By Times Staff
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — ANDOVER — The mock courtroom at the Massachusetts School of Law was transformed into a real movie set yesterday, as Hollywood actors, a film crew of dozens, and about 60 locals, including one from Gloucester, serving as extras were on-set shooting an independent film.
“The Minister’s Wife,” a tale of murder and dark secrets, was being filmed on the second-floor of the school, in a realistic-looking courtroom used by the school to train its trial-law students.
“We were scouting courthouses around the state and found this,” said Andrea Ajemian, co-producer and line-producer for the low-budget movie. “This worked out lovely and the school has been great.”
While most of the filming is being done in Worcester, two days of courtroom scenes are playing out at the school’s 500 Federal St. campus. Filming started there yesterday and is due to wrap up today before the crew and actors head back to Worcester for another few days more of filming.
The filming takes just 15 days, Ajemian said, and is due to finish by June 25.
In late May, Ajemian put out a call for extras. The college asked its current students and alumni if they wanted to sit in the audience or the jury box, or act as bailiffs or take other small parts. Many of them did, said Professor Michael Coyne, who is also serving as the legal consultant on the movie.
“We invited students and graduates to be extras,” he said. “There are a lot of alumni sitting in the audience. It’s exciting to have a real movie being filmed here.”
Two of the extras were from Andover — Pam Wilkie, 53, and her daughter Montana, 15, of Knoll Crest Drive.
“I had to take my daughter out of school for two days,” said Wilkie. “This is my first time in a movie — I’m on the jury.”
She said her job as a member of the jury is to “sit and listen intently.”
She said the actors are so good “it feels like a real trial.”
Before letting the film company, Moody Independent, shoot at the school, Coyne carefully read the script and offered some pointers on how to make it more realistic, from a legal perspective.
“They are doing a great job with it,” he said. “They genuinely care about getting the trial part of it right.”
The movie, Ajemian explained, is based on a true-crime novel, which is based on a true story out of Texas. A minister killed his wife, saying it was suicide. Police botched the investigation and he would have gotten away with it if not for the victim’s family, who was able to reveal the minister’s dark past and the fact he was having an affair before the murder.
Ajemian said the movie is being produced on a low-budget — under $1 million — but that it has high production values and well-known Hollywood actors.
Director John Stimpson, of Princeton, Mass., said the producers, Mark Donadio and Miriam Marcus, took advantage of the state’s generous 25 percent tax credit to make the film.
“The tax credits are a central piece of the financing and making this happen,” he said. “The savings from the tax credit are put directly onto the screen and show up in the production values.”
He said the film has a cast of 19, of which 14 are from the Boston area. The rest are from Los Angeles or New York.
Gail O’Grady is the female lead, playing the mother of the murder victim. O’Grady has been numerous TV shows, including “NYPD Blue,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and dozens of others.
James McDaniel, also a former cast member of “NYPD Blue,” plays Wade Thompson, who helps O’Grady’s character uncover the mystery. Bree Williamson, a soap-opera star who has also appeared in numerous made-for-TV movies, plays the deceased woman and appears in a series of flashbacks.
Boston-based actors in the movie include Tom Kemp, Bates Wilder, Georgia Lyman and Paula Plum.
Stimpson pointed out that the film uses primarily local crew, including location scouts, grip and electrical workers, production assistants and more.
Small-budget independent films, he said, are a great way for people like him to pursue their passion while also making a living.
“We’ve found a niche,” he said. “We work steadily and create products that are attractive to the world-wide market. We have a passion for film-making. We make it bigger than it seems and bigger than it costs. We are doing the real-deal here.”
Once the movie is done, Ajemian explained, it will be sold by the producers into the worldwide market, where it could appear on the Lifetime channel or somewhere else.
“We don’t know where it will end up,” she said.
Local crew members said they enjoyed working on the project.
“They are awesome,” said Rick, 26, of East Boston, who declined to give his last name but who works as a grip. “There’s no real hierarchy here. Nobody yells at each other. They are helpful. They just want people to learn. That’s rare in this industry.”
Aleksander Petakov, 19, a production assistant from Nashua, N.H., said the 15 days working on the movie are kind of like an internship for him. He’s studying film-making at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“This is the first time I’ve done this,” he said. “It’s great experience.”
But exhausting. Production crew members were on the set at 6 a.m., setting up the stage and taking care of other details before the actors arrived. They won’t be done until well after the actors leave, more than 12 hours later.
“They are long, hard days,” he said.
But fun, said extra Dylan Benson, 21, of Gloucester.
“I sit in front of the audience, supporting the minister,” said Benson, adding that he and his fellow extras decided to take on roles of their own making. “I’m with the mother and the girlfriend. We made up our own characters.”
Although they don’t have speaking parts, the extras feel like they are part of the action.
“This was on my bucket list,” said John Forgione, 50, of Dracut, who just got laid off from his job as a paralegal. “I have a friend who’s a student and she told me they need extras.”
Instead of sitting behind a desk at work, he’s sitting in the mock jury box. “This is fun,” he said.