HBO's Empire Falls Transforms Kennebunk Book Port

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Kennebunk Book Port is transformed into the Vineyard Book Port
for a scene in HBO's production of Empire Falls.

In September, when Hollywood came to 1,100-square-foot Kennebunk Book Port to film scenes for Empire Falls, the hot question from Kennebunkport, Maine, residents was, When is Paul Newman coming? "People we hadn't seen in years suddenly were our best friends," said Ellen Chasse, the bookstore's co-owner with her husband, Rich.

Paul Newman is executive producer and a star in the HBO movie version of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo, which is scheduled to air in 2004. Newman never made it to the bookstore. Neither did co-stars Joanne Woodward, Helen Hunt, or Estelle Parsons -- but Robin Wright Penn did.

So did lots of hometown excitement at seeing the bookstore and downtown Dock Square transformed for a flashback scene at Martha's Vineyard during the early 1960s. The Chasses' picturesque and popular store is situated on the second floor of a brown-shingled, wood-beam building built the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. In the movie, Miles Roby, played by actor Ed Harris, goes into the bookstore and considers escaping his dead-end mill town (filmed in Skowhegan, Maine) by becoming a Martha's Vineyard bookstore owner. The film crew is returning to the bookstore on Friday, October 31, and it is expected that Harris' scene at the store will be filmed sometime in early November.

"It's going to be only a minute scene," Rich said of the already completed filming, "but they prepped it for the better part of a week."

A change of flowers on the traffic island in front of the bookstore.
Cars from the late-1950s roll into town (above) and are parked along Dock Square (below).

Movie subcontractors belonging to the Set Builders Union performed an elaborate transformation. They razored off the words "BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS" from the store's window; replaced scores of flashy flower pots on the bookstore deck with subdued, pastel-colored spring blossoms; removed spotlights on the store's exterior stairs; changed the local garden club flower arrangement on the circular, flag-pole traffic island in front of the store; replaced the Maine flag with a Massachusetts flag; painted a metal door to look like a wooden one from the 1950s; and repainted the mail box "eagle" logo in a 1960s style. They also removed, replaced, or repainted about a dozen storefront signs on Dock Square, including remaking the Kennebunk Book Port into Vineyard Book Port. An artisan shop became a dress shop, and the second floor of Allison's Restaurant across the town square became the actors' make-up department. A Kennebunkport celebration street banner reading "350 Years Old" disappeared fast, and about 20 late-1950s cars were leased and shipped in for background parking and road traffic. The production crew attached old Massachusetts license plates on every antique car parked or driving by.

Production crew members wore earphones to pass along quiet-on-the-set warnings when filming started, Ellen said. "We weren't supposed to move a muscle in here because the old building creaks so much. We were like frozen people! They had a woman in costume walk out, walk in, walk out, walk in."

Penn, as Grace Roby, made her "phone call" four times at the outside booth built by the film crew on the bookstore deck. Two waitresses in costume served lobster and chowder several times. A boy eating an ice cream cone needed a new one for every take because the scoop kept melting.

A rotary phone installed by the film crew on the bookstore deck.

Other scenes were shot near Kennebunkport. Key West scenes were filmed at Cape Porpoise, up the coast five miles, where a local hangout became a "bra bar" (with appropriate wall hangings). Newman, playing Max Roby, did his reprobate character stint there. Other Martha's Vineyard scenes were shot in Ogunquit. A huge, perfectly maintained mansion in York became the movie version of an estate owned by Woodward's magisterial Francine Whiting.

Since April 2001 the Chasses have sold 474 copies of Empire Falls, including 139 in September during filming, but when production assistants and local police cordoned off Dock Square and the bookstore to keep people quiet and out of camera range, Rich found he couldn't get 30 additional rush copies of Empire Falls delivered to his store.

"They couldn't get to the square to deliver them. I told the crew I'd walk across the bridge and get the books myself so we could sell them. Couldn't. We finally got replenished by someone's aunt carrying the books in two canvas bags [to the store]. I've just ordered two more cases of 24 each," Rich said.

At the outset, the bookstore and production company came to an agreement regarding payment for movie use of Kennebunk Book Port. The contract was based largely on past records of sales during a September day in the middle of the month with bus tours coming into town (the George Bush compound is located down the way). Essentially, this was the figure compensating the Chasses for what the bookstore would lose in sales. The crew returned later in October to film another scene inside the bookstore, and all filming is expected to end in November. Overall payment turned out to be the equivalent of rent for about a month.

For booksellers in similar situations elsewhere, Ellen said, "I can't see that it would be anything but a plus." The Chasses continue to sell copies of Empire Falls and some book buyers, Ellen said, "come in and have us sign the book. 'Us?' 'Oh, yes!'"

On the other hand, the Chasses reported that one woman wasn't sure about Paul Newman: "He's that salad guy, right?" -- Steve Sherman