Newburyport’s River Merrimac Bar and Grille goes Hollywood

By Bill O’Connor
Georgetown Record
Aug 15, 2008

NEWBURYPORT – If you haven’t checked out The River Merrimac Bar and Grille yet, then you’re first look at the new restaurant on Water Street in Newburyport could be coming via a cineplex near you. Tuesday night the restaurant, which opened this past April, played host to the cast and crew of Bjort Productions’ new feature film “The Joneses,” which wrapped shooting with one of the movie’s most climactic scenes set in The River Merrimac’s second-floor dining room.

“The Joneses,” which is being directed by local filmmaker Chris Tyrrell, is a black comedy concerning two neighboring couples that become engaged in a deadly game of one-upmanship.
“The premise is basically keeping up with the Joneses,” Tyrrell said. “It’s about two neighbors, two couples, and they’re so competitive with each other that they basically start sabotaging each other’s lives … it’s funny and it’s quirky, and it’s the type of film that is usually pretty popular in the independent film scene and at film festivals.”

Ken Tache of Salem, who co-owns The River Merrimac Bar and Grille with his son, executive chef Michael Tache of Newburyport, was thrilled not only to have Tyrrell and the crew at the restaurant, but also at the chance to be a part of a feature film. “About a month ago, Chris came up and said they were considering this place to do a romantic dinner scene in,” Tache said. “They were looking around the area at different places at the time, and then a couple weeks later they came back and said, ‘We’d like to do it here.’”

Tache happily obliged, and on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. the upstairs dining room was transformed into a working movie set complete with lighting, cameramen and a few lucky patrons who were allowed to stay and watch the show. “The Joneses” was co-written by Tyrrell and his wife, Stacey Cruwys, who is also acting in the film, playing Suzanne, a manipulative and scheming alpha woman who always gets her way. The script was originally written in 2002 for HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” a show produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon that gave writers the chance to submit scripts to be reviewed for production, with the best script being made into a full-length feature.

“Essentially we wrote these scripts, and then we started thinking a few years ago, no one here in Boston is probably going to pay for us to try and make these, so maybe we should try and make one ourselves,” Tyrrell said. So, in 2005, Tyrrell and Cruwys filmed and produced “Naughty or Nice,” a Christmas-themed comedy, under Bjort Productions, a company that they and a friend had founded the late ‘90s. “The Joneses” is the company’s second full-length feature.

The film’s cast is made up of mostly local area actors. Cruwys, originally from Saugus, and James Shalkoski Jr. of Georgetown play the two leads, with Tony Wright and Amy Ulrich, who both relocated to Boston to pursue acting careers, playing their respective spouses. “I went down to grad school in New Jersey. I had no plans of living in this area at all,” Shalkoski said. “I actually had plans to move out to L.A., but it kind of got diverted because there’s a whole tax incentive for filmmakers to make films in Massachusetts.”

Shalkoski points out that due to new film-friendly tax laws, more Hollywood productions and independent films are shooting in Massachusetts, meaning more work for young actors, such as himself. “It’s like, we’re shooting in one town one day, and Bruce Willis is shooting in the next town over,” he said. Since “The Joneses” deals with two couples competing to have the best of everything, Tyrrell and company were looking for an elegant restaurant setting in which to film this crucial scene between the movie’s two main characters. Newburyport was immediately one of the locations they began considering.

“Newburyport itself is such a beautiful town,” Tyrrell said. “We wanted something that looked really nice and we had been looking for a long time; [The River Merrimac Bar and Grille] just had a really great feel for all of us.” Tache is understandably pleased with the selection of his restaurant as the location for the shoot, and hopes that customers will take notice, coming to see for themselves what Tyrrell saw in The River Merrimac Bar and Grille. “You know, it’s flattering,” Tache said. “You spend all this time thinking about the way you want this place to look, what mood you want to create, and [the cast and crew] found this place to be a place for a romantic dinner scene, it’s flattering.”

Tyrrell and Cruwys will begin post-production and editing on “The Joneses” this weekend. The pair hope to submit the film to a plethora of national and local film festivals upon its completion, in addition to setting up screenings locally in the Boston area. As for Tache and The River Merrimac Bar and Grille, there are currently no plans for future movie shoots set in the restaurant, but … when Hollywood comes knocking, the River Merrimac Bar and Grille will be there, ready and waiting to be discovered again.

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