Harvard as movie set: Common abutters hear details of filming

In just two weeks, the center of Harvard will become Concord, 1862, for the filming of Columbia Pictures’ “Little Women.” All roads leading to the center will be closed, with traffic diverted to a network of secondary roads. Only a few days before its annual Halloween celebration, the Common will be empty of witches and ghosts, replaced by a movie crew of up to 50 people. No cars will be visible; instead, horses and buggies will be coming down Elm Street. Dirt will cover the asphalt in front of the General Store, which will be inaccessible to all but Hollywood stars. It’s only for one day in October and two in November, but it will undoubtedly disrupt residents’ routines.

On Oct. 3 in upper Town Hall, Town Administrator Tim Bragan, Select Board member Stu Sklar, Police Chief Ed Denmark, and four representatives from Columbia Pictures held a meeting to inform and answer questions from abutters to the town center who will be directly or indirectly impacted by the filming. In what Bragan described as “a level of complication Marie (Sobalvarro, assistant town administrator) and I never expected,” the town has worked with Columbia to figure out all the logistics to make this a positive experience for both parties.

Bragan began by saying that the Columbia people have been great to work with and are committed to making sure townspeople are inconvenienced as little as possible during the three days of filming, tentatively set around Oct. 26, Nov. 2, and Nov. 5. By the end of the hour and a half, the 50 or so residents in attendance seemed to have had their questions and concerns addressed.

Speaking for Columbia were Douglas Dresser, supervising location manager, Tiffany Kinder and David Becker, assistant location managers, and Adam Merims, producer. Dresser began by saying that everyone on their end is impressed with how beautiful and charming Harvard is. He noted that Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is a classic, celebrating its 150th year in print and, “It’s an exciting time to be making this movie.” He noted that this will be the first time a film version has been made in Massachusetts, and he called the cast “fantastic.”

Why Harvard?

Merims told how they happened to choose Harvard. He and Kinder had spent time scouting for a location in Concord. They decided things wouldn’t work there, that they needed to find a smaller version, more pristine and beautiful. They happened to drive into Harvard and stop for lunch at the General Store. Looking around, they realized they were in that smaller, more pristine place. They agreed they would “never find a more perfect town for this movie. You can look 360—it’s timeless.” Later he said, “We’re trying to make the impact as low as possible. We understand that after a while, even the best houseguests, the ones who pick up their laundry, are an imposition.”

Becker, who is a location scout as well as assistant location manager, said he has tried to visit everyone on the Common to discuss how each house might or might not figure into the movie. Kinder, too, has been trying to catch people at home. They have requested that no cars be in sight on the days of filming. Kinder said they will be notifying people of alternative places to park and that they have shuttles to help residents get around. They have asked some Common abutters to move modern things like mailboxes and basketball hoops. Columbia will be using Westward Orchards for a base and St. Theresa’s for costumes.

Billy Salter of Elm Street, alluding to the “360” image, asked when he might know if his house were being used and how exactly the three days of filming would work. Dresser said that someone would talk to him beforehand about all the details and that no one could come onto a person’s property unless a release had been signed. This includes giving the OK for a horse and buggy to park in your front yard.

Hellie Swartwood of Fairbank Street said she stops at the General Store many mornings and the construction crew for the set in town center has always been friendly and accommodating. She said she was excited this was happening. But she didn’t really get an answer to her question, “Will we see Meryl Streep?”

Rhonda Sprague had several concerns about people being able to get to her business, Harvard Realty, in the town center and how clients could get paperwork done at Town Hall. Both Bragan and Dresser addressed each question, explaining that road closures would not prevent anyone from getting to her business. Since Town Hall is closed on Friday anyway, it was just the Monday of filming where access would be in question, and Bragan said Town Hall would be open that Monday.

In answer to Connie Larrabee of Under Pin Hill Road, Bragan said Hildreth House will be closed on filming days because the parking lot there will be used for crew members’ vehicles. Council on Aging Director Debbie Thompson is making arrangements to make sure seniors get what they need on those dates. Thompson later said Hildreth House would be closed on some days before the filming dates as well.

Questions were asked about school buses and children around the center who walk to school. Bragan and Merims gave assurances that filming would work around the school schedules, and students’ routines would not be interrupted.

Denmark spoke about the road closures indicated on a map that Bragan handed out. He said there will be a police officer at every closure to explain detours and direct traffic. In response to a question from Nancy Mayo, who lives behind the old library, Denmark said home healthcare workers and others with a legitimate need to get through to town center will always be allowed to do so. Bragan emphasized that on the days of filming, unless you’re a Harvard resident or have urgent need to access the center, “You can’t get in.” Residents will always be able to get home, albeit not always by their usual route.

All large trucks will have to follow the detours, something Bragan said would not continue after the filming, even though residents would enjoy the quiet. Denmark assured people that no emergency vehicles will ever be blocked and that filming would stop to allow for any emergency or urgent need on the part of a town center resident. “Even if it means fire trucks streaming through ‘Little Women,’ he quipped.

Someone asked what would happen if it rains on the day of a shoot. Merims said the script calls for one scene on a rainy day, so provided there was not a downpour and it wasn’t too windy, a little rain would work. Otherwise, they have cranes and rain machines. Some scenes need snow on the ground. Looking to past years, there’s a possibility snow could fall for the winter scenes on the Common. But the crew is prepared to blow shaved ice to create the effect of snow.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find out what Columbia is paying for the use of sites, Salter came right out and asked, “Is the town going to make any money?” Answering that no final agreement has yet been reached—because things keep changing—Merims explained that there are no “standard rates” in the industry, because every movie is different. He said they are working with Bragan and Sobalvarro to figure out the inconvenience involved in things like road closures, moving fire trucks away from town center fire station, tearing up the ground between the General Store and the Congregational Church, and so on, and to fairly compensate the town. He also suggested that a nonmonetary compensation to Harvard would be the legacy of having been the town in which scenes from the enduring classic “Little Women” were filmed. Dresser said they are working on finding a safe and out-of-the-way spot from which residents can watch the filming. Will we ever know how much the town gets? Salter wanted to know. A few mumbles followed Bragan’s answer: “No.”

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