The past 8 months have felt like 8 millennia.
But here’s something to look forward to: “Five Weeks in Westport.”
That’s the title of a new romcom/drama/mystery narrative feature film. Shirlee Hauser and her husband Howard Friedman wrote and filmed it — predominantly in Westport — over a 3-year period.
It just screened at the Mystic Film Festival. This week it premieres at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, in that city and Hollywood. (Hollywood, Florida, that is.)
And it was all done with a budget under $5,000.
Shirlee and Howard’s Westport roots are deep. They moved here in 1995 with their young son Josh.
After Howard retired from advertising — he created and directed TV commercials — he felt bored. With a small $700 camera bought on Craigslist, he filmed short pieces around town — things he felt beautiful or touching.
One was the YouTube classic, “The High Tide Club.”
That was not his first film. In the mid-1970s Howard had written and directed a small independent project, “Sweet Talk.” It won him a Best New Director awrd, and found its way onto cable TV.
But that was it — until “Five Weeks in Westport.”
The plot: When mysterious international film director Ross Griffin arrives in Westport to stage a play based on real events, the lives of retired New York actors Mary Evans and her husband Gus Jacobs — along with close friends Grace and Murray — are upended. Revelations from the past unfold.
The cast includes Westporter Leigh Katz, who had extensive stage experience; Westport Community Theater favorite David Victor; Fairfield’s Kitty Robertson, a veteran of film and TV (and Gault spokesperson); soap/film/TV actor Will Jeffries; Peter Wood, who is leading man-attractive and provided a needed motorcycle, plus up-and-comers Sunny Makwana, Chris Finch, Erin Shaughnessy and Nancy Sinacori.
Shirlee and Howard co-directed. Their son Josh came from Massachusetts to do sound and hold the boom. Staples High School junior Sydney Winthrop helped too.
The directors’ home doubled as 2 separate houses. Jessica Bram’s living room was used for a scene requiring a baby grand piano.
The first exterior shot took place on a hot summer morning outside of Oscar’s Delicatessen. Owner Lee Papageorge gave permission, adding he’d be sorry to miss it. Shirlee and Howard had no idea that within a week, Lee would die of lung cancer.
Three other restaurants in the film have since closed or changed hands too: Tavern on Main, Christie’s Country Store, and Joey’s by the Shore.
Scenes were also filmed at Barnes & Noble (soon to move), Pane e Bene, Compo and Burying Hill Beaches, Westport Community Theater and the downtown Fine Arts Festival.
The process was helped by advice from Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote and/or directed films like “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Sleeper, and helped create “Jersey Boys” on Broadway.
When Shirlee and Howard learned that post-production would cost $40,000, they decided to do it themselves. He took on the arduous task of sound mixing and color correction.
The couple’s first look at the final product came at the Mystic Festival. “It played looked and sounded just fine,” Shirlee reports.
The audience reacted just right too — laughing and falling silent appropriately — and finished with a burst of applause.
The Mystic and Fort Lauderdale film festivals are among the few that, during COVID, have in-theater showings (with masks, and audiences capped at 50% capacity). They also make their films available virtually.
“We don’t anticipate winning any Academy Awards,” Shirlee says. “But the entire experience has made us both very grateful.”
They feel gratitude toward their cast; for “living in such a generous town that allowed us, without hesitation, to film where we wanted,” and for the visually lovely scenes they captured.
As the pandemic rages, “Five Weeks in Westport” is also a bit of a time capsule: a reminder of a town that existed just a couple of years ago.
Or — as it feels now — once upon a time.
For a “virtual screening” via the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, click here. It’s available through November 22. Click below for a sample reel (top) and the trailer (below).