'Wishin' & Hopin'" - filmed in and around the Rose City - debuts at the Garde

Wally Lamb on the set of the filming of 'Wishin' and Hopin'' at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich in July 2014.
Wally Lamb on the set of the filming of "Wishin' and Hopin'" at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich in July 2014.

Just four months after it filmed in and around Norwich, the movie "Wishin' and Hopin'" will enjoy its world premiere on Sunday, with two screenings here in southeastern Connecticut.

The film, based on author and Norwich native Wally Lamb's comic novella, will be screened twice at the Garde Arts Center in New London.

Although other Lamb bestsellers have been optioned, this marks the first time one has been turned into a movie.

It's produced by Synthetic Cinema International, which is based in Rocky Hill. The company's co-owner and producer is Andrew Gernhard - a 1995 graduate of Norwich Free Academy, where he was a student of Lamb's.

While Lamb and the filmmakers will be at the Sunday screenings and the subsequent Q&As, Gernhard said earlier this week that he's not sure which actors will attend.

"The problem is, everybody is working," he says, then adds, "which is not a problem. It's a great thing. But I know Danny (Nucci, who plays the 10-year-old main characters's father and who co-stars on the TV series 'The Fosters') is on his show; Molly (Ringwald, who plays a teacher) is on, like, a tour with jazz. They're all trying to make it. They all might be making it to different (screenings). ... Most of them are from L.A., so a lot of them are going to the L.A. showing."

He does expect the two young leads - Wyatt Ralff, who had a small role in "Moonrise Kingdom" and who stars as Felix here, and Quinn McColgan, who portrays one of Felix's classmates - to be at the Garde, along with Camila Banus, a "Days of Our Lives" actress who plays Felix's sister Simone.

"Wishin' and Hopin'" is a new direction for Synthetic, which has made a name for itself in the horror genre. It even shot one of them in Norwich and around the region before - 2011's zombie flick "Steve Niles' Remains."

This 1964 coming-of-age comedy revolves around the character of Felix Funicello, a parochial-school fifth-grader. It's set in Lamb's fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut.

Gernhard is proud of the results.

"This by far is the best film we've done to date," he says. "It looks great. It sounds great. The performances are great. I think it's something people are going to want to watch every year, almost like 'A Christmas Story.'"

He says it's a family movie, adding, "I think a lot of people are going to connect with it. It's a solid, tight little slice of life that you don't really see any more in movies."

After Sunday's premiere here, "Wishin' and Hopin'" will be given a limited release in cinemas and will air at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 on Lifetime.

Lamb was significantly engaged in the project, although John Doolan and not Lamb wrote the screenplay adaptation.

Gernhard says, "Wally was absolutely great. He was involved from the beginning right to the end. He was there when we wrote up the treatment for the film, he reviewed the treatment, he reviewed the drafts of the script, he added his notes. He was there, I believe, every other day of the shooting if not every day. ... It was great to have him totally involved."

Lamb even makes a cameo, appearing in the movie's opening. Although he has no lines, he pops up as a school janitor helping put up holiday decorations, with Norwich Free Academy standing in as the Catholic school in the story.

While the moviemakers shot a good deal at NFA, they were elsewhere, too. They filmed the Funicello family scenes in the Willimantic house where Lamb used to rent a room to write. The Funicellos' diner - which was located inside the New London bus station in the book - was created at Charlene's Diner in Jewett City. A theater in downtown Willimantic was reborn as the set of "The Ranger Andy Show."

The scenes were all shot during the summer, even the outdoor ones at NFA. It took an animator two weeks to create winter in the outdoor scenes - killing grass digitally, adding puffs of breath to the characters.

As for the famous-name actors in the cast, Ringwald was on set the longest, in town for three weeks. The other stars like Cheri Oteri and Conchata Ferrell - both of whom play nuns - were here to film between one and three days. Chevy Chase recorded his narration as the adult Felix one day in New York.

A number of the actors were, not coincidentally, Wally Lamb fans. Oteri, for instance, loves his books, and Ferrell's daughter is a big Lamb fan, which is one of the reasons she did the movie, Gernhard notes.

So, too, is Ringwald. Gernhard, as a producer, only spoke with Ringwald twice but says director Colin Theys "had nothing but great things to say about her."

As for Meat Loaf - who plays a monsignor who scares the students but serves as comic relief in the film - Gernhard says, "Meat Loaf is my absolute favorite person in the world, and I never thought I'd get him in a movie. It was just weird driving in, saying, 'I'm going to work at NFA to shoot Meat Loaf in a movie with Molly Ringwald.'"

As a fan, Gernhard spent as much time with Meat Loaf as he could. He says Meat Loaf told him he'd like to do more acting but thinks, too, of his singing as acting. Meat Loaf also joked about the fact that the filmmakers pursued Dan Aykroyd first for the monsignor role.

"He's, like, 'I'm not Danny, so you're not getting a performance like Danny would do. You're gonna get me,'" Gernhard recalls with a laugh.

Gernhard, by the way, says Synthetic is hoping to work with Lamb again in the future and is in discussions about one of his other books, although Gernhard declined to say more than that.

A ‘WISHIN’” WHO’S WHO

While young actors Wyatte Raiff as student Felix Funicello and Quinn McColgan as classmate Rosalie are the “Wishin’ and Hopin’” leads, there are plenty of famous names and faces populating the cast. Here is a selection, along with the characters they play (many of whom run or teach at Felix’s parochial school) and their most well-known previous work: 

Molly Ringwald plays Madame Frechette, Felix’s substitute French teacher; Ringwald is fluent in French. She’s most famous for “Pretty in Pink,” “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club.” 

Meat Loaf is Monsignor Muldoon. In addition to being a rock star, he’s acted in movies including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Fight Club.” 

Annabella Sciorra plays Felix’s mother. She starred in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” and “Jungle Fever” and played Gloria Trillo on “The Sopranos.” 

Conchata Ferrell is Sister Agrippina. She plays Berta the housekeeper on “Two and a Half Men” — and was in “Mystic Pizza.” 

Cheri Oteri plays Sister Dymphna. She was a regular on “Saturday Night Live.” 

Blanche Baker is Mother Filomena. She co-starred with Molly Ringwald in “Sixteen Candles.” She made her TV debut in “Holocaust,” winning an Emmy for her performance. 

Chevy Chase narrates as the adult Felix. Credits: “Saturday Night Live,” the “Vacation” films and, most recently, the sitcom “Community.”

'Wishin' and Hopin'' cast members, from left, Christopher Bogomas, Shawn Ervin, Quinn McColgan, Wyatt Ralff, Lexi Whire, Molly Ringwald and Siobhan Cohen.
"Wishin' and Hopin'" cast members, from left, Christopher Bogomas, Shawn Ervin, Quinn McColgan, Wyatt Ralff, Lexi Whire, Molly Ringwald and Siobhan Cohen.

IF YOU GO

What: "Wishin' & Hopin'"

When: A sold-out 2:30 p.m. screening, and another one, with tickets still available, at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London;

Cost: $25 for adults, $15 for ages 16 and under; partial proceeds from the premiere are being donated to St. Vincent de Paul Place (Norwich), The New London Community Meal Center (New London), and the Covenant Soup Kitchen (Willimantic)

Contact: (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org

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