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Massachusetts church goes Hollywood

First Parish in Brookline, Mass., to star in upcoming Adam Sandler film.
By Julia Angley

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A freshly painted sunburst mural over the pulpit is a lasting token of the recent filming of an Adam Sandler movie.

A freshly painted sunburst mural over the pulpit is a lasting token of the recent filming of an Adam Sandler movie at First Parish in Brookline, Mass. (Sonya Ann Abbott)

Crucifixes are a rare sight in Unitarian Universalist churches, yet one hung over the pews of First Parish in Brookline, Mass., for nearly ten days this June. The crucifix also came with a film crew of nearly 200 people, who were filming on location for the upcoming movie I Hate You, Dad, starring Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, and Leighton Meester.

The script calls for a wedding in a Catholic church. Producers ran into a stumbling block, however, when the Archdiocese of Boston denied the production company use of any local churches. According to representatives from First Parish, the Archdiocese was concerned about offensive statements about the Catholic Church included in the script.

Instead, Columbia Pictures sent scouts to check out First Parish in Brookline. Producers were impressed with the church’s high ceilings, stained glass windows, and carved mahogany pews. They found the cathedral-style sanctuary even more attractive because parish administrators were open to First Parish’s temporary transformation into a Catholic church.

After negotiations, modifications, and new decorations, the church was ready to play the part. Inside the sanctuary, the film crew installed the crucifix, depictions of the Stations of the Cross, and a freshly painted mural of clouds pierced by a single sunburst over the pulpit. Outside, workers built a garden full of stone fountains and saintly statuettes of Jesus and Mary. A modified sign in front of the church read “Sacred Heart Catholic Church, est. 1717.” (That date is a bit of Hollywood artistic license. The first Catholic Church was not established in Massachusetts until 1803.)

The changes were not permanent, however, and by June 24 they were all gone, save the mural of clouds over the pulpit, which replaced a blue and white dappled pattern that had graced the domed wall previously. The new mural has been well received by the congregants, according to the Rev. Jim Sherblom, co-minister of First Parish.

The extensive preparations lasted about a week, and the filming lasted for three days, with actors and crew spending up to 15 hours a day on the set. Sonya Abbott, the parish administrator, described the experience as “exhilarating and tiring.”

Sherblom said the filming was “intense,” especially as news filtered out to the wider community about the big-name actors arriving in the area. Brookline police restricted the streets around the church to discourage curious onlookers, but according to Sherblom, there were no incidents.

Although the church was closed to the public during filming, the producers allowed one representative of the church to oversee the process. Abbott, who was there for all three days of filming, updated parishioners via the church’s Facebook page. She highlighted the hectic atmosphere in the church and that actor James Caan, another famous name in the movie, took a nap on one of the parish couches.

Sherblom reported that although congregants couldn’t be directly involved, they were excited to have their place of worship featured in the movie. Still, some people had concerns. Abbott says that First Parish had worked with filmmakers many years ago, and some congregants remembered an unsupervised, destructive experience.

Prior to filming, church representatives negotiated a contract to mitigate parishioners’ concerns. It specified that the building would undergo no permanent changes without congregational approval, and that no sex scenes would be shot in the parish building.

There were no major conflicts. Although there was some light damage to the church, Abbott says that the production company has been extremely professional, and they are in negotiations to make sure all the damage from the crews is repaired.

Producers paid the congregation “tens of thousands of dollars” to use the church, according to Abbott, who said she could not disclose the exact amount because of her agreement with the filmmakers. Sherblom said that the money from the project will go toward further interior maintenance on the church, and will allow the congregation to complete a number of renovations that have been on a church wish list for years.

The church has no immediate plans for more filming. “It’s one of those things that comes along rarely, but it’s great when it happens,” said Sherblom.

Now that the camera crews have packed up, the church will return to business as usual. I Hate You, Dad will be released in June 2012.

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