NEWBURYPORT — Academy Award winner Martin Landau is about to ante up with Paul Sorvino for “The Last Poker Game,” a five-week feature film shoot taking place in the heart of the city.
“I met a bunch of people who were film and theater people and I told them we were shooting in Newburyport and two or three of them said, ‘Oh, that’s where we live,’” producer Marshall Johnson said. “It’s nice to have that sort energy surrounding us.”
Written and directed by Howard Weiner, the Long Road Films production tells the tale of two elderly men, a Jewish doctor and an Italian gambler and womanizer, who strike up an unusual friendship and come to terms with their lives while living in an assisted living residence.
Johnson, along with his fellow producers Eddie Rubin and Peter Pastorelli, discovered Newburyport while scouting for an appropriate assisted living facility and found the perfect match in Avita of Newburyport.
“An assisted living facility plays a very big role in the script,” Johnson said. “So we went around to a bunch of different places that were in and around Boston. We probably looked at about 10 or 11 and the vibe that Avita has really fits what we are looking for. It is a welcoming place; we want the characters to feel welcome at a time in their life when they are feeling pretty fragile.”
Filming began this week; and while a good portion will be shot in and around Avita, Johnson and company have also been branching out to the rest of the city. Shooting occurred on High Street earlier this week.
“We found a lot of little pockets in Newburyport that really work,” Johnson said. “We have a very small footprint for what we are looking to do. We only have two trucks and we don’t have any star trailers. We are a small movie. So, for us, we want to get in and get out and feature everything and be respectful of the people.”
As a doctor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Brookline resident, Weiner is familiar with Newburyport through the Foundation for Neurological Diseases on State Street. Johnson and Rubin are discovering the city, however, and said they have liked what they have seen.
“I came here about a year and a half ago for a wedding and the day of the wedding, we drove through this town, which was beautiful,” Johnson said. “We stopped at this little lobster place on the way to this little island and thought it was the most ideal place, ever.
“When we came here scouting, I passed Bob Lobster and said, ‘Oh my God. This is the place!’ I called my girlfriend and said, ‘You are never going to believe where we are shooting this movie — it’s that town!’ That is what happened and she came up the next weekend.”
Rubin said that he often finds himself shooting pictures of the downtown more for his wife than for the production.
“I was driving up State Street and I was snapping pictures and sending them to my wife saying, ‘Oh my God, you are not going to believe it,’ this town is fantastic,” Rubin said. “The old, red brick buildings, it is the quaint perfect little town and everyone has been so nice here.
“We are working long, hard hours, but I feel like we are on vacation. Every time I drive onto Plum Island, I feel like I am in ‘Jaws.’ I’m in a little summer town and I am waiting for all of the people to run from the beaches.”
Weiner directed the 2011 documentary “What Is Life? The Movie” and will be making his feature film debut as both writer and director with “The Last Poker Game.”
“I am excited,” Weiner said. “(The producers) are great and to be able to work with them and have their support means everything to me. We are ready to go.”
According to Weiner, both stars were keen to sign onto the project early on.
“Martin is an older guy, but he has an enormous amount of energy, and Paul just loved the story and feels it hasn’t been told before,” Weiner said. “It has a tenderness, it has humor, it has pathos and is a story about life. So he really was captured by it.”
An assisted living for memory care facility, Avita opened adjacent to Anna Jaques Hospital in February. Executive director Gerry Gallin (who caught “What Is Life? The Movie” at the Screening Room when it was released) has been more than happy to welcome the film crew.
“I am a huge movie fan,” Gallin said. “But I have been more thrilled about the quality of people that I have met coming in here, to tell you the truth. When you meet a group of people that you want to hug from the moment that you see them because they have a welcoming smile, it is a loving feeling.
“Plus the subject matter is something near and dear to my heart. Martin Landau plays a physician whose wife has Alzheimer’s. This is what my whole career has been for 30 years.”
A good location can be found just about anywhere, according to Johnson, but Newburyport has proven itself to be a unique case.
“Everyone has been overwhelmingly supportive,” Johnson said. “Avita has been the backbone of this film in a lot of ways, to get us up and running and to get us to a place where we can be working as hard as we are. Then everyone else in Newburyport, at every location that we have looked at, everyone has been so excited about this. That kind of energy really trickled through the entire production.”