Archive for Thursday, June 4, 1998

CREWS HUSTLE TO MEET SCHEDULE

June 4, 1998

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A crew of 100 is working frantically to morph various nearby sites into turn-of-the-century Boston for a movie based on the early adult years of Helen Keller.

With a mere three days left before the start of location shooting for the CBS television movie ``Monday After the Miracle,'' one would have expected interviews to be conducted in an atmosphere thick with impending doom.

But doom was nowhere to be found in the makeshift production office inside a plain, brown building east of North Third Street.

Sure, there was an intimidating array of last-minute Federal Express packages and schedule changes, but producer Vanessa Greene and her crew seemed to be fielding them with the collective dexterity of a 10-limbed hockey goalie.

If anything, the atmosphere was downright delirious, the pedal nailed to the cinematic metal.

``You have to stay manic,'' said Bill Pomeroy, a Boulder, Colo.-based journeyman-handyman heading art and construction for the shoot.

And any atmospheric density could only be attributed to the Wheat State's stifling humidity.

``I don't know how you stand it,'' said shirt-tugging producer Vanessa Greene, a London native heading her 17th television movie. ``It's like moving through molasses.''

Around corners and behind doorways, there were wranglers, accountants, builders, transportation coordinators and at least two people wearing headsets. The group's instant habitation of the North Lawrence building would prompt any ``X-Files'' paranoiac to cringe in recognition, as if these nice people were themselves actors, representatives of some sinister faux corporation who could, if necessary, vaporize overnight.

But no, these folks are in the River City on a rather benign mission -- a 22-day shoot recreating the Boston university years and early adulthood of the famously blind and deaf Helen Keller. Although no air date has been set, CBS tentatively plans to use it this fall.

``Lawrence to Boston is kind of difficult,'' said Pomeroy, who also worked on and briefly appeared in the Michael J. Fox spook flick ``The Frighteners,'' which was shot in New Zealand. ``What we usually do in six weeks, we're doing in two. ... But it's fun. If it's not fun, why do it?''

In the construction war zone, Kansas University students Mitch Miller and Will Griggs slopped Stucco-It and other gooey substances onto fake grave stones.

``Everybody's real cool,'' Griggs, a business student, said of his co-workers on the two-month job.

``Yeah, but we've got a lot of (stuff) to do,'' said Miller, a graduate student in painting. ``The show must go on.'' Roma Downey of the lighthearted CBS drama ``Touched by an Angel'' stars as Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, and is also executive producing. Billy Campbell, of ``Rocketeer'' fame, plays Sullivan's love, John Macy; and Moira Kelly, perhaps best known for her roles in ``Chaplin'' and ``The Cutting Edge,'' plays Keller.

The shoot will span Leavenworth, Topeka, Lawrence and Baldwin.

Keller, who as an infant lost both her sight and hearing, gradually learned to communicate through touch and eventually became a political and social activist, well-known speaker and author.

``She was a very remarkable woman,'' Greene said.

The film is based on the second of William Gibson's plays about the life of Keller -- the first was ``The Miracle Worker.''

More than 330 extras were hired to stroll hither and yon in the background and foreground. Common problems: modern haircuts and limited costume availability.

In addition to Downey, the producing team includes Sandy Brice and Tom Todoroff. Director Daniel Petrie has helmed such flicks as ``Sybil'' with Sally Field and ``Fort Apache, The Bronx.'' Petrie started shooting Monday.

The Kansas Film Commission and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce provided a great deal of help, Greene said, in bringing the crew to Lawrence and making everyone feel at home.

Teaming up, they were able to track down a Victorian-esque country home between Lawrence and Eudora and turn an unused portion of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka into an apartment. They plan to use St. Mary College in Leavenworth as turn-of-the-century Radcliffe College of Boston.

``All the architecture here is wonderful,'' Greene said.

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is mgowen@ljworld.com.

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