‘Janet Planet’ comes into orbit: Annie Baker’s debut film, about to open in Valley, features performances and input from some area residents

Julianne Nicholson as Janet and Zoe Ziegler as Lacy in a scene from “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker. It opens at Amherst Cinema June 27.

Julianne Nicholson as Janet and Zoe Ziegler as Lacy in a scene from “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker. It opens at Amherst Cinema June 27. Image courtesy of A24

Zoe Ziegler, as 11-year-old Lacy, and Julianne Nicholson, as Janet, play a daughter and mother whose relationship is evolving in “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker.

Zoe Ziegler, as 11-year-old Lacy, and Julianne Nicholson, as Janet, play a daughter and mother whose relationship is evolving in “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker. Image courtesy of A24

Drama queen: Julianne Nicholson, as Janet, tries to reason with her 11-year-old daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), who’s going through some changes in “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker.

Drama queen: Julianne Nicholson, as Janet, tries to reason with her 11-year-old daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), who’s going through some changes in “Janet Planet,” the debut film of Amherst native and acclaimed playwright Annie Baker. Image courtesy of A24

Julianne Nicholson and Annie Baker, her head in Nicholson’s lap, take a break on the set during filming of “Janet Planet,” the debut film by Baker, the celebrated playwright.

Julianne Nicholson and Annie Baker, her head in Nicholson’s lap, take a break on the set during filming of “Janet Planet,” the debut film by Baker, the celebrated playwright. Image courtesy of A24

“Janet Planet” was shot in various locales in the Valley, including this scene in downtown Northampton, by the “History of Women” mural off Masonic Street.

“Janet Planet” was shot in various locales in the Valley, including this scene in downtown Northampton, by the “History of Women” mural off Masonic Street. Image courtesy of A24

This scene from “Janet Planet” features Julianne Nicholson as Janet and Zoe Ziegler as Lacy, Janet’s 11-year-old daughter.

This scene from “Janet Planet” features Julianne Nicholson as Janet and Zoe Ziegler as Lacy, Janet’s 11-year-old daughter. Image courtesy of A24

Playwright and now screenplay writer and film director Annie Baker is seen on one of the sets for her debut film, “Janet Planet.”

Playwright and now screenplay writer and film director Annie Baker is seen on one of the sets for her debut film, “Janet Planet.” Image courtesy of A24

Annie Baker says her idea of making a movie set in western Massachusetts dates back over 20 years.

Annie Baker says her idea of making a movie set in western Massachusetts dates back over 20 years. Image courtesy of A24

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2024 10:36 AM

Modified: 06-21-2024 6:05 PM


After generating some local news in 2022 when scenes were filmed in a number of locations around the Valley, “Janet Planet,” the debut film by celebrated playwright Annie Baker, is set to make its debut in Amherst and Greenfield on June 27.

The movie, first screened last summer at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and then in fall at the New York City Film Festival, has received generally excellent initial reviews; its national release has been highly anticipated as a new step in the career of Baker, the 1999 Amherst Regional High School graduate who’s won multiple awards for her plays, including a 2014 Pulitzer Prize.

“Janet Planet,” produced by A24 and set in western Massachusetts in the summer of 1991, is centered on an idiosyncratic 11-year-old girl, Lacy, and her relationship with her mother, Janet, and three adult characters in her mother’s life. The movie also explores Lacy’s interior world and the mysteries of childhood; it’s a story that unfolds at an unhurried pace, with natural dialogue, just like Baker’s stage work.

As Variety puts it, watching the movie “feels eerily akin to running one’s fingers along a scar sustained in childhood and being magically projected back to the moment that injury was sustained.”

Baker and her production team, after reviewing what she calls “thousands of audition tapes” and conducting many in-person interviews for the role of Lacy, choose Zoe Ziegler, a young girl with no acting experience, for the part. The team also invited people from western Massachusetts to apply for some smaller roles in the movie.

For those who made it into the film, it’s been a thrilling experience.

Carolyn Walker of Amherst, a violin teacher who’s also a vocalist and plays piano, thought sending in an audition tape seemed worth a shot. She did that in early January 2022 and a few months later got an email from Baker, asking her if she’d be interested in a role as a musician and performer in a scene involving a theatrical troupe.

“Sure I was,” Walker said in a recent phone call. “I was so excited.”

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Walker, also an ARHS graduate, ended up helping Baker find some more local actors and extras who could be filmed for scenes shot in August 2022 at Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, where Lacy and Janet (Julianne Nicholson) attend an outdoor theatrical performance that looks a bit like, well, Double Edge Theatre.

It was a great experience, Walker says, even though she and the other actors and performers had to repeat their scenes multiple times, over three hot summer days, and a good amount of the footage evidently didn’t make it into the movie, she adds.

But she also had opportunities to chat with Baker, and to tell her she remembered playing violin in the orchestra pit for the 1999 ARHS musical, “Guys and Dolls,” when she was in 9th grade and Baker, a senior, was up on stage in a lead role.

“We had a laugh over that,” said Walker, who added that Baker was very down to earth and friendly on the set, as was the whole crew.

“My lasting impression from this experience was how nice everyone was,” she said. “They made everyone feel they were an important part of the production.”

Steve Yarbro, a Northampton saxophonist and clarinetist who auditioned for the film after Walker recruited him, also remembers Baker’s distinctive approach on the set in Ashfield, noting that “she seemed to make a point of interacting with every person there.”

“Even when it seemed she wasn’t getting what she wanted from a scene, she was calm,” said Yarbro, who had never been on a film set before. “That made it a really good experience.”

Tapping local resources

Meantime, Jeremy Louise Eaton, a former longtime member of Double Edge Theatre, recalls getting an email from Baker in late summer 2021 after the latter had attended the ensemble’s main outdoor production that year, “Memories and Dreams,” with Baker saying she was interested in recreating some of those scenes for her film.

“She said ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for,’” said Eaton, who had designed several of the scenes from “Memories and Dreams.”

Over the next several months, Eaton and Baker spoke by phone and met in person in Ashfield to imagine how Eaton’s scenes could be re-worked for the narrative line of “Janet Planet”; they brought together local actors for the sequences, who rehearsed them before the film crew arrived at Double Edge in August 2022.

Eaton also designed a number of puppets for the film, and Double Edge’s music co-director, John Peitso, revised the music for those scenes.

It was Eaton’s first time on a film set — she played one of the theater performers — and she says it took her a little while to realize she didn’t need to be performing when the camera wasn’t on her, and to get used to the film crew doing multiple takes of the same scene.

“It was a completely foreign medium for me,” she said.

But she also noted that the physical training Double Edge ensemble members do to prepare for their own expansive performances enabled them to handle the work “of running around for hours in the hot sun” in the film sessions.

And everyone on the film crew was “really solicitous, asking us ‘Are you guys OK?’” Eaton noted, while Baker struck her as “funny, very down to earth, so smart, and totally committed to everyone she was working with. I realize that sounds like some kind of PR spin, but it’s true.”

Matthew Glassman, another former Double Edge veteran who appears in “Janet Planet” — he and Eaton, who are married, are moving to Bath, Maine, to head a theater program there — described being filmed riding a bicycle while wearing a papier-maché head of George H.W. Bush, the U.S. president in 1991.

That scene, Glassman added with a laugh, sadly didn’t make the final cut of the movie. But others did, including some in which he appears as a giant bird puppet, he said. (He and Eaton were invited to see “Janet Planet” last fall at the New York City Film Festival.)

“It’s a beautiful film,” Glassman said. “I hope a lot of people get to see it … I’m really proud to be in it.”

The sequences shot at Double Edge are not a big part of the movie, he noted, “but they feel central to the coming-of-age theme” of the film.

“Janet Planet” was shot in a number of other locales in the Valley — a house in Leverett, the Hampshire Mall in Hadley, Mount Pollux Conservation Area in Amherst — and it represents the completion of an idea that had been rattling around in Baker’s mind for some time.

As she says in press notes from A24, Baker had thought for years about making a movie about growing up in western Massachusetts “because it was such a distinctive place, especially in the 90s … But it just existed as an idea for 20 years.”

She didn’t actually sit down to write the screenplay until 2020, Baker notes, “and I wrote it during my infant daughter’s naps in the early days of the pandemic. While writing it, I realized I had been thinking about the film for most of my adult life.”

Perhaps becoming a mother herself finally grounded the idea. Walker remembers the light touch Baker showed with Walker’s son, August Taylor, then five years old, who served as an extra for some crowd shots on the Ashfield set.

After the film crew got ready to do yet another take of a particular scene, Walker recalls, August said “This is boring!” And Baker, Walker noted, “just said to him very calmly and sweetly, ‘I know. But we’re going to do it anyway.’”

“We use that line in our home all the time now,” said Walker. “Thank you, Annie Baker!”

“Janet Planet” opens June 27 at Amherst Cinema and Greenfield Garden Cinemas and runs through at least July 4.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.