Woodstock screenwriter's film honors late son
As filming began for the movie "Night at the Amusement Park" earlier this week on the Woodstock Square, a dream came true.
But amid the energy, the laughs and smiles was a single thought.
"I wish Mason was here," Ilisa Parrish said through tears as actors, extras and film crew members buzzed around her near the Woodstock Opera House.
Mason was the 10-year-old son she and her husband, Chris, lost to cancer in the summer of 2011. Before his death, Mason had suggested the idea for "Night at the Amusement Park" to his father.
Chris Parrish, a screenwriter who's sold numerous television pilots and written for series such as "The King of Queens" and Disney's "American Dragon: Jake Long," set out to create the film Mason imagined.
"It was something Mason and I had talked about before he got sick," said Chris, who worked in Los Angeles for a couple of decades before moving his family back to his hometown of Woodstock in 2010.
"He had asked me a few months before, 'When I grow up, can we make movies together?' I said, 'Of course.'
"This feels like I'm keeping my promise."
Mason was diagnosed with the rare pediatric brain cancer Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG, about six months after the family moved to Woodstock. Eight months later, he died.
"Night at the Amusement Park" grew out of a conversation between Mason and his father that began after the two saw "Night at the Museum," the 2006 film featuring Ben Stiller. In that film, the museum security guard discovers the exhibits come to life at night.
Mason told his father that he enjoyed the film, but that it should have taken place elsewhere, at an amusement park. A museum is boring, he said, and a kid should have been the hero. Chris loved the idea.
"Mason and I, neither one of us were big athletes. Fathers and sons play catch. For me and Mason, our catch was pitching ideas to each other for stories," Chris said. "We kept doing that even when he felt ill. It's how the project came about."
An adventure film, "Night at the Amusement Park" centers around a group of kids hunting for Al Capone's treasure, which is rumored to be hidden in an amusement park. As the legend goes in the film, Capone built the amusement park before going to prison and included a secret ride leading to his treasure somewhere under the park.
Like "Night at the Museum," some of the attractions at the amusement park come to life.
Filming began Monday on a flashback scene featuring actor and comedian Tim Kazurinsky, known for his role in the "Police Academy" films as well as on "Saturday Night Live."
Chirs Parrish had met Kazurinsky at a Screenwriters Guild event in Chicago. He told the actor about the film and the cause behind it, and Kazurinsky agreed immediately to be part of it.
Set in the 1930s before Al Capone went to prison, the scene shows Kazurinsky, who plays a bell boy, getting roughed up by thugs in front of the hotel, or the Opera House. The scene included vintage vehicles and other props. The crew of about 40 people also shot a scene on a road in Bull Valley that day.
Basically, the filming entailed about three minutes of screen time captured in less than eight hours, said Chris Parrish, who used numerous local actors for the filming.
"It's phenomenally fast," he said. "Our actors came prepared. Our crew came prepared and enthusiastic. Everyone just meshed great. They really toughed out these subzero temperatures. The town just bent over backwards for us, the city of Woodstock, the people at the Opera House. They are incredibly hospitable and supportive.
"If we tried to do the exact thing in Hollywood, it would have cost us four times a much."
Half of the proceeds of the film, expected to come out in late spring or early summer of 2015, will go toward the Mason Parrish Foundation his parents have created. Parrish also has created his own fundraising movie production, Mason's Movies, with the goal of supporting the foundation through films.
Money will go toward DIPG research, rentals of accessible vans for families dealing with catastrophic illnesses and Cartoon Comics Inc.
Based on Mason's many notebooks full of imagined characters and cartoons and his passion for storytelling, Cartoon Comics Inc. brings lessons in cartooning and storytelling to grade-school students. Ilisa started the program last year at Olson Elementary School in Woodstock, where Mason attended.
"We want to expand the cartoon program to other schools," she said. "We wanted to find a way to honor his memory that reflects how he lived. He lived a creative and exuberant and beautiful life, and he was full of ideas."
On set earlier this week, Mason's grandmother, Barbara Parrish of Woodstock, remembered listening to her grandson in the back seat as she drove.
"Grandma, let me tell you a story," he'd say.
"He'd be nonstop," Barbara Parrish said.
And Mason's stories always had the beginning, middle and end they needed as well as the conflict, or "problem," as he called it, his mother said. He'd ask everyone he shared his stories with to name their favorite parts, and then he'd revise based on their suggestions.
"His disease was eight months, but his life was so much more than his disease," Ilisa said.
Filming of "Night at the Museum" will continue in the summer or early fall, depending on when locations are available. Chris Parrish hopes to shoot at local amusement parks but hasn't gotten clearance yet.
"Hopefully, we can keep it all in Illinois," he said. "It's really important to me to film it locally."
Chris Parrish also teaches screenwriting at DePaul University and Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. He wrote 2008's "The Goldilocks and the 3 Bears Show" as part of the Unstable Fables series produced by The Jim Henson Co.
This latest film, obviously, is his most personal, he said as he remembered Mason.
"I think he was really with us there on the set," he said. "I think this is really Mason's dream come true."