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When Hollywood Comes to Town

A film crew brings stalled traffic and other annoyances. But it's also a chance to compare Tom Selleck sightings.

One early morning this summer after breakfast at Flav's Red Skiff - a favorite eatery with locals in Rockport, Mass. - I walked smack into Hollywood. Three 18-wheelers were parked on the south side of the wharf, and workers were unloading movie equipment. Around the corner, carpenters and painters worked in the rain to turn an empty storefront into Horatio Street Books - the primary filming location. Fifteen feet above, crews conducted lighting tests. Spectators congested walkways and streets hoping to spot someone famous.

During this time, I witnessed the long hours, teamwork, and passion that goes into making a motion picture. The movie, based on Cathleen Schine's 1995 book, "The Love Letter," is about a middle-aged bookstore owner who finds an anonymous love letter and falls in love with her twentysomething summer employee. (Note to readers: The name of the movie may change.)

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As Rockport was being transformed into a movie set, I wondered what would motivate officials to turn their town over to a motion-picture company. Apparently two of the reasons are money and publicity.

About 20 oceanfront homes were occupied by members of the film company at rents beginning at $1,500 a week. Between six and nine local police officers earned $10 an hour more than their regular pay for taking extra 12- to 14-hour shifts. Local merchants were patronized daily for items ranging from floral arrangements to lumber and paint, not to mention the individual spending at inns, restaurants, and gift shops.

The first day of filming began at 7 a.m. when stage directions echoed up and down Main Street - just a couple of rooftops from my apartment, which overlooks the town.

I quickly joined a small group of residents and early-rising vacationers. One woman turned to me with obvious delight and said, "I just tumbled out of bed and threw on some clothes. I haven't even combed my hair yet."

As we watched, those aboard a red pickup truck jammed with camera, crew, director, and sound equipment focused on a bicycle carrying two actors. What would probably appear in the finished movie as a 10-second swoosh through town took a couple of hours and about 10 people to film.

Then the crew moved to the harbor. Like the tide, spectators came and went throughout the day. One woman, waiting for her daughter to finish a sailing class, tried to figure out who was who. "I wouldn't know a famous person if they fell over me," she confessed.

In fact not all the actors had been cast yet. People had speculated that because DreamWorks Productions was making the movie Steven Spielberg would direct.

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But as spectators watched director Peter Chan on a raft in the harbor guide his crew and actors, it was evident that Mr. Spielberg's role this time was as a supportive husband to spouse Kate Capshaw, the producer and star of the movie.

News filtered through the crowd that Tom Selleck and Blythe Danner had just been signed. Ellen DeGeneres sightings were shared. And for fun, Leonardo DiCaprio's name ("Titanic" was still in theaters at the time) was thrown into the mix in the role of the younger love interest by both locals and crew.

Tom Everett Scott ("That Thing You Do!") and Massachusetts native Julianne Nicholson, in her first feature film, were definitely in the movie. They were the center of attention at the harbor, as Ms. Nicholson's outfit was under discussion between the raft and dock. Mr. Chan's persuasive voice permeated the interchange. But spectators quickly were wearied of the hurry-up-and-wait pace of moviemaking. "Get the girl a pair of shorts already, and let's get on with it!" someone shouted from the crowd.

Only one day into shooting, and I was already learning secrets from the crew. A chat with a young production assistant revealed that, unlike most of the crew who had been hired here in New England, he was from Los Angeles. This was his first time on a feature film. He got the job because "I know some pretty important people." It turns out the "important person" was Steven Spielberg, the father of his girlfriend.

We felt the presence of the film company day and night. In the second week of filming, what sounded like an early-morning thief trying to get into my apartment turned out to be carpenters. They were building a ramp that would elevate a camera and its operator about 15 feet so it could pan the street for the next scene. The bright red numbers on my clock read 4:10 a.m.

Forty minutes later I was on the set chatting in the dark with others who were too curious to stay in bed. One vacationer, who owns a construction company, said, "I'm having a ball just watching the film crew build the set."

As dawn approached, a sense of urgency pervaded the set. This scene had to be filmed before the sun came up over the eastern side of the buildings. Without warning, a tall scruffy man dressed in fireman's gear and sporting that trendy unshaven look appeared on the set. It was Tom Selleck.

After five or six takes of the camera operator panning Mr. Selleck driving the firetruck through town, he got down from the truck and mingled with the crew. With that Thomas Magnum, PI, charm, he flashed his dimpled smile toward the crowd.

"Hi, folks!"

While cameras flashed, Selleck offered some profound commentary. "Exciting stuff, huh?"

The crowd loved it. They loved him. Selleck made everyone forgive the sleepless nights and the traffic snarls caused by the film company's presence.

Savoring my early-morning rendezvous with Selleck, I tried to make my way home to get ready for work. But the production assistants were assiduously devoted to their guard duties and would not let anyone pass until the next take was completed.

During a particularly complex set of scenes, I gained an appreciation for the coordination and teamwork needed to make a film. On a single Wednesday, various crews created a picnic set, a band rehearsal was held at the high school, 700 extras were signed up, and caterers made buckets of food to feed everyone.

Filming the picnic scene began Thursday and ran into early Friday morning. To eliminate a predawn blackness in the background in a scene that was supposed to be in daylight, a half-dozen 6,000 watt lights were hoisted 60 feet in the air to illuminate the buildings and ocean.

When I finally dragged myself home for some well-deserved sleep, I felt sorry for the crew who had been working nonstop since Wednesday. But my sympathy lasted only a few moments. When I walked into my apartment, I realized those powerful lamps lit up every room. So much for sleeping.

On Friday, after 16 hours of readying a street filled with cars beneath two 60-foot rainmaking machines, the filmmakers were ready.

"Stand by," yelled the assistant director. Everyone, including the extras, was ready.

"Rolling." The camera operator began filming. "Background action!" The "rain" fell right on cue.

"Action!" Actors, extras, drivers, and passengers moved to positions. The word "cut!" echoed through Rockport. The action stopped, only to be repeated throughout the night.

When Sept. 22 rolled around, residents were pleased to have Rockport back. But beware. While Spielberg was visiting town, he was seen reading "The Perfect Storm," Sebastian Junger's book about the loss of a fishing boat in the neighboring town of Gloucester.

Spielberg had just bought the movie rights.

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