It wasn’t exactly a typical two days at the big curve on Sugarland Road and Sugarland Lane where the picturesque, brilliantly white, St. Paul Community Church with its quaint bell tower has been a country landmark for many years. The traffic most often seen are horses either frolicking in nearby fields or being ridden down a lane.
But, the picturesque church was discovered. How, remains a mystery. By whom, is more explicable. There was a movie filming in production. The British have discovered Poolesville and this very small, lovely church, in the middle of the back roads of Montgomery County far from London and Northern Ireland where the earlier filming took place. Obviously there had been scouts. Those with whom this reporter spoke — during four hours in the cold wind there was plenty of time to chat — decidedly British accents prevailed.
The occasion on Nov. 5 and 6 was the filming of “Philomena Lee,” a movie about the true story of a young Irish woman, who in 1952, had an illegitimate child born in the convent Rosecrea, Co. Limerick. It was her 50-year search for him, following their separation after his birth, that is the heart of the story. At age 3, he was sold to an American family. British journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who met Lee about eight years ago, is the author of the book, “The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee,” on which the movie is based.
Enter Dame Judi Dench, Yes, the same Judi Dench of “Chocolat” and “Shakespeare In Love.” There she is from across the Pond, on the back country roads of Poolesville. With her is co-star popular British comedian and actor, Steve Coogan, who also co-authored the screen play.
Dench, who plays the role of “Philomena Lee,” was very much in evidence. “She looked like one of my neighbors,” remarked Anne Dolan of Potomac. Dolan, who spent two hours observing during the Monday morning shoot, said she soon realized how repetitive filming action is. “I mainly talked with the chauffeurs for two hours while watching,” said Dolan who keeps her horse at a nearby farm.
Dave Phillips, on whose farm many of the vans were parked, voiced it a bit more succinctly. After seeing numerous re-takes he concluded, “This is like watching grass grow.” Phillips said the trucks and vans started rolling in before 6 a.m. to prepare for the day’s shoot.
Prior to moving to Poolesville, the filming crew, numbering more than a hundred, filmed in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps this location choice relates to Lee’s son who eventually worked in Washington and was associated with the Bush One White House. (To maintain the suspense of the show and book, his name, occupation and how Philomena finally was reunited with him, will remain unmentioned here.)
The logistics of moving actors, actresses, directors. assistants, plus a multitude of vehicles from location to location, and keeping all on cue, really stretches the imagination. A bystander does not get bored watching it all come together if you wait around long enough.
Included were a make- up trailer, wardrobe van, camera truck, grip truck, electrical truck, five passenger vans and private chauffeured cars for the big shots. The “priest” stepped out from one van and leisurely crossed Sugarland Lane with his white robes whipping in the wind. He was last seen entering St. Paul Church for an apparently extensive filming.
Bill Gray of Baltimore described his job as the set’s “still man.” One of the scenes played by Dench shows her studying an album containing her son’s photos. “She looks at the past in a photo album,” he said. It was Gray’s job to digitize all of the photos. “I have already spent two days on them and I’m not finished yet,” he said.
His job is just one very small part of what it takes to bring this movie to fruition. Gray also commented, “This is only a $6 million film, way below most of them.”
It’s very likely, with Judi Dench starring, that the show’s investors will have little to worry about. And, if you are looking to have a little fun on Dec. 9, you can send Happy Birthday wishes to Dame Judi Dench. She will be 78 years old.