‘Tis the Season for Love
Falmouth Main Street takes center stage when a local filmmaker returns to the roots of his own love story.
There’s nothing like a Cape house, right? Especially if it’s a beautiful, rambling, waterfront home that’s been in the family for generations. The kind that brings loved ones together to celebrate holidays and create memories year after year.
Those homes, however, can become the subject of contention when siblings clash over whether to keep them in the family, or sell and split the cash.
That unfortunate happenstance, with a twist of a rekindled love affair, was the launching pad for the new film, “A Cape Cod Christmas,” which was filmed on location in Falmouth and Woods Hole last fall and will stream on AMC-Plus this holiday season.
Writer and director John Stimpson spends summers in North Falmouth at the cherished home owned by his wife’s family. That home inspired the movie’s story, though happily, the sibling squabbles are fictional. It was also reminiscent of Stimpson meeting his wife Carolyn, in North Falmouth no less, while in college at a former landmark restaurant, The Wicker Tree, reconnecting with her years later.
Stimpson has made scores of films and TV shows over the course of his 30-year career, and “A Cape Cod Christmas” is his seventh movie with a holiday theme.
The film will be screened at the Clapp Auditorium in Woods Hole during the Falmouth Christmas Stroll on December 4th and 5th. Stimpson and members of the cast will be on hand to take questions from the audience after the screening.
Actress Katie LeClerc, who was featured on the TV show “Switched at Birth,” and in the Stimpson-produced movie “Christmas a la Mode,” portrays a children’s book author who returns to Falmouth to host one last family holiday, then faces off with her siblings about whether they can hold onto their beloved home.
Along the way she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, played by Brent Bailey (from TV’s “NCIS” and the movie “LBJ”). Bailey plays a local artist who shows his work at the Main Street Gallery and joins forces on a book project with LeClerc to help in her quest to save the family home.
Filming in Falmouth for just under a month during the pandemic presented “unique challenges,” says LeClerc from her home in Los Angeles. “But it also meant we became a very close little bubble that stayed a bubble throughout,” she says. “Being on location always feels a bit like summer camp, but this was really more summer camp-ish than usual.”
The movie’s small cast made filming under COVID restrictions manageable, but the cast and crew underwent regular testing and followed strict protocols while they stayed at the Shoreway Acres Inn in Falmouth during filming.
They filmed the movie at “a breakneck pace,” which LeClerc attributes to an unusually skilled and professional Massachusetts crew. She describes working with Stimpson as “a dream” because he knows just what he wants out of each scene, and communicates with cast and crew so effectively. And she says she fell in love with Falmouth. “I feel so lucky that I get to go back for the screening,” she says. “Everywhere we went, the food was the amazing, the people were so nice; it’s just a beautiful place. I can see why John is obsessed with it.”
Stimpson, who divides his time between Princeton, Massachusetts, and North Falmouth, is a champion of bringing Hollywood-scale film production to the Bay State through his production company H9 Films, based at the Printers Building in Worcester.
And he has a particular love for filming in Falmouth, where in 2014 he filmed the movie “Betrayed,” starring Amanda Schull (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Charlie Hofheimer (“Mad Men”).
When they watch “A Cape Cod Christmas,” locals will recognize as backdrops Eight Cousins Books, Main Street Gallery, Pickle Jar Kitchen, Coffee Obsession, and Nobska Lighthouse, among other locations. “The film is such a great ode to Cape Cod, and to Falmouth,” says Stimpson.
While getting a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies, Stimpson acted at Harvard University, where he was president of the storied Hasty Pudding Theatricals. “That was the center of my college experience,” he says. “We put on shows that were truly professional, being part of it was so exciting.”
Although he says he always preferred performing on the stage compared to on the screen, Stimpson moved to Los Angeles after graduation and embarked on a career as a professional actor in film and television. He landed commercials and TV guest spots, but ultimately decided that the Hollywood acting life was not for him. “I quickly learned that I was not the kind of person who could wait around for my agent to call,” he says.
After five years in Hollywood he decided that a career in production – writing, directing, editing – was more his style. He was motivated in part by a side-gig reading scripts pre-production; the experience taught him a lot about how scripts should be structured, plus which scripts worked versus which didn’t work, and why.
“Now I feel like I’ve got it,” he says of crafting a successful story. “It’s a very specific style of writing. Sure you can break the mold, like Tarantino. But to tell a good story, the goal is to create a main character and see them grow and change through some type of journey. That’s what works.”
When asked for a list of his favorite movies, Stimpson says it’s always evolving. “‘The Sting,’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘American Graffiti.’ all the early Spielberg stuff,” he says. “Those are the films that really resonated with me and made me want to work in the film business.”
When he married his wife, they decided to settle in Massachusetts, and Stimpson took his film production plans back east with him. “It was a big life choice I made and I don’t regret it for a minute,” he emphasizes.
Stimpson has long lobbied for the film and television industry in Massachusetts which, he says, was greatly boosted by the state’s passing of the film tax incentive. He’s a member of the Massachusetts Production Coalition and sits on the board of Film It Locally in Massachusetts.
Making a movie in Falmouth, about a character who adores her Falmouth home, came naturally to Stimpson. When scouting locations, Stimpson tapped into his local connections and friendships to create the movie’s Falmouth setting. “I just love the area,” he says. “The Outer Cape is gorgeous, but when you can pop right over the Bourne Bridge and be right here in this beautiful place, there’s nothing like it.”
For the titular house in the movie, “I literally called up a friend,” he says, and asked if he could move his cast and crew into his waterfront house in Cataumet, complete with an enviable wraparound porch.
“We wanted a house that really had multigenerational charm,” he says. “A classic place, a kind of creaky old place with a lovely view and that’s what we got, it was perfect.”
He calls ‘A Cape Cod Christmas’ “an age-old story. Everyone’s heard of these summer homes, owned by families who aren’t able to make it work among the siblings,” he says.
In recent years, Stimpson has built something of a cottage industry on Christmas-themed movies for networks including Lifetime, Hallmark, ION and now AMC. He and LeClerc teamed up together on the film “Christmas a la Mode,” which they filmed in Worcester. The demand, he says, just keeps growing.
“There’s a constant desire every year for movies that come out at the holidays, there are probably thirty or forty new ones every year,” he says. “These lovely, family-friendly holiday movies are kind of a guilty pleasure, people just love them.”
Stimpson has worked in other genres as well. He’s particularly proud of his 2018 comic horror movie, “Ghost Light,” a story of an actor in a Shakespeare troupe who brazenly unleashes the curse of The Scottish Play (Macbeth) with delightfully deadly results. The comic horror stars Cary Elwes and Carol Kane, among other Hollywood heavy hitters.
Stimpson’s wife works in the ski business on Wachusett Mountain near Princeton, and at various times the couple’s three sons have all been involved in both of their parents’ businesses. One son works with his mother; another is an accomplished skier who enjoys doing stunt work, often for his dad. “He’s upside down more than he’s right side up,” Stimpson laughs.
He enjoys the holiday-themed franchise he’s built and already has a slew of new movies in the works. Among them are “A Show-Stopping Christmas” (set at a community theatre in the Berkshires), and “The Christmas Commute” (with a main character who runs a bike share organization).
As for what he watches on TV these days, Stimpson says, “I’ve just fallen in love with ‘Ted Lasso.’ It really has so much heart. That’s what good film and TV does, it taps into emotion. If you can tell a simple love story and maybe add a scarier or darker element, all while keeping the heart, well, that’s what I’m going for.”
Kathleen McKenna is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.
“A Cape Cod Christmas” will be premiering as part of the Woods Hole Film Festival on December 4th and 5th. To find information regarding the showing, visit woodsholefilmfestival.org.