Tim Janis is sending a Christmas card from Maine to the rest of the country on Saturday.
Janis’ holiday greeting actually takes the form of a motion picture called “Buttons,” about a mill town orphan girl with a guardian angel, scheduled to screen at more than 500 theaters for one day only. And he’s had a little help from some big names, including Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Jane Seymour, Kate Winslet and Robert Redford.
Parts of the independent film were shot over five years at Victoria Mansion in Portland, St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, The Old Gaol historic jail in York and several other Maine locations, plus in Hollywood.
“Maine is always in my heart, so it was special and unique for me to be able to film there,” said Janis, 51, who lived in York for more than 20 years before relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago. “The locations are perfect.”
Some of the other Maine scenes include shots of fields around York and at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport. Lots of local people were used as extras, Janis said.
“If you’re from Maine, you’ll probably recognize some people and places in this movie,” Janis said.
Janis, a nationally-known composer and pianist, began the project more than five years ago when he pitched a song called “Keep A Smile On Your Face” to Van Dyke’s agent, in hopes that Van Dyke would record it. Van Dyke, a legendary song and dance man known for classic films like “Mary Poppins” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” said he indeed liked the song.
Janis decided to use the song to try to flesh out an idea he’d had, for a story with musical numbers about orphan girls in a New England mill town and their guardian angels. Van Dyke and Lansbury, Mrs. Fletcher from the CBS drama “Murder, She Wrote”, play the guardian angels. Jane Seymour (“Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”), Charles Shaughnessy (“The Nanny”) and Katie McGrath (“Supergirl”) are among the other TV and film stars Janis landed for the project.
The story of hardship and hope is narrated by Kate Winslet (“Titanic”) and Robert Redford. Janis, who has performed on his own PBS TV specials and at Carnegie Hall, has worked with many Hollywood stars over the years, so he had an in when trying to land famous actors. He’s worked especially closely with Winslet, organizing a yearly concert at Carnegie Hall for her Golden Hat Foundation, which benefits autistic children.
The main orphan girl in the film is played by Alivia Clark, who has also had roles on TVs “Royal Pains” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
The film’s story focuses on one young girl, Annabelle, whose parents die suddenly, around 1910. The girl had always been taught by her mother to believe in angels. So when she’s left an orphan, her guardian angel appears. The movie follows her and other orphans, plus the angels, over a 20-year period. Not to give away the ending, but Janis says it’s “triumphant and inspiring.”
Watch the trailer:
When it came time for Janis to look for locations in the film, locations that could be imagined as the home of the rich and poor of a New England mill town circa 1910, he looked to Maine. Janis directed the film and wrote the score and several songs. Most of the Maine scenes were spread out over about five years, with some filming sessions lasting just a day or so. Van Dyke filmed his scenes and musical numbers at a Disney backlot in California and did not come to Maine.
“He was 89 at the time, and he was jumping all around the set,” said Janis.
In one scene, Van Dyke sings and dances with a penguin puppet. In “Mary Poppins,” he did a very memorable dance number with animated penguins.
Some of the film’s stars did come to Maine for the scenes shot here. Seymour and Shaughnessy came in 2015 to film at Victoria Mansion. Filming took place overnight, while the mansion was closed to visitors, said Thomas Johnson, the museum’s executive director. The cast and crew filmed at the bottom of the mansion’s great staircase and in the “red” bedroom. Johnson is hoping the mansion’s appearance in a movie that will play theaters around the country will increase awareness of the historic landmark.
“To have Victoria Mansion featured in some (of the movie’s) settings, well, that’s pretty heady stuff for us,” said Johnson.
Johnson said many staff and trustees of the museum have already reserved seats at local cinemas. When he reserved his seat at Cinemagic Westbrook online, he found only seven seats remaining.
Though it’s showing at theaters nationwide, it’s only showing one day and one time: Saturday at 12:55 p.m. The film is not distributed by a major studio, which would usually put a film in theaters for weeks and months at a time. Instead the film showings are being promoted by Fathom Events, which also arranges showings of concerts and opera in theaters.
Janis hopes that Fathom Events will decide to show the film one day each year, during Christmas season.
“If it’s successful, we’re hoping it can be annual holiday event,” said Janis.
To see a trailer of the film “Buttons” go to this story at MaineToday.com
WHEN: 12:55 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Theaters around the country, including: Cinemagic Westbrook, 183 County Road, Westbrook; Cinemagic Saco, 779 Portland Road, Saco; Regal Brunswick 10, 19 Gurnet Road, Brunswick.
HOW MUCH: Prices vary from theater to theater.
WHAT ELSE: The film, with a cast including Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, was directed by long-time Maine resident Tim Janis and filmed at several Maine locations, including Victoria Mansion in Portland, St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport and The Old Gaol in York.