From Sarah Morgan's summer home to Hitler's castle ...
Ventfort Hall makes transformation again for the big screen
LENOX — Portraits were taken down. Deer heads were mounted. Banners with swastikas were hung. Over one week in August 2017, Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum was transformed into Adolf Hitler's castle.
"Ventfort just had a certain Gothic sensibility that I liked," said Robert D. Krzykowski, the Turners Falls resident and writer/director/producer of "The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot."
Following a pair of screenings on Jan. 26 at Turners Falls' Shea Theater Arts Center, the drama starring Oscar nominee Sam Elliott ("A Star Is Born") and Aidan Turner is set for a Friday, Feb. 8, wide release and will be shown at Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema beginning on that date through Feb. 13. Though much of the film's production occurred in Turners Falls, scenes in and around Hitler's domain are all Ventfort Hall, a site that still owes some of its popularity to its appearance in the Oscar-winning 1999 film, "The Cider House Rules."
"We seem to be made for making movies," said Kelly Blau, president of Ventfort Hall's board of directors.
While its title might appear to advertise a comedy, "The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot" is a drama. In an alternate history of World War II, American Calvin Barr goes undercover to assassinate Hitler. Decades later, Bar is tapped to do the same to Bigfoot, who is spreading a nation-imperiling disease. Turner spent three days filming at Ventfort Hall as the younger Barr; Elliott, who didn't appear in Lenox, plays the older, grizzled Barr hunting down Sasquatch four decades later.
"Besides the two monsters mentioned in the title, the movie delves into the personal monsters that we face, which are fear and loss, and regret," Krzykowski said.
Blau and Ventfort Hall Executive Director Beverly Rainey understood the film's moral message. When Evan Gregg, the film's location manager, called Rainey in July 2017 to inquire about potentially shooting at Ventfort, she agreed. A group that included Krzykowski visited shortly thereafter.
"We'd been given an outline [of the film]," Rainey said on Wednesday at Ventfort Hall, sitting across from Blau. "It sounds silly, and it sounds like it's going to be a sci-fi movie. It was not."
In August, the film's art department began preparing Ventfort's Great Hall, Long Hallway, dining room and an upstairs room for filming. Equipment was kept in the library.
"We don't have the collections that normal museums have, so [the crew] can move anything they want moved," Rainey said.
In addition to that flexibility, George and Sarah Morgan's old summer home offers large rooms for wide shots. In the dining area, Hitler's desk was pushed into an alcove near some bay windows. The portraits framing this area were removed and replaced with deer heads. A fake blaze was cast in the dormant fireplace.
"The difference in the dining room [was] mind-boggling," Blau said, later noting that the space is accustomed to transformations; like the rest of the building, the room was part of a massive restoration project following Ventfort Hall Association Inc.'s purchase of the crumbling structure in 1997.
Turner arrived a few days after the initial crew.
"I sort of expected him to come in a limo because he's very important in the U.K., because he's [Ross] Poldark," Rainey said, referring to the Irish actor's role in the British drama series, "Poldark."
Instead, Turner pulled up with the rest of the crew in a van.
"He walked right in and stuck his hand out and said, 'Hi, I'm Aidan,'" Rainey recalled. "I was flabbergasted because I expected more of an arrival, if you will, and he was just in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and carrying a big bag full of whatever."
She gave Turner a tour of the house.
"He was very enamored of Ventfort Hall, and I laughed about that and said, 'With the places that you film in England ... ,'" Rainey recalled. "He's all over Cornwall, England, with all of those gorgeous things."
Blau and Rainey witnessed the entire three-day filming process, including local special effects master Douglas Trumbull's work. At one point, bombers are strafing overhead.
"We got here at about 7 o'clock every morning and put the coffee pot on and opened up the house," Rainey said, later mentioning that filming often lasted until 11:30 p.m.
"They were very long days," Blau said.
The shoot closed Ventfort Hall for a week. After filming, the film crew returned each room to its original state.
"Magically, they're gone, and we're back to us," Blau said.
For a while, Ventfort Hall staffers weren't allowed to discuss the production publicly. In early December, Ventfort Hall posted about it on Facebook.
"We're amazed that it stayed quiet as long as it did because we did have some people that did come in [during the shoot]," Rainey said.
"We had swastika banners hanging everywhere," Blau said.
Rainey and Blau attended the film's first Massachusetts screening in Somerville, as well as the screenings in Turners Falls.
"It's not a slam-bam, I'm-going-to-shoot-you-dead kind of thing," Rainey said.
"It's funny, which was surprising. I wasn't looking for humor necessarily," Blau added.
Krzykowski grew up in Turners Falls, where more of the film's story unfolds.
"I felt that Turners Falls was very much a character in it," he said by phone Wednesday as he prepared for California red-carpet events.
It took 12 years for the director to make his first major feature film, so he didn't have Elliott in mind when he began the project. But by the end, he was targeting an actor he said "exudes decency."
"We thought Sam Elliott had this great Norman Rockwell-thing about him," Krzykowski said.
Elliott was drawn to the project despite its low-budget nature.
"Robert had written a letter to my agent that I became privy to, and I read it and was overcome by the content of it," Elliott told /Film. "I called Robert and said 'I'm in.' It's just the kind of stuff I want to do; it's good material, great material."
The trouble for Krzykowski became finding someone to play the younger version of Barr. Turner soon emerged as a candidate.
"I was watching 'Poldark' one day, and I could see these flashes that reminded me of Sam," Krzykowski said.
One time, after several false starts on a particular scene shot late at night, Turner winked at Rainey and a cast member before a final successful take.
"I heard Bob say, 'That's a wrap,' and I thought, 'Oh, my God, that's how they do it in Hollywood,'" Rainey recalled.
Onsite productions not only provide memories for Ventfort Hall, but also financial rewards and exposure. Shot more than 20 years ago, "The Cider House Rules" continues to bring fans to the Lenox building that served as the exterior of St. Cloud Orphanage.
"They seem to play it fairly regularly on TV, and usually if it's on TV, we'll know within the next week or two; there will be a few [visitors] coming through to see the set," Blau said. "People just latch onto these movies, and this could be one, although I suspect they'll latch onto Turners Falls more than us."
Blau was impressed by the Pioneer Valley's fervor for the for the film, which also stars Ron Livingston and Caitlin FitzGerald.
"Turners Falls is mad about it," Rainey said.
Blau interjected. "We are, too."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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