Famous ‘Law & Order’ Director Matthew Penn Finds Muse for Next Film in Housatonic | South Berkshire
GREAT BARRINGTON – Matthew Penn was driving through the village of Housatonic here about six months ago, as he has done 10,000 times before (according to his tally). But this time the old village brought a new thought.
Penn, a director best known for his work on the “Law & Order” television series, got out of his car, walked around and took pictures of the small community topped by a chimney – its winding streets, its houses. modest and beautiful, its old dilapidated mill buildings and the river that winds through it like a getaway car.
“My God,” he recalls, thinking to himself, “no matter which way you point the camera, it feels like it’s this wonderful backdrop to this American city. “
He quickly emailed the photos to a writer friend of his in Los Angeles, California, Marc Malone.
“Mark responded by email about three minutes later and said, ‘This is a movie,'” Penn recalls.
With a nod to ‘Alice’
Indeed, it is a movie. Or rather, it’s a film in the making, a drama called “The Sweet Taste of Freedom”.
This week, Penn and his team will complete six days of filming. Most of the scenes take place at Housatonic. A car accident took place on Oak Street near the cemetery on Saturday. On Thursday, the crew filmed on the Park Street Bridge that overlooks the Housatonic River. Other scenes take place on Front Street and in private residences. Scenes will be filmed this week on a side road in Stockbridge.
But last Sunday an endearing part of the story was written when the time came to shoot a scene in a courtroom. The courtroom in Lee, near the town township, was the same one used by Penn’s father, director Arthur Penn, for his 1969 film “Alice’s Restaurant” starring Arlo Guthrie.
“Isn’t that beautiful? Penn said Sunday, as preparations were underway inside the historic, primitive and worn-out prayer-book-lined courtroom that is now used for town meetings.
“The blind judge walked out of that door and Officer Obie sat here,” said Penn, referring to the characters in “Alice’s Restaurant”.
Penn’s choice for this courtroom turned out to be a happy coincidence – or something more cosmically profound.
“Let me tell you a story,” Penn said. “So I looked at the Great Barrington courthouse. I had looked at the courthouses in Pittsfield. But then I walked into the Lee City offices, went to the police office and asked, “Can I look in the old courtroom?” And they said, ‘Of course.’
Photos: On set with director Matthew Penn as he shoots a new film in Lee and Housatonic
“I walked in and thought, ‘This is the perfect courtroom for this photo.’ I already had the script. And so, I said to [Lee Police Chief Craig DeSantis], ‘You know, we’d love to shoot here.’ And he said, ‘You know, a long time ago there was a movie that was made here.’ And I said, ‘Oh, really?’ And I thought he was talking about, you know, five years ago, seven years ago, something like that.
DeSantis mentioned “Alice’s Restaurant”, which came out in 1969.
“I had to go home and put on the ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ DVD and walk quickly to the courtroom stage,” Penn said. “And then I said to myself: ‘There you go! It’s the same courtroom! It really hasn’t changed at all. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll accept this beautiful kinship with my father.’ Granted, that gives her a much more emotional connection to me.
Arthur Penn, whose film credits include “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Little Big Man” and “The Miracle Worker”, died in 2010.
(Incidentally, the same building and its interior also feature prominently in the 1996 film “Before and After,” starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson.)
Here is the judge
Matthew Penn, 62, has lived in Stockbridge part-time since 1962, when his parents first bought the house he still lives in. (His mother was actress Peggy Maurer.) Over the years he’s been involved in theater projects in the Berkshires, but “The Sweet Taste of Freedom” marks his first film project here.
The cast and crew include veterans from New York and the Berkshires. For example, cinematographer and cinematographer Richard Sands of Great Barrington was hired. He has worked with directors such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.
When it came time to pick a judge, Penn, who directed 92 episodes of “Law & Order” over four seasons and served as the show’s executive producer from 2003 to 2007, knew he would have no trouble. find an actor to play a judge. . Still, he decided to go with a veteran judge rather than a veteran actor. He contacted retired District Court Judge Fredric Rutberg of Stockbridge. Rutberg is the editor of The Berkshire Eagle.
Matt reached out to me this summer and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this movie and we need a judge. “I dusted my robe. That should be a hoot,” Rutberg said ahead of Sunday’s shoot.
Before production began, Penn and Malone caught up with Rutberg, who ended up providing helpful comments on the dialogue regarding legal matters.
“He was a great resource for us,” said Penn.
Housatonic, as the perfect backdrop
The day Housatonic first introduced himself as the film muse, Penn said he immediately thought of his old pal Malone. Why? Because Malone grew up in the nearby town of Roxbury, Connecticut, and would understand the post-industrial vibe of the small town of Housatonic.
“I know the phenomenon of a ‘New England town where the mill was located’,” said Malone, who first met Penn in the late 1970s when the two were studying at university. Wesleyan. “Some of these places become ruins, and some of them become places that are sort of not ruins, but they kind of have this nice shattering. That’s what struck me about Housatonic.
“It’s a wonderful American city,” said Penn. “And, you know, it could be one of these steel towns in western Pennsylvania, or it could be, you know, these towns in New York State, but it’s our town in Massachusetts.”
Once Malone got those first pictures from Housatonic, he went to work on a script.
“I live in LA, so I started walking around Housatonic on Google Earth,” he said. “I walked the streets. I saw this playground right in front of the school that had all these kiddie swings and jungle gyms and stuff like that, and I thought, ‘Hmm’, and anyway that ‘ is how it all started.
“The Sweet Taste of Freedom” centers on a man who experiences his last 48 hours of freedom before facing what he expects to be a life sentence. The man was advised to put his affairs in order.
“Ironically, things are going wrong,” said Malone, who was on set for the shoot.
It’s a roughly 25-minute short that Penn plans to show at various film festivals starting in the spring. He hopes the film will generate enough interest – and funding – to become a feature film.
Regardless of the movie’s fate, Penn said it had a blast.
“The people of the city, everyone, were just great,” he said. “I’ve been here since 1962 and meet people I’ve never met before and who I might never have met otherwise. It was so much fun.
These people included retired police officer Adrian Kohlenberger and serving patroller Nicholas Leveque.
Leveque was asked for a cameo. But if his actual law enforcement duties kept him away, Kohlenberger was there waiting.
In a scene shot on Sunday, the fit 30-year-old Leveque rushes out of the courtroom, tumbles down the stone steps, jumps into his police car and flees.
Kohlenberger, 61, stood to the side as he watched Leveque rehearse the scene.
“Oh,” Kohlenberger said, two years after his retirement. “I don’t see myself going down those steps. No, that will not happen.