Filming for Christmas movie closes Petaluma streets

Ali Afshar’s “A Christmas Mystery” brings holiday cheer to downtown Petaluma.|

Downtown streets have been blocked off, the Petaluma Museum and Library are festooned with Christmas trees and there are calls for “Quiet on the set!” Filmmaker Ali Afshar is back in town and making his next holiday hit, this time with a mysterious twist.

From “American Graffiti” to “Lolita” to “Cheaper by the Dozen,” our historic town has been featured in films throughout the decades.

Being a hot spot for the film sector brings fun and excitement for locals, not to mention occasional roles as extras. Beyond the thrills, there also are economic benefits.

Over the last five years, the movie industry brought significant revenue to the area. In 2017, the Sonoma County Film Office facilitated 84 permits for 184 filming days resulting in $4.81 million of economic impact. In 2019, the film sector generated $134 million; 1,081 employees and $69.5 million in value added.

Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, said she’s glad to see film production back in town following two years in a pandemic. “Petaluma’s been a popular filming location because of its charm, alleyways, riverways and things like that,” she said.

McCusker said the city further benefits from the industry because the film crews often stay in Petaluma hotels and dine at local restaurants.

The Petaluma Downtown Association facilitates filming in the busy business district, but the city has final say on where movie production is allowed.

“If they need to negotiate with businesses, we try and make sure the impact of filming doesn’t negatively affect the merchants,” McCusker said. “If you have a decent size crew in town the economic impact can be quite good particularly if it’s midweek.”

Filming isn’t generally allowed downtown on weekends to preserve the town’s busy nature.

This was the case for cast and crew of the new movie, “A Christmas Mystery,” which filmed in Petaluma throughout the week of June 13. The story takes place at the holidays in Oregon. Cast members include Beau Bridges (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”), Oscar Nunez (“The Office”) and Violet McGraw (“Black Widow”).

Producers Afshar and Ava Rettke are familiar with filming in town. Growing up in Petaluma, Afshar has local ties, including his childhood ranch that he bought and renovated into a small studio.

The star of the film, 11-year-old McGraw, also has ties to our town. Her mother, Jackie McGraw, grew up in town and went to Casa Grande High School where she met Afshar.

The two reconnected after bumping into each other at a film festival. Coincidentally, Jackie’s children are all actors and being a producer, Afshar had the perfect role for Violet. Violet’s character was written specifically for her.

Jackie was thrilled her daughter is the star of a movie filmed in her hometown. “I haven’t been back in so long, and it felt like a crazy full-circle moment,” Jackie said.

In addition to Afshar and the McGraws, Bridges also has a significant connection to Petaluma. Lloyd Bridges (“Airplane”), the well-known actor and father to Beau and his brother, Jeff Bridges, grew up in Petaluma, as well.

The film is the last of the three Warner Bros. and HBO Max Christmas movies filmed in Petaluma. In April, Afshar and Rettke finished “Holiday Harmony” with Brooke Shields.

Rettke got her first job right out of college as Afshar’s assistant at Warner Bros. and is now producing her own projects. She grew up in Woodside before moving to Los Angeles to work in the industry.

The young producer’s family is still in the Bay Area, so she shares the local connection Afshar, McGraw and Bridges have. Working in LA, Rettke witnessed the lack of industry expansion to other areas.

“Me, growing up here, there’s nothing that’s industry related around here,” she said. “So I was like, oh, I have to go to LA, that’s where I have to go.” The two producers bring awareness and accessibility of the arts in Petaluma and Northern California.

“We’ve been working on local casting, bringing this industry to other places besides the very select few. So then they see the opportunities they have when they grow up,” she said. “The potential, on a more intimate basis.”

Afshar and Retkke often choose Petaluma for the base of their productions for several reasons. Bringing in stars like Dennis Quaid, Sharon Stone and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges is helpful for the city.

“They’ll go home and talk to all their agents, colleagues and counterparts and say, ‘Petaluma is so fun!’” Afshar said. “A lot of people are learning about Petaluma too.”

Afshar said the current movie is their 18th production filmed in Petaluma, which results in millions in economic development for the town each time they come. The cast and crew support the economy through gas, food, entertainment, accommodations and more. They also bring awareness to the town and small businesses.

“Our favorite restaurants (are) Cucina Paradiso with Dennis or Central Market with Tony. We bring people, they take pictures and post it online, it’s like publicity you can’t buy,” Afshar said. “You can’t just get Ludacris to come to your restaurant or Brooke Shields to come and pose with you.”

Petaluma, to its credit, has much to offer filmmakers. Being close to the ocean, San Francisco and Petaluma’s ability to double as Any Town USA, makes it the perfect spot for Afshar’s movie sets.

Rettke also loves the town’s charm, farmland, vineyards and alleyways with exposed brick. “Petaluma is very diverse for being such a small town. It already kind of looks like you’re in a movie set when you’re downtown,” she said.

Afshar and Rettke have new projects coming, including a series called “Casa Grande,” filmed in Petaluma. The team will continue to support the town’s economy and share what it has to offer with Hollywood and the rest of the world.

Emma Molloy is an intern for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at

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