YORK, Maine — Tim Janis once had a recording studio in an unheated carriage house in York, in his University of New Hampshire days. He still lives in York, but now, 25 years later, Janis might be in a recording studio in Los Angeles, or at the Abbey Road Studios in London made famous by the Beatles.
His composing, recording, performing and conducting have been stepping stones to his newest project, a film with an impressive cast he describes as “a musical fairy tale” called “Buttons.”
Janis said the idea for the film came to him as he was sitting in St. Christopher’s Church in York. “It’s an interesting sort of musical fairy tale. It takes place in the old mills in New Hampshire. An orphan girl in a mill, too small to work the machines, instead sews buttons.” Back at home, he wrote a couple of pages and developed a script with his wife, Elizabeth Demmer.
In the story, set in the early 1900s, two orphaned children meet two unexpected visitors, played by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, who change their lives forever during a time of robber barons and rising industry.
A fan of old MGM musicals with the song and dance man, Janis designed the film in that vein.
“Buttons” is narrated by Robert Redford and Kate Winslet and features actors Abigail Spencer, Jane Seymour, Roma Downey, Ioan Gruffudd, Katie McGrath, Robert Picardo, Charles Shaughnessy, Paul Greene, John de Lancie, and “Nova,” a song written by Sir Paul McCartney. The film introduces actors Alivia Clark, Noelle Parker, Devlin Stark, Julia Burrows, Reilly Anspaugh, and Tom Rhoads.
Shooting took place over three years in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Los Angeles.
A young actor from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, earned a role in the movie. Caraline Shaheen, now a freshman at Portsmouth High School, was between fifth and sixth grades when she shot her scenes. “I was the lead mill girl, Rebecca, living in an orphanage, sewing and making things,” she said. The location was the Old Gaol in York, which must have made a really grim orphanage. Of Director Janis, Caraline said, “He’s a very lovely man, I got to know him pretty well. He had a specific vision about the movie.”
Caraline, daughter of Craig Welch and Stefany Shaheen, and granddaughter of U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, continues to audition for films and just finished a production of “Shrek” at PHS.
Elizabeth Demmer’s company, Cranberry Island Films, produced the film. Janis wrote the music and lyrics, directed, shot much of the film and did the editing. “The budget for the film was the same as a Disney lunch break,” Janis said. He said he had a powerful story and great actors.
But how do you put together such a fabulous cast? Janis said, “It’s been a long journey for me in the business.” He’s made a lot of contacts.
For 12 years, Janis has performed a Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall in New York city. In 2012, he discovered the Golden Hat Foundation, headed by Kate Winslet. He was taken by their mission of changing the way people with autism are perceived, by shining a light on their abilities. “Buttons” and the Carnegie Hall Christmas concerts help support the foundation. Janis worked to bring a child with autism into the movie’s cast.
He once wrote a song and sent it to to Dick Van Dyke’s manager. Van Dyke called him about it.
In 2000, Janis worked on a CD called “Music of Hope,” a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, with Sir Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Andre Previn, Emanuel Ax, Maya Angelou, the New York Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra. “We hired the London Symphony, got to Abby Road, and recorded [McCartney’s song] ‘Nova’ with the symphony.”
“A few weeks later, we went into studio make edits,” he said, spending a half hour with McCartney editing and hearing Beatles stories.
Eldredge Lumber and Hardware lent him warehouse space where the production had a “standing set” for two years. It was a village with a toy store, a bakery, and a millinery shop built of real brick with cement sidewalks. Extras and a horse and carriage populated the space. He said Cindy Hamilton of the Americana Workshop in Kennebunk decorated the set.
“The set was the fun part,” Janis said. “I’m almost too crazy for details.”
Other locations were the Museums of Old York, the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, the Victoria Mansion in Portland, the Valley Railroad and Essex Steam Train in Connecticut, the Lowell National Historical Park’s Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Massachusetts, a mill in West Virginia and sets in Los Angeles.
A scene at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport included Jane Seymour and Charles Shaughnessy with granddaughters of the late former President George H.W. Bush as extras.
Janis was interviewed by telephone from New York City last week, where he was getting ready for this year’s Carnegie Hall Christmas concert, which took place Nov. 30. Several members of the “Buttons” cast were to be guest performers.
“Buttons” was scheduled to be shown in theaters on one day only, Saturday, Dec. 8. It will not be available on disk or through streaming. Janis said he wants to bring it back every year.
Janis said, “If you need to be uplifted, this film will do that. New Hampshire and Maine, we are proud about our area.”
Asked if he has any more movies planned, Janis said, “I’ll have to recharge, that’s for sure.” He said he’s thinking about “Letters from Home,” a musical that takes place after World War II.
As for his success, he said, “I believe there are a lot of ways to answer that. Going to UNH, living in Maine, the support of the community all these years. That made it possible. You can make it if you try.” He thanks all who purchased his music CDs over the past decades.