In the five decades that Sight & Sound has been providing quality entertainment, audiences have come to expect a spectacular show whenever they visit the company’s theaters. However, when the launch of Sight & Sound Films was announced in June of this year, some people wondered if the pageantry of the stage would translate well onto the big screen. Despite such concerns, the company’s first feature film surpasses all expectations: “I Heard the Bells” is a beautiful cinematic experience that heralds a message of hope that is able to cut through the noise of typical holiday fare.
“I Heard the Bells” opens in select theaters nationwide on December 1, and showings will run through December 8. The film, distributed through Fathom Events, will have local showings at Regal Manor in Lancaster and Penn Cinema in Lititz, as well as in several theaters throughout neighboring counties. Showtimes and tickets can be found at fathomevents.com.
Although Sight & Sound is best known for its dramatic stage shows based on biblical characters such as Noah, Samson, Esther and David, the company has also delved into more recent historic figures and events. People who have seen Sight & Sound’s musical “Voices of Christmas,” a show about beloved traditions and carols, may recall a short vignette about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century poet who penned “Christmas Bells,” the beautiful and resonant poem that was later set to music and became the famous Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Although the vignette ended up on the cutting room floor when “Voices of Christmas” was put on DVD, that was not because its narrative was less compelling than the other stories. Josh Enck, Sight & Sound’s president and chief story officer, told the crowd at the in-house premier of “I Heard the Bells” on November 14 that he had envisioned even then how Longfellow’s tale could be expanded to create the company’s first film.
Enck eventually wrote, produced and directed “I Heard the Bells,” which tells the touching true story behind the Christmas carol. The movie focuses on the relationships Longfellow has with his devoted wife, Fanny, and their oldest son, Charley. As the country is propelled into the Civil War, Longfellow faces tragedy in his own life, and then his relationship with his son is tested when Charley’s longing to prove himself results in him enlisting in the Union Army. In the country’s darkest hours, Longfellow’s faith dwindles due to personal loss, and the film reveals the complicated yet inspiring journey of the nation’s most famous poet as he battles with whether he will ever raise his pen again after being silenced by grief.
Bringing this story to life required the work of approximately 250 cast and crew members — mostly in-house talent, but there were also collaborations with reenactment groups and several local businesses. Sight & Sound worked closely with Make Films, a Lancaster-based company, and the movie was shot on location in Gettysburg, at Moonstone Manor in Elizabethtown, at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, and at Strasburg Rail Road, as well as on a 20-acre property acquired by Sight & Sound in Strasburg, where the New Hope Church set was constructed in a matter of weeks.
Since much of the cast came from the network built by Sight & Sound Theatres, acting for a camera rather than an audience was a change for many. Rachel Day Hughes, who played Fanny, admitted that she had been nervous about how well her skills would carry over to the medium of film, since most of her acting career has been on the stage. “But what surprised (and delighted) me was this: truth is truth,” she told The Lancaster Patriot. “The goal of acting is to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances in order to invite the audience to experience the world the author has built. Whether you are living truthfully on the world’s largest stage at Sight & Sound, or in a closeup, if it’s true, it reads. If it’s not, it doesn’t. Now, I don’t claim to have batted 1,000 during this process, but I certainly learned a ton and fell completely in love with film.”
The experience on set certainly would have helped. Jonathan Blair, who played Charley, noted that the people on set maintained a smooth, efficient and fun environment at every step in the process. “I’ve never been on a professional set that took the endeavor as seriously, as reverently as Sight & Sound Films, while maintaining an upbeat and encouraging environment all the way through,” he said. “We all worked incredibly hard, but the atmosphere was so thoroughly enjoyable it hardly ever felt like work.”
Stephen Atherholt, who played Longfellow, also praised the level of expertise shown by the cast and crew. “It was humbling to be a part of such a talented team,” he said.
Because Longfellow was one of the most popular and influential poets of his time, the production team worked hard to weave poetry throughout the screenplay. Lisa Lynn Ericson, a poet herself, worked as a researcher for the film and also served as the script supervisor. Ericson said that telling Longfellow’s story was meaningful to her because poetry has a relevant and resounding voice in the world. The film, she explained to The Lancaster Patriot, was not a mere work project for her. “It’s an intersection of poetry and hope and what it means to truly live,” she said.
Acknowledging everyone for their contributions was important to those behind the film. At first, there were discussions about whether to include traditional credits at the end of the movie, since Sight & Sound Theatres does not list performers’ names in its show programs. Film industry standards prevailed, but Sight & Sound Films chose to list more than usual: the end credits go beyond the actors and the many hands that worked on things like lighting, props and costumes to include individuals like those on Sight & Sound’s intercessory prayer team.
Thanks to all of the talent and support that went into this labor of love, the quality of the end result shines through. And in a world full of grief and noise, the positive message of “I Heard the Bells” rings loud and clear.