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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.

“It was my job to make the movie work for us, and work for Petaluma, which stands in for Oklahoma, and a lot of other places along the way,” said Swickard, who plays the part of Gail’s restaurant-working friend in an early scene of the movie. “It’s a tiny role, but I was going to be here anyway, so I had to give myself something.”

Swickard has a special connection to Petaluma. Her first film here with Afshar, the 2020 release “Roped,” was where she met her husband Josh Swickard, her co-star in the two “California Christmas” movies.

“I hope to bring all my movies here,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where the story is set. Petaluma can be the East Coast, because the streets can have that East Coast vibe if you shoot them right. We turned parts of it into San Francisco for the last movie. You can find little pockets of Petaluma or Santa Rosa that look like whatever you want. It’s pretty great. It’s miraculous, actually.”

Gesturing to the Woman’s Club building, Swickard revealed that the crew used the exterior of the place as the outside of the elementary school, while using rooms at the Petaluma Veteran’s Hall as the school’s various classrooms. A number of scenes were shot at Afshar’s ranch on the east side of town.

“We used Ali’s barn as a sound stage,” she pointed out. “We built three different bar locations inside that one barn. When you watch the movie, you’ll see this montage where Gail is on her journey in this very same van, singing in bars all the way from Miami, Florida, to Los Angeles, California.”

In addition to the fake bars inside the barn, other parts of the montage were filmed at Petaluma’s The Big Easy and Willowbrook Ale House. And no, the make-believe bars are no longer inside Afshar’s barn.

“He took the sets down and put his cars back inside,” confirmed Swickard, adding that a few interior sets are not the only way Afshar’s ranch played a part in the making of the film.

“Our lead character, Jeremy, is building a house for his parents in the movie,“ she said. ”We weren’t sure if we were going to find a house that was already halfway built in Petaluma, and finally Ali said, ‘You know, I would like to have a small apartment on my property.’ So he is actually building a little house on his ranch and that’s what we’re using for the construction scenes in the film. It’s going to be a cute, tiny house with a view of the hills, and I’ve already told Ali that that’s where I’ll be staying whenever I’m in town making a film here.“

After Swickard has been called away to consult on something inside, where more shots of the big Christmas Eve gala in Harmony Springs, Oklahoma, the aforementioned house-builder played by Sumpter appears, preparing to shoot another scene with Cepero.

Sumpter got his first big breakout role playing the lead in the 2003 version of “Peter Pan,” with Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook, and went on to steady gigs in the television series “Clubhouse” and “Friday Night Lights.”

According to Afshar, Sumpter auditioned for the part in “Holiday Harmony” the day after we was married, remotely performing a scene from the script over his cellphone while reading his lines on yet another phone.

“The first time I ever even looked at the script, I was holding my wife’s phone, like this,” Sumpter demonstrated, energetically, “and I’m reading the lines and figuring out what the story of the movie is as I go, and as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, I really hope I get this part. I think I love this movie. I guess I made them laugh, because I got the part. I’ve had a great time.”

The next day, the crew was set to pack up and relocate to Los Angeles, where a few more days of shooting would take place before the film was complete. All the while, Swickard and Afshar are preparing for yet another film in Petaluma, expected to begin shooting here in June.

Predictably enough, it’s another Christmas movie.

“We do like Christmas movies,” said Piccino, taking a break outside for a few minutes. “But a good Christmas movie is about so much more. Like this one. Yes, it’s set at Christmas, but at its heart, it’s about the people. It’s about a young woman who has never felt a sense of home anywhere, finding that home in the place she least expected it.

“It’s not just someone opening a cupcake shop in a small town at Christmas, like so many holiday films we see every year on Hallmark. If we do our job right, this film will put a smile on people’s faces, and also make them cry, and feel really, really good. What can I say? This is the best job in the world!”

Just before being called back inside, Piccinino answers one final question: what’s harder for a filmmaker, making Petaluma look like Oklahoma or making Petaluma look like San Francisco?

“Well, Oklahoma’s pretty flat,” he said with a laugh. “And Petaluma is not super flat, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. So both of those offer their own challenges, but downtown Petaluma is so quaint and cute and charming, it just shouts ‘small town,’ and that lends itself really well to playing the part of a small town in almost anywhere in America. I guess we could have filmed in Oklahoma, but this is Ali’s home, and we really like shooting movies here.”

“Holiday Harmony” will be released this winter on HBO Max.

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