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A Hallmark Christmas movie films in New London

New London — Small snow drifts clustered along the steps leading into the Garde Arts Center on Monday. Christmas garlands draped across the theater’s windows and from the bottom of its marquee. On that marquee were the words: Richmond Ballet Presents The Nutcracker Dec. 20-26.

It’s mid-October, but the film crew for a Hallmark movie was working hard to make New London look like it was in the midst of a festive Christmas season.

“Sugar Plum Twist,” which is set among ballet dancers, is scheduled to air on Hallmark in December. It has filmed at locations in and around New London and Norwich, including Norwich City Hall. Earlier this month, scenes of the movie’s version of “The Nutcracker” were performed and filmed on the Garde’s stage, and sequences in a dance studio took place in the Garde’s Oasis Room, said Garde Executive Director Steve Sigel.

Starring in the film is Jamie Gray Hyder, who played Detective “Kat” Tamin on “Law & Order; Special Victims Unit,” alongside Laura Rosguer, Ektor Rivera and Rachel de Benedet.

“Sugar Plum Twist” is directed by Eric Close, whose TV acting credits include playing Martin Fitzgerald on “Without a Trace” and Teddy Conrad on “Nashville.”

Midday Monday, the crew was filming an establishing shot of Hyder — she had her hair in a bun, was wearing a navy coat and held a tiny Christmas tree — as she walked up State Street and into the Garde. It was a simple sequence, with no dialogue, and the camera, on a jib, swooped gracefully up and around as it captured Hyder striding along.

21 movies this year

“Sugar Plum Twist” is produced by Synthetic Cinema International, which in recent years has developed a cottage industry of making movies, particularly Christmas ones, for Hallmark and Lifetime. The Rocky Hill-based company has shot multiple movies in southeastern Connecticut, including "The Holiday Fix Up," to air on Lifetime later this year; it stars Jana Kramer.

Synthetic was co-founded in 2004 by producer Andrew Gernhard, a Norwich native who now lives in Gales Ferry.

It’s been a hugely busy few months for Synthetic.

“We’ve worked on 21 movies this year. This is probably the last one we’re shooting in state (in 2021),” Gernhard said. “We’ve never had this many releases going at once.”

On some of those 21, Synthetic didn’t produce the movie but rather provided post-production services like editing, adding music and so on. The company also handles some state-centric services — like getting crew members for shoots in, say, Stamford or Greenwich — for other productions.

Synthetic worked with Netflix and Disney+ for the first time this year, along with productions for BET, Hallmark and Lifetime.

Synthetic, for instance, just shot “Next Stop, Christmas,” in Norwich, Essex, Chester and New Haven, for Hallmark. Gernhard said that production, which reunites “Back to the Future” stars Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson, “wrapped like three weeks ago, and it’s going to be on the air in three weeks. The turnaround times are five to six weeks of post production and it’s on TV.”

Here is how busy Synthetic has been in 2021: one-quarter of all the movies Gernhard has made in his life were in this past year.

“It is actually outrageous,” said Gernhard, who has been working 14- to 20-hour days since March 1, with only 13 days off. He jokingly added, “My wife is pregnant — she wants to murder me.” (They also have a 3-year-old daughter.)

Filming at the Garde

For “The Nutcracker” scenes on the Garde stage, Sigel said, the production had “a dance company, full sets, the whole deal. They had crane cameras for aerial shots. They went all-out. Our crew worked with theirs, and it was seamless. It’s very intense work, with a lot of moving parts.”

For sequences set in the ballet director’s office, “Sugar Plum Twist” filmed in the Garde’s administrative offices. Sigel said there were perhaps 30 people working on the film that were crammed into the hallway outside the office, and folks from the Garde had to be quiet and close doors oh-so-carefully while scenes were being shot.

Sigel said of having the movie film in the Garde, “During COVID, it’s great to actually be that productive and be that active. It’s also fascinating to watch what are very, very strict protocols.”

He noted that, on Friday, while they were filming “The Nutcracker” onstage, the production was also organizing COVID tests in the lobby for everyone, including Garde staff. He said they do contact tracing, and everyone had to wear N95 masks that the production provides.

Synthetic has come to the Garde before; in 2018, it filmed scenes for “A Very Nutty Christmas” starring Melissa Joan Hart in the Garde’s lobbies.

“I think it’s always exciting for folks to have a movie shot in New London,” Sigel said. “We’re happy to have them (film at the Garde).”

It does, though, sometimes requires explaining. Sigel had to tell the audience at Saturday’s Rick Wakeman concert at the Garde why the theater was already decked out with Christmas decorations.

The Garde hopes to screen “Sugar Plum Twist” when it’s done.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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