The movie "ParaNorman," from British directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, accurately depicts a slew of Massachusetts landmarks, including Abigail Adams Middle School (with its distinct orange lockers) in Weymouth, Loring Hall Cinema in Hingham, the Norfolk County courthouse in Dedham, the Salem Witch statue, and various Weymouth streetscapes.
Leave it to Hollywood to negotiate a truce in the North Shore-South Shore rivalry long enough to create a lush, grudge-free setting for the animated feature “ParaNorman,” which opens Friday.
The movie, from British directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, accurately depicts a slew of Massachusetts landmarks, including Abigail Adams Middle School (with its distinct orange lockers) in Weymouth, Loring Hall Cinema in Hingham, the Norfolk County courthouse in Dedham, the Salem Witch statue, and various Weymouth streetscapes.
It takes generous liberties, mashing up bits and pieces from North, South and MetroWest to create Blithe Hollow. It’s home to the flick’s hero, Norman, a boy who can see and converse with the dead, and becomes the last hope for his town when it’s invaded by zombies.
Part of the entertainment is recognizing familiar locations. Fell and Butler said they chose Massachusetts because the state has a plethora of creepy, scary places: gothic churches, cemeteries, viaducts, quarries, forests and such.
“We really wanted to explore the area, not just the historic bits,” said Fell (“Flushed Away,” “Tale of Despereaux”), who was joined in his search by Butler and production designer Nelson Lowry. “We went into the woods, to real suburban places. We were not just looking for the tourist version; we wanted to find out how people lived in Massachusetts.”
Also along for the ride was Jodi Purdy-Quinlan of South Shore Casting in Weymouth. She served as a location assistant on the film and spent four days in 2010 showing the “ParaNorman” team locales in Plymouth, Weymouth, Rockland, Canton, Waltham, Salem, Brockton, Hingham, Haverhill, Concord and Rockport, to name a few. The South Shore spots they visited included the Old North Cemetery in Weymouth, which dates to the 1600s, Jackson Square, the bell tower in Hingham (which you can see in the movie). “They shot photo after photo after photo,” Quinlan said. “The fell in love with the area.”
Butler said one of the goals in making the film was to ground the story in some kind of realism.
“I just love the area. It fits so well because it’s old and has sagging eves and wonky door frames,” said Butler, who estimated that they shot 4,000 photos on their visit. “It’s just right for what we were trying to say.”
Fell and Butler also spent time in areas not publicly accessible, like back rooms in the Registry of Deeds in Dedham and private quarries in Rockport. “They got into places that nobody gets to see,” Quinlan said.
The result is a visually compelling movie with a rich sense of place.
“Quite often with animated movies, it’s this whimsical fantasy land where everything’s perfect, all the lines are beautiful, and everything is pastel painted. We didn’t want that. It was important to us that it feels like a real place,” Butler said.
Lowry, who hails from Canton, knew the area was rife for a spooky story. “We saw a number of houses that were sinking and sagging, so we pushed that a little further for Blithe Hollow. We would walk down a town’s Main Street, taking photographs from what would be a child’s point of view; to get Norman’s perspective, I’d be down on my hands and knees on town streets or in forests,” said Lowry, also the production designer on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” “Blithe Hollow ended up being ‘Frankensteined’ – a street from Weymouth, an abandoned power station from Concord, some witch statuary from Salem – all together on our sets.”
Butler, who also penned the script, sought out the creepiest place he could find to hole up and write. He landed at the Concord Inn with Lowry. “I sat there all night and nothing happened. I was so disappointed,” he said, laughing.
During that visit to Concord, Lowry and Butler gate-crashed a Colonial ball, pretending to be press.
“We said we were from the BBC. We took photos of guests and ended up in the middle of a march of people in costume yelling, ‘Kill the British.’ I thought to myself ‘Keep your mouth shut, so they don’t hear your accent.’”
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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