Hollywood comes to Almonte

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ALMONTE — It’s got an all-star cast, an award-winning Hollywood director and the kind of flawless summer weather that deserves its own billing, but the real star of a movie being filmed in Almonte is so wooden, you’d think it was a tree.

That’s because it is a tree — a big, stately Norway maple, to be exact — smack in the middle of the courtyard next to the Almonte’s Old Town Hall.

Its job — aside from playing itself — is to be the focus of a sweetly romantic Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week flick called Seeds of Love.

Conceived by American actress Ashley Williams (known as much for Margin Call, the Jim Gaffigan Show, A Most Violent Year and How I Met Your Mother as her mile-wide smile), it tells the tale of a plucky Parks and Recreation employee who tries to save the iconic tree from destruction and falls in love in the process.

Starring Williams as Aimie, it also boasts beloved American actress and author Marilu Henner and Trevor Donovan (Texas Rising), as the axe-wielding love interest.

Director of photography, Russell Goozee, left, and director, Mel Damski, discuss a shot while on set for the Hallmark production of Seeds of Love, being filmed in Almonte, ON Tuesday July 02, 2016. (Darren Brown/Postmedia) Assignment 124432
Director of photography, Russell Goozee, left, and director, Mel Damski, discuss a shot while on set for the Hallmark production of Seeds of Love, being filmed in Almonte.  Darren Brown / PostmediaMovie filming: Seeds of Love rooted in Almonte

 But the tree, noble as it is, isn’t the only draw card for Hollywood director Mel Damski, who has directed everything from M*A*S*H and Boston Legal to Psych, as well as countless other shows and a dozen films. He’s also been nominated for an Oscar, two Emmy Awards and won a Christopher Award.

“Almonte is an amazing Hallmarkian town. I saw it and I didn’t even look at any other town,” he says, adding that since both Vancouver and Toronto are saturated when it comes to U.S. productions, Ottawa is increasingly “popping up as a little film centre. It’s this fresh, new place. I’m a fairly sophisticated New Yorker, but I had no idea what a cool place Ottawa is.”

And that’s pretty much what Ottawa-born Andrew Erin, executive producer from The Mob Entertainment, is hoping to hear. Having established his career as a filmmaker in the U.S., Erin started doing more work and establishing a local crew in Ottawa a few years ago, so that “my wife and I could raise our children in a sane environment. We’re now ready and we’ll be making three to six films a year here. We’ll be turning Ottawa into a city for movies, as an alternative for producers.”

Until then, however, Almonte has been a pretty happy stand in, says multi-talented co-star Marilu Henner, who got her break in the Emmy-winning TV series Taxi, back in 1978. Since then, she’s been in 35 films, several series including Donald Trump’s The Celebrity Apprentice, has written 10 bestselling health and lifestyle books and was featured in a 60 Minutes segment about six people with a superior autobiographical memory, which means she can remember everything that’s happened to her, to the day. (“August 15, 1979. That was the last time I ate dairy,” she says of her vegan diet. “It was a Wednesday.”)

As for working in Canada, it’s not her first time and hopefully won’t be the last, she notes.

“The people are great, the food is healthy. I have a Canadian soul. I feel very at home here.”

Then there’s the backstory to the film itself. When she read the script, she was struck by how much it mirrored her own life. Several years ago, her husband Michael vowed to cut down a tree on their property that was, as in the film, interfering with plumbing.

“We had such fights about it,” she laughs. “I called him the tree killer for a while, but he said he was saving the house.”

Actress, Ashley Williams, left, is seen with husband and executive producer, Neal Dodson, center, and director, Mel Damski, while on set for the Hallmark production, Seeds of Love, in Almonte, ON Tuesday July 02, 2016. (Darren Brown/Postmedia) Assignment 124432
Actress Ashley Williams, left, is seen with husband and executive producer, Neal Dodson, center, and director, Mel Damski, while on set. Darren Brown / Postmedia

In the film, the tree doesn’t get the axe, but it is a catalyst for the kind of storytelling for which the Hallmark Channel has become known, says Williams, who is also executive producer with producer/husband, Neal Dodson.

“Neal said, go have a glass of wine and don’t come home until you have five movie-of-the-week ideas for Hallmark. So that’s what I did. I came home and pitched him a bunch of ideas, then we hired amazing writers we’ve known for years. They wrote jokes specifically for me. All the names of the characters are our friends,” she says, grinning, “although none of them know it yet.”

The story, says Dodson, was a perfect fit for Hallmark.

“Hallmark isn’t asking for edgy content or content that pushes the boundaries and limits of taste. They’re stories you can watch with your family,” he says.

That also suits Williams, who is a hands-on mother to her two-year-old, Gus. Even so, as executive producer and lead actress, the work-life balance is tough to maintain.

“I want to stay a professional working mother, it’s really important for him to see that, but it’s absolutely exhausting. I’m running on two hours of sleep in the middle of a 14-hour day. It’s not easy balancing both.”

That strain won’t last forever, since the film wraps in two weeks, says Damski. That tight timeline, he adds, demands its own brand of creativity.

“Here’s the difference between what I do and what Steven Spielberg does. He has a lot more time and more money. I have to be extremely efficient and make really tough choices about my priorities.

“I don’t sacrifice the quality of the storytelling, even though I have a limited budget and schedule. It demands a whole other kind of creativity. You have limited options, but you make the story work.”

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