This winter, my son Gaelan is a normal 6th-grader. Last summer, he was a movie star.
SILVER SPRING, MD., AND FLAVIGNY-SUR-OZERAIN, FRANCE — I can still see Gaelan marching boldly out of his French-immersion elementary school that Friday afternoon last April, waving a letter in the air and shouting, "OK Mom, I'm about to make you a lot of money!"
A cello, safety patrol raincoat, and brick-heavy backpack tumbled into our van with Gaelan in tow. He thrust the letter at me, saying that Miramax Film's casting director and crew had come to school that morning and wanted him in a film.
Frozen, double-parked, and oblivious to the parents' cars behind me, I read: The producers of a movie called "Chocolat" (now in theaters) were looking for a 10-to-12 year-old boy who spoke French; and the casting director, Suzanne Smith, was pleased to invite Gaelan, along with my husband and me, for a film test the next morning at the ballroom of the local Marriott.
Before Saturday morning's obligatory soccer, we accompanied Gaelan to the hotel, where a wave of his letter catapulted him past a lobby of eager parents and children, and into the screening room with Ms. Smith.
Two weeks later when I returned home from teaching at the local college, Gaelan greeted me at the door.
"It's the woman from the film, Mom. I got a part! Hurry, she's on the phone!"
From the beginning, like the romance and comedy of "Chocolat" itself, we experienced elements of a modern fairy tale. Unsought and unexpected, our son was told he had a part in a Miramax movie.
A week later, - child "star" and "stage mother," with cello, bookpacks, and stuffed "Bear" in hand - we left in a black limousine and settled into business class on a Paris-bound plane. Soon we were being whisked past golden safflower fields and plane-trees to the medieval walls and lanes of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where Caesar once defeated the Gallic chief Vercingetorix.
In "Chocolat," the free-spirited Vianne (Juliette Binoche) transforms the people in a closed, traditional village through the power and magic of her chocolate, her tolerance, and her humanity.
Likewise, acceptance, humor, and kindness permeated the movie set and everyone on it, a tone director Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules," "My Life As a Dog") gently modeled, as did the producers (Alan "Papa" Blomquist, Leslie Holleran, and Kit Golden).
Gentle hands and discerning eyes outfitted Gaelan in the slightly musty clothes of his father's 1950s childhood. Suddenly, he had a dressing room, a trailer with his name on it, and a village of artists and support people to answer questions, guide him from place to place, and bring him anything (including chocolate) whenever he wanted it.
During eight weeks of shooting, we shared long, catered gourmet lunches with cast and crew - Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Leslie Caron, Carrie-Anne Moss, and many more, plus 200 tradesmen, electricians, drivers, and artisans - all jumbled together in happy confusion under a gigantic canopied tent.
There was a first-class hotel with a pool; "school" upstairs in a mansion and later a trailer; weekly cello lessons with a beautiful Parisian musician who sped down on the TGV (France's fast-speed train); and Gaelan's 11th birthday in Disneyland Paris.
While each day differed, a rhythm centered around the basics of life - hotels, meals, and work on the set. Each evening's "call sheet" told us the next day's schedule, usually starting with a 9 a.m. pickup, then divided up into hours for "school" or filming.
On filming days, Gaelan and his "film brother" Harrison Pratt donned the well-laundered, slightly frayed clothes of 1959: woolen shorts and sweater vests, knee socks, pointed-toe patent leather shoes, and an overcoat.
Naomi, the hairdresser from London, sheered his curls and jagged ends into a sleek cap. Gaelan's hair and makeup consisted of a quick hand swept across his forehead and a "Brilliant! You look great."
Later, cast and crew moved across the Channel to the West Country, England, where Salisbury, Bath, Stonehenge, crop circles, country mansions, the Euro2000 soccer tournament, and stars Judi Dench and Johnny Depp glowed.
But it was in France during those late spring weeks that magic and real life melted together. Gaelan found friends among the other children and the patient directors, assistant directors, producers, actors, actresses, cameramen, craftsmen, and drivers - all the industrious occupants who moved so effortlessly around this ancient village, whose "real" occupants had stepped aside to serve fiction.
Producer Alan Blomquist vacated his trailer (or office) so the children could watch the latest "rushes" (reels of film shot on a given day); actor Peter Stormare wrestled or played tag with the youngest; and actress Moss joined the children in craft projects. Lasse, Peter, and assistant Johann Hallstrom even challenged Gaelan and a friend to a light-hearted soccer match, where they strategically lifted and moved the boys like chess pieces to ensure they scored.
As chaperone, a round-faced mother among hollow-cheeked stars, production crew, and the media-canny, I floated and observed, buoyed by the playful energy and spirit of openness and mutual discovery.
In Flavigny, one of the "prettiest villages in France," we'd edge up to the lanes closed off for filming, cross and recross the square between cautious calls of tournage (filming in process) to discover surprises around any corner: Alfred diligently videotaping "memories" with his own camera; Juliette, hair flung back like an exclamation or head bent in conference with Lasse, finalizing some detail; or actor John Wood, a novel under his arm, studying the ruins of St. Peter's Abbey.
In the process of filming, everything and everyone moved; history and its artifacts, time and sequence, were transformed and elastic. Costumes, props, sets, caterers, drivers, site managers, nannies, and film crews - the trade tools of filmmaking everywhere - changed.
Actors, actresses, producers, directors, and support crew traveled home, made parts of other movies elsewhere, appeared at Cannes, returned to Flavigny, the West Country, or London for more scenes.
"Chocolat" moved through a dozen script changes, each version on a different-colored paper; then went from paper to hundreds of hours of recorded film.
In this "hurry up and wait" profession, actors summoned to the set before breakfast may spend the rest of the day waiting for a few minutes of shooting, then wait days for another call.
Scenes, scheduled to make the most efficient use of each high-priced artist and the elements, are shot entirely out of sequence without any attempt to follow the actual timeline of the story.
While each scene required dozens of people and hours to prepare, shoot, and reshoot, it would eventually be cut or edited to a few seconds of film.
Again, there was a sense that the directors had the power to control time and life, in and out of the movie. Yet beneath the fable and fun, real emotions snagged each person caught up in the production. The real tragedy of veteran cameraman Mike Roberts's death, during our first week in England, sobered everyone.
Less substantial concerns focused on everything from cuts to our young star's number of appearances to access to the much-coveted "children's" lap-top computer (our e-mail link with the outside world); to rainy days and massive mud puddles at the Durslade Farm location.
Day-to-day life with a 10-year-old can frazzle, and I worried about older sons back home. Occasionally we'd balk at the need to give up our own sense of "where-to-be-when" to the discretion of call sheets and their decisions - details of when we should rise, stay on set, or be sent away.
Our end, as child actor and chaperone, came abruptly when Gaelan's last three scenes were scrapped. We had understood from the beginning that film work is temporary and changeable. Yet our excitement, and the warmth and charm of the story of "Chocolat," continued to spread and bind us into its cinematic realms of the real and the imagined.
Gaelan may or may not be in more films. Last fall he sang and acted his way into this year's delightful Washington Revels' production, a saga of Celtic stories celebrating solstice and renewal. At home, he spends hours "directing" his friends in endless comedies, dramas, and special effects, all behind the lens of the family camcorder.
Of his time on the set, I hope he remembers how good people were, how much each loved the work, and how, more than his "cuteness," the professionals treasured his natural humor and cooperative spirit.
Perhaps he'll recall how a strange wind blew him to France, and how real people live in medieval villages beautiful enough to be movie sets. Mostly, however, I'd like him to know that his involvement in "Chocolat" was all a fantastic gift.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society