonal down here. (Now with the film production), there’s just a lot of activity and a lot of people — they must have at least 60 or 70 people working for them.”
Kevin Blacker, who has been a critic of the Connecticut Port Authority and its plans to close State Pier in New London to traditional shipping, noted a little parallel between the storyline and real life. He and his girlfriend rent a second-floor apartment in Noank, and the movie folks have used the downstairs of the same building as a base of operations in Noank.
“So, they’ll be down there working and filming, right outside the window. At one point, I was at a (virtual) Port Authority meeting, and I definitely did think it’s ironic that they’re filming a movie about a guy trying to save a pier, and then, right through one wall, I’m actually trying to do it.”
After seeing the crew filming in Noank, Kevin Blacker said what has left the biggest impression on him is the teamwork.
“There’s art and beauty in the conventional sense that everybody thinks about, but I really see beauty in teamwork. This team that they have working on the movie — like, 50 or 60 people working together, and they just do a really, really good job. From watching them the week-and-a-half or two they’ve been in town, it’s really, really impressive to see what they have accomplished.”