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Monday, April 15, 2024

It’s a Wrap! ‘Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point’ — A Community Effort All-Around

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As was the buzz around town to start off the year, suburban Suffolk County played host to a most exciting project.

The holiday film Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point shot from February 15 to March 20 in Smithtown, St. James, Selden and Holbrook. Beautifully enough, it was written and executive produced by a pair of Smithtown natives who made it all the way to Hollywood, only to bring their new friends home with them for the holidays— and for their biggest project to date.

Tyler Taormina (Smithtown High School West, ’09), directed the film, which he co-wrote with childhood best friend, fellow Smithtown West graduate Eric Berger, and Kevin Anton. The trio and their L.A.-based production company Omnes Films linked up with quite a few old friends from the neighborhood, and a new one from across the river, to pen what Long Island locals are proud-with-bias to predict could very well be the next Christmas classic.

“We still cannot find the words to thank the countless Long Islanders that helped make this movie happen,” producer Krista Minto (Smithtown High School East ’08) shared. 

Reads the film’s plot description on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb):

“On Christmas Eve, a family gathers for what could be the last holiday in their ancestral home. As the night wears on and generational tensions arise, one of the teenagers sneaks out with her friends to claim the wintry suburb for her own.”

As The Messenger first broke in early January, Michael Cera (Superbad, Arrested Development) is starring and producing, alongside other A-list talent and up-and-coming performers.

Thank You Smithtown, St. James, Selden and Holbrook

Fifteen locations total across the four participating towns were used— categorizing the shoot as a logistically complicated effort. Thanks to the outpouring of helping hands from the respective communities, filming was thoroughly completed at each stopgap without a hitch and on schedule.

One local organization, amongst several that contributed a great deal, was the Smithtown Fire Department, which the production exclaims they will be “forever indebted to.”

“The Smithtown Fire Department provided countless resources, like traffic safety materials and warming vans, COVID testing and PPE supplies, generators, ladders, machinery to cut through heavy metals needed for set construction, and even an old field training car to smash for practical effects. Not to mention the water needed to make fake falling snow! Without them, one of the most beautiful scenes in our movie would not have happened: the holiday parade,” said Minto.

For the big parade scene, the generous folks at the Smithtown Fire Department came equipped with fire engines, Santa Claus, and infectious smiles on one helluva cold February night to remember.

Said The Smithtown Fire Department: “As proud members of the Smithtown community, the Smithtown Fire Department was thrilled to take part in this amazing project that showcased the charm, character and community spirit of our town. Our firefighters and EMS personnel were eager to roll up their sleeves, and contribute to the project by decorating our trucks once again, and assisting on set. We can’t wait to see the films’ success and the pride it brings to our community.”

Getting the fire department involved first required general production blueprint discussions with The Town of Smithtown. Minto thought the odds of a fire truck parade recreation would be “one in a million,” but “Supervisor Ed Wehrheim turned to me in full confidence and said, ‘There is one person in this town you need to talk to that can pull that off… Tom Duckham.’”

Having actually grown up playing soccer with the Duckham family, Minto, just as the rest of the natives brought back home for the project or who remained local and were fortunate enough to be called upon to join the team, at this point felt the project falling seamlessly into place.

“Tom Duckham, Tim Duckham, Debbie Hellerman, Jonathan Garrison and Dann Dongvort blew my expectations out of the water,” Minto reflected. “The incredible men and women of the Smithtown Fire Department came to a painfully cold set with flawlessly decorated fire trucks and an army of supporters to make their movie debuts.”

On the parade shoot, a day in which Smithtown High School East’s cafeteria auditorium was used for crew lunch, holding for cast, crew and a mass assemblage of extras, and as base of operations for costume, hair and makeup, Minto further revealed:

“I didn’t tell our team this, but when I first heard the sirens coming around the corner, I stopped dead in my tracks and cried.”

“I couldn’t believe how many people showed up for us, and was actually moved to tears,” she added. “It’s a night of my career I will never forget.”

Xtra, Xtra… Read All About It!

“When I read about [the film] in The Messenger, I was excited to learn that filming would take place so close to my backyard,” said Frank Orlik, Stony Brook resident of 53 years.

Orlik was just one of the 90 native Long Islanders of all ages and from all different walks of life tabbed for background extra duty on Parade Day/Night/Early Morning, including The Messenger News Editor Brian R. Monahan, of Smithtown and Art Manager Sergio A. Fabbri, of Selden.

“I never knew how much effort went into changing scenes,” Monahan, a Smithtown West ’17 alum, learned firsthand. “There was a lot of downtime— but a lot of fun too.”

“This experience was a terrific one,” Orlik added. “The cast and crew were great. I even got to make a bunch of new extra friends!”

Part-time modeler Randi Padover, of Smithtown, seconds this notion. At first, she was surprised that a film was being made in Smithtown. But Padover didn’t hesitate to join when the single-day casting call making the rounds on the Internet made it her way: “It looked interesting, and it made sense,” she said.

Vintage “picture” cars were collected to line the streets and cooperative neighbors’ driveways just in the knick of time, in keeping with “pre-2006” period accuracy demands. Resources of this sort proved vital for the early-on parade scene, and down the final stretch as well.

Robert and Lori Mellina, of Center Moriches, a retired NYPD Sergeant/Security Officer and current elementary school teacher, respectively, own a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Station Wagon— exactly what the production was in the market for when a family friend came calling.

“Growing up, we both had station wagon family vacation and holiday stories to tell, riding all the way to a destination or relative’s home,” Lori said. “The idea for this movie brought back fond memories and got us thinking: ‘what a great tribute to an American’s icon, the station wagon, this would be.’”

Said Randy Bubliz, of St. James: “My best friend Kenny (Maher) introduced me to Krista Minto because she was looking for cars from the 60s and 70s. I have a 1969 Chevy Chevelle that was my Grandmother’s car, that my grandfather had bought brand new for her. Krista asked if it could be used in the movie, I said, ‘sure!’”

Bublitz also provided a trailer for the crew to move a piano player instrumental to key scenes. When the day came toward production’s end for his ‘69 Chevelle to be used, his daughter, Erica, just so happened to have returned home from college for Spring Break that March 17-March 19 weekend— and would go back shortly afterward with quite the story to tell.

“Erica got to meet Michael Cera,” Erica’s father said, “who was nice enough to have a picture taken with her, so she could show her friends at college what she did over break. It was a great experience to watch and be a part of it in any fashion. St. James is a wonderful town and I look forward to seeing [the film] on the big screen!”

Suffolk County Sheriff Department Sergeant Artie Sanchez, of East Islip, lent cop uniform accessories and traffic cones to the production— his daughter Giana Sanchez, 17, also spent multiple days as one of the many featured teenaged extras. “It was such a fun experience,” Giana said. “The production crew was super friendly and it really turned into a community event with all the scenes that were shot at local venues and landmarks!”

Bring it Around Town

“This was a fantastic experience for the community as a whole,” said Smithtown Public Information Officer Nicole Gargiulo. “How many film productions can say they worked in lockstep with multiple government entities, involved our local youth, and neighborhoods? The film was created and produced by Smithtown Alumni who came back home to film a heartfelt motion picture about the place where they grew up. Is there any greater compliment for a small town in America?”

Everyone else on-board from the top down equally basked in calling local residences their home away from home, and locally iconic locations like Nesconset Plaza, St. James’ “Red Acre Farms” and Cella Bagels of Selden their in-universe go-to stomping grounds for the occasion.

“We were so excited to help by offering them space at our headquarters in Nesconset for their equipment. Paws of War is always happy to lend a helping hand,” said Ryan Haugstatter, of the animal protection organization Paws of War, located at Nesconset Plaza.

“Red Acre Farms, formerly known as Dairy Barn, has been a staple in the community for many years and it was amazing to showcase that in the production of Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point,” said Jaime and Tyler Ostling, owners of the establishment featured in the display image that depicts Taormina utilizing its iconography to map out a scene. “We loved to see so many Smithtown alumni that were a part of the crew… [who] worked hard all hours of the night. It was nice to get asked by the producer if they could use our space, and right away we knew it would be a great opportunity to showcase our community.”

Being the proprietor of a “really cool” 50s-style bagel eatery in the heart of Selden has inspired many filmmaking opportunities for his Cella Bagels storefront, shared John Rose, a documentary filmmaker in his own right. After collaborating with candidates for political spots and another local Long Island filmmaker, Rose was happy to oblige and open up shop once more because “promoting filmmaking on Long Island is great for everyone and I am happy to do it and would gladly do it again, especially when it involves great people.”

St. Pat’s and bars The Pleasant Inn of St. James and My Place Tavern of Selden’s Boston Market shopping center were also used for company “holding” — essential for talent and crew to keep warm on cold winter sets.

“The historic district of Smithtown is such a beautiful place to live and work and it is great that this film is sharing that with its viewers,” said Alexandra Burk, of Damiano’s Realty Group, who provided the film production access to the back lot of one of her buildings off of Main Street, across from St. Pat’s. “It was very cool to watch the crew set up a snow scene in our parking lot in the middle of Spring. For a change, we had snow in our parking lot that we didn’t have to plow!”

The film’s caterer was none other than Sequa Deli of St. James— a crew of 50-plus who’d routinely serenade their arrival with a deserved hero’s welcome.

Beloved pizzeria Little Vincent’s of Lake Ronkonkoma recalls at first thinking they were a recipient of a prank call before agreeing to a wee-hour, Monday morning holler and subsequently whipping up 14 pies just before 2 a.m. closing.

“We’re really excited to see the film,” owner Mike Rossi said exactly 10 weeks — and a couple more movie craft service reinforcement orders — later. “I can’t wait to see who I fed!”

“Making a movie with a cast and crew of the most wonderful humans.” – Kim Odenthal (Costume Designer)
Pictured with Co-Writers/Executive Producers/Smithtown Grads Eric Berger (left) and Tyler Taormina (right) Photo/Caption: Instagram

Inspiring the Next Generation

“By filming in our region, these local filmmakers will inspire students in our area and shine a great light on our area,” State Senator Mattera, of St. James, told The Messenger. “This is truly exciting and I am hopeful that it is a tremendous success for everyone involved.”

Fourth grade teacher Lori Mellina confirmed such is already in the works, as her Center Moriches students were enamored when she first spoke of the film production setting up shop nearby. “What caught our attention most was the professionalism and skillful orchestration accentuated during the filming process. Not a grump in sight, even at 1:00 a.m.- plus, in the morning. It was truly an incredible sight to behold. The joy of Christmas surrounded us the whole time we were there.”

A scene was shot inside Smithtown Landing Methodist Church, and they provided holding during a middle of the night scene shot in its graveyard. “Everyone was an absolute pleasure to work with,” Landing Ladies Auxiliary President Kim Schmidt exclaimed. “…we were honored to have the Historic Smithtown Landing Methodist Church, c. 1834, be a part of this production,” she added. Having grown up “a few doors down” from Landing Church, Schmidt thinks it was “so amazing to see that the director Tyler and many others came back home to film this movie, and we can’t wait for it to be released.”

Recounting the experience of being an extra in the church-filmed scene, Nancy Vallalera, of the Smithtown Historical Society and the Smithtown Children’s Foundation, said supporting the efforts of Smithtown graduates was the biggest appeal: “There were extras from every enclave of Smithtown. Young adults who went to school with our children, my dentist and his family, and community members we hadn’t met before. We became family for a few hours on that day. We walked away with great memories, new friends and renewed pride in our town.”

“The film has a lot of heart and has the full support of many other leaders across our districts,” Assemblyman Doug Smith, of Holbrook, wrote in his initial letter that successfully appealed to an impacted residential area local to the Town of Islip sector of his district to keep their Christmas decorations affixed so they could be captured on film.

“It reminds us the good tidings of the holidays can and will extend well past the winter, carry into the springtime… 

…and beyond.”

A Timeless Story That Will Release — in Due Time

“Countless families and community members opened their homes and businesses through the night to help keep us warm,” Minto reflected. “I’ve filmed all over the country, and I’ve never experienced such kindness, selflessness and generosity. There’s just nowhere like Long Island.

“As proud members of the Smithtown community, the Smithtown Fire Department was thrilled to take part in this amazing project that showcased the charm, character and community spirit of our town. Our firefighters and EMS personnel were eager to roll up their sleeves, and contribute to the project by decorating our trucks once again, and assisting on set. We can’t wait to see the films’ success and the pride it brings to our community.” – The Smithtown Fire Department

In the weeks and months to come, expect more stories involving the cast and crew on the local front and beyond. For now, they deserve to catch their breaths as they move onto their next respective endeavors after a whirlwind of an accomplishment — that included five night shoots a week for five consecutive weeks, FedEx truck hauls, FedEx Truck hauls and more FedEx truck hauls.

“I was very impressed with Krista’s motivation and decided Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point was such a good cause that I would be happy to contribute, being in a position of owning FedEx routes and 74 FedEx trucks… knowing trucks were needed to transport and house equipment,” said Jeannie Reynolds. The Lindenhurst resident lent three high-top vans and two box truck vans, and a heap of other resources including but not limited to a few folding tables and more than a classroom’s worth of chairs— qualifying her as a bona fide “set hero.”

Thank you credits, assuredly, will be extensive upon the film’s release.

Until then, invested parties, be patient. “Capturing the footage is only one piece of the puzzle,” says Minto. “The editing process usually takes 6-months to a year… once we have a polished piece, we focus on publicity and distribution. The work is never finished!”

This won’t be the last story told about the winter wonderland of an experience the Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point production was. Not by a longshot.

“We are overwhelmed with gratitude,” Minto concluded, “and can’t wait to share the piece with the community next year.”

Thank you immensely for your contributions, and for your part in helping turn Long Island suburbia into Hollywood Lite to kick off 2023. 

The fun has just begun.

Michael J. Reistetter
Michael J. Reistetter
Mike Reistetter, former Editor in Chief, is now a guest contributor to The Messenger Papers. Mike's current career in film production allows for his unique outlook on entertainment writing. Mike has won second place in "Best Editorials" at the New York Press Association 2022 Better Newspaper Contest.