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The Locations
Finding the locations in which to create this atmosphere became a logistical challenge for co-producer Alan Blomquist, who previously collaborated with Hallstrom on "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" The many years Irving and Gladstein attempted to bring the book to screen, and all the information they compiled in the process, proved to be a boon for Blomquist.

"We had four years of research available to us when I joined up and there was a file cabinet that was six feet high by six feet wide that was full of location photos. From everywhere, from Argentina to Saskatchewan. They had tons and tons and tons of research. So I sat down for weeks and went through these file folders and made little notes and marked down what was interesting and what wasn't," he recalls.

Blomquist strategically mapped out the key locations the script required, and methodically set about finding them. "We knew that it was set in Maine and it was a period movie (set in the 1930s-40s), and that there were four pieces to the puzzle that we had to find: the orphanage where Homer grows up, the farm where he begins his new life, the seacoast where the farm is supposedly set and the period train which linked them all. So, we cast a very large net and started to hone it down. The key was to find one of these locations and then build a plan around it. It was either the seacoast or the orphanage. The chance that the orphanage was actually on the seacoast and we wouldn't have to move the company seemed a little unlikely. Possible but unlikely. Too hard a needle to thread. So, we said, 'Let's find the orphanage and then we'll find the seacoast. If the orphanage happens to be at the seacoast, fine. But we know the sea isn't moving.

Blomquist and the rest of the filmmaking team scoured New England, Canada and even parts of Minnesota. The first location they found was what would become the exterior of St. Cloud's orphanage. Known as Ventfort Hall, it was built in 1893 as a summer cottage for millionaire J.P. Morgan's sister, Sarah, and her husband and cousin, John Hale Morgan. The once venerable "Beaux Arts" type estate, with aspects of Flemish Baroque, Tudor and Georgian architecture, has since fallen into appalling disrepair. With its looming spires, elegant stained glass windows in a crumbling brick facade and an incongruously inviting back porch, it had all the elements that the filmmakers required for St. Cloud's orphanage.

"The dilapidated state of Ventfort was poetic and appropriate for what we wanted to capture. We looked at a lot of hospitals, monasteries and homes, but this building seemed to be just the right size and feel. It was not too big — ominous but not too scary. Because of the story one wants to tell, the image one wants to convey, it wants to feel a little bit ominous, but the stained glass and front porch immediately make it homier and gentler. Actually, the fact that original the porch had fallen down years ago and been completely rebuilt with simple square columns and balustrades made it perfect for us," says production designer David Gropman.

Further, Alan Blomquist notes, Ventfort Hall represented "the beginning of the production plan coming together, because we had one point in the map. So, that kind of brought us into the Massachusetts circle."

The next location to manifest itself was the former Northampton State Hospital. This ramshackle set of buildings is now an abandoned shell of peeling paint, desultory hallways, corroded banisters and iron grates, littered detritus on worn stairs, broken windows, ruined doorways exposing brick underpinnings, and ominous, makeshift wire barriers. Despite its ravaged appearance, it contained a few glimmers of period details — high ceilings, wood floors, thick, embossed doors, capacious corridors. Moreover, a law peculiar to Massachusetts provided a powerful incentive to film there.


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