Visiting the set of Brooke Shields’ ‘Holiday Harmony’
Acting is make believe. It’s about pretending that the unreal is real, and doing it well enough that an audience forgets to notice the difference. A roomful of actors assembled April 29 near downtown Petaluma demonstrated this beautifully.
As a Hollywood film crew captured the action, a few dozen performers sat attentively in rows of folding chairs inside the historic Petaluma Woman’s Club building. For the film — currently titled “Holiday Harmony,” and produced by Petaluma’s own Ali Afshar — the seated performers had been at it for a while, pretending to be watching a riveting musical performance on a stage where no musicians were technically standing. In the front row of that audience was Brooke Shields — the Brooke Shields of “The Blue Lagoon” and “Endless Love” — pretending to record the make-believe performance.
Convincingly glowing with imaginary pride, Shields beamed at the stage with radiant love as if something astonishing was taking place up there, something other than a small cluster of filmmakers, various lights and equipment, and a large movie camera glowing right back at her.
To help the moment feel more authentic and to give Shields and the extras something to sway along to, the crew played a recording of the song being sung in the scene.
“It’s not the star on the tree or the glitter and gold I was missin’, this Christmas, this Christmas. This is home, home, home.”
The scene is the big climactic moment for the movie’s main character Gail, a struggling singer played by actor Annelise Cepero — most recently seen as Provi in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” singing and dancing in the "America" and “I Feel Pretty” sequences. Though Cepero was not on set at the moment — her actual performance of the song was shot the day before — you wouldn’t have known it from the delighted reactions of Shields and the other actors, who burst into cheers, whoops and whistles, giving the absent singer a huge standing ovation that went on until director Shaun Paul Piccinino yelled “Cut!” then “Hold on, please,” then “Let’s do one more, just like that.”
While the performers briefly stood, stretched and returned to their positions, Cepera appeared, offering to stand on stage for the next take, to give the actors’ imaginations a bit of a break. The film’s assistant director Marco Bargellini called out, “One more time guys. Picture’s up. Roll sound, roll camera,” and after several seconds during which the words, “Rolling, rolling” were echoed back to Bargellini by various technicians throughout the building, Cepera gave the line that would cure the song.
“I am so, so proud of our amazing kids! Thank you all. Do you guys really want to hear me sing?”
The audience did, of course, cheering their enthusiasm, and as Shields once again stood up, video camera in hand, the song played one more time across the room.
“I was so lost and alone but I feel like I’m finally found,” Cepero’s voice rang out as she moved back and forth to the music, smiling at the actors in those chairs.
“That’s cut,” shouted Piccinino as the song ended. “Beautiful!”
This was the final day of what had been a 17-day shoot spread over four weeks. Afshar, founder of ESX Entertainment, which is producing the new film in association with Warner Bros. and HBO. Afshar estimates that “Holiday Harmony” is the 17th or 18th movie he’s shot in his hometown of Petaluma, from the autobiographical 2016 drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard” to the recent “A California Christmas” and its sequel, “A California Christmas: City Lights,” both Netflix hits over the 2020 and 2021 holiday season.
“We kind of struck gold with that first Christmas movie,” Afshar said, “and now I’m doing a whole little string of holiday films. I like them because they’re feel-good stories, about people discovering what’s important in life. And who doesn’t like that?”
The star and screenwriter of those first two films, the Los Angeles-based Lauren Swickard, is actually a co-writer of the new film, and has been on location in Petaluma for the last month.
“I know Petaluma pretty well now, having made a few films here over the last five years or so,” Swickard said, taking a break outside the Woman’s Center, where a well-weathered VW van is parked on the grass of the enclosed adjoining lawn of the Unitarian Universalist church.
The van has a major role in the movie, in which Gail breaks down in Harmony Springs, Oklahoma, on her way to Los Angeles — following a near-collision with a runaway alpaca — and takes a temporary job teaching music at an elementary school to pay for the repairs. Brooke Shields, it turns out, plays the town mechanic, whose son Jeremy (Jeremy Sumpter) ends up falling hard for Gail.