Hollywood Discovers Avita of Newburyport

By Emily Cowan, Newburyport.Com Correspondent

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A Hollywood film is midway through a five-week shoot that has turned the lower floor of a local assisted-living facility into a mini-movie studio, complete with film sets and editing, writing, and production rooms.

Avita of Newburyport, the new memory-care facility adjacent to Anna Jaques Hospital, beat out ten Boston-area locations to provide the real-life setting for “The Last Poker Game,” the story of two assisted-living residents who strike up an unlikely friendship. The movie features a star-studded cast including Academy Award winner Martin Landau, Paul Sorvino (best known for his role in “Goodfellas”), and – announced just last week – Maria Dizzia of “Orange is the New Black.”

The film crew has taken over all 24 apartments on Avita’s lower floor, which has yet to open its doors to residents. The apartments serving as film sets have been redecorated in a 1940s style to reflect the tastes of the movie’s main characters, and others have been commandeered for wardrobe, makeup, and other production needs.

While the shoot is focusing primarily on Avita property, it has also ventured into other parts of the city, shooting scenes on High Street, Atkinson Common and, most recently, Market Street.

Why Newburyport? First ask, why Avita? “The vibe…really fits what we are looking for,” co-producer Marshall Johnson recently told the Daily News. “It is a welcoming place; we want the characters to feel welcome at a time in their life when they are feeling pretty fragile.”

Once Avita had been singled out as the perfect location for the residential scenes, the film’s producers realized they’d lucked into a fantastic surrounding community as well. “We found a lot of little pockets in Newburyport that really work,” Johnson said.

Film co-producer Eddie Rubin agrees, telling the Daily News, “I was driving up State Street and I was snapping pictures and sending them to my wife saying, ‘Oh my God, you are not going to believe it,’ this town is fantastic. The old, red brick buildings, it is the quaint perfect little town and everyone has been so nice here.”

That initial warm, fuzzy feeling was mutual, judging from the reaction at Avita. “We’re bursting at the seams to announce that a film shoot is underway at Avita of Newburyport!” the facility posted on its Facebook page November 6. “Avita residents, families and associates are just so excited!”

So, how has the movie shoot impacted Avita residents now that we’re a couple weeks in? “They’ve been wonderful guests,” says Gerry Gallin, the facility’s executive director. “They’ve not disturbed one minute of our daily lives, and they have been very respectful of our residents.”

It helps to have a small footprint, notes Johnson. “We only have two trucks and we don’t have any star trailers,” he told the Daily News. “So, for us, we want to get in and get out…and be respectful of the people.”

Another major point in the production’s favor, as far as Avita is concerned, is the conscientious effort to present a realistic view of people struggling with memory issues resulting from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Howard Weiner, the film’s writer and director, is a doctor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Avita’s Gallin has only good things to say about the film’s director, producers, and crew. “It’s been a blast!” she says. “And they love it here, too. They’ve been utilizing all the amenities Newburyport has to offer, including restaurants and shops.” Gallin notes that one of the movie’s main actors has chosen to live in Newburyport for the duration of the shoot.

Gallin, who herself moved to Newburyport from Needham last year, understands the feeling. “We’re very fortunate to live here,” she says. “I just hope it doesn’t get too popular!”

Now that Hollywood has “discovered” Newburyport, it might be time to get ready for our close-up.

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