Worcester goes Hollywood, Feature film does location shots at local museum

If you were driving down Lancaster Street yesterday and you thought you saw Christopher Walken walkin’ across, you were not just seeing things.

If your timing was really good, you might also have caught the illustrious likes of Morgan Freeman or William H. Macy making their way from their dressing-room trailers in the Trinity Lutheran Church parking lot to the Worcester Art Museum, where a Hollywood crew was at work on a one-day shoot for a new movie.

Called “The Lonely Maiden,” the film isn’t scheduled for release until next fall, but all the excitement of a Tinseltown opening gala was in the air yesterday as Hollywood heavy hitters acted out their scenes and museum staff gladly took on roles as extras. Even longtime museum director James Welu got in on the act.

“They’ve given me a part as an assistant curator,” he said of his walk-on role. “I’m back where I started.”

The movie is a comedy about three veteran museum security guards who become deeply attached to the artwork they have watched over for decades. When they learn that the artwork is being transferred to another museum, they come up with a scheme to steal it back.

Though the filmmakers were in town for only a day, the museum in the movie will look just like Worcester’s own. Most of the interior scenes are being done on a set that replicates some of the Worcester Art Museum galleries. Movie crews built the pseudo-WAM in a warehouse in Boston. The museum in the movie will be called Boston Art Museum. By shooting in the warehouse — complete with fake versions of the paintings in Worcester Art Museum galleries — crews can ignore many of the safety precautions they must take when working in an actual museum.
“Normally they would have bottles of water on location but they can’t have that in the galleries,” museum official Martin Richman said. “They would have makeup, spraying hair or spritzing or doing powder and stuff, but they’re not allowed to do anything like that around the paintings.”

Spritzing was allowed in the museum’s front doorway for one of Macy’s scenes, in which his character carries his beloved but heavy bronze statue in a huge duffel bag. The makeup woman spritzed his forehead and temples with water to make it appear that he was sweating from exertion. She had to do it over and over because, with several extras as well as Macy in the shot, about six takes were required to make director Peter Hewett (“Garfield”) happy.

Setting the stage for yesterday’s movie shoot in Worcester had many museum staffers pulling an all-nighter Sunday night.

“The staff fully embraces this and is working very hard — literally through the night,” Welu said. “But it’s such a wonderful opportunity for the museum and we particularly love the theme of this film, which focuses on the guards and their love of the works of art.”

Scenes yesterday were shot in several galleries as well as the Renaissance Court, the grand column-graced area just inside the museum’s front doors. The court, which symbolizes Worcester Art Museum to many people, is highlighted by a Roman-era mosaic on the floor offset by protective brass railings.

“It’s beautiful,” William H. Macy said to Welu as he came through the front door for his first scene of the day. “It’s really nice,” Macy said. Then he pointed to the priceless mosaic. “We’re going to paint that. You don’t mind, do you?” he joked.

Macy also shot a nude scene at the museum yesterday, albeit on a closed set and not in the spacious Renaissance Court. It was all about obsession — not with a woman, but with a statue. The artwork that Macy’s character has taken to heart is a bronze statue of a nude male with his arm muscles flexed and held high in a show of strength. In the movie, Macy’s character humorously emulates the pose, right down to the naked part.

Meanwhile, a flutter of excitement came early in the day when a tall, nice-looking black man with gray hair appeared at the Lancaster Street entrance. “Is it him? Is it him?” everyone wondered. But it wasn’t “him,” it was his double, actor Richard Cohee, who has worked as Morgan Freeman’s stand-in for 10 years.

“We get mixed up all the time, even when we’re together,” Cohee said. “People don’t know who’s who. It’s crazy, and when he wants to escape he says, ‘He’s him!’ and then he takes off.”

New tax laws have encouraged more filmmaking in Massachusetts, and Worcester is now getting a taste. The process began last August when a location scout contacted the museum. “We were approached after a scout came through and loved our spaces, and it went from there,” said Allison Berkeley, director of marketing and public relations. What started with just a few visitors checking out the museum soon evolved into a busload of technical people stopping by to make sure the location would work with lighting, sound and other equipment. “We worked with them over many, many weeks and it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Berkeley said.

Mr. Richman, director of development at the museum, said his first reaction was to make sure the movie scouts were legitimate. “They wanted to come in and they wanted to look at all the different spaces,” he said. “They wanted to look at the basement. They went on the roof. I thought, ‘Are these people planning a heist?’ They’re telling us it’s a movie about people who steal art and maybe it’s for real. But we quickly learned it was on the up and up.”

WAM Education Director Honee Hess plays a security guard, as does Kathy Johnson, a sous-chef in the museum café. “I never in a million years dreamed I’d ever be doing anything like this,” Johnson said between takes.

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