Actress Rita Moreno sits on the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round during a break between shooting scenes for Remember Me, in Berkeley, on Monday, July 6, 2015. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Actor Rita Moreno sits on the Tilden Park carousel during a break between shooting scenes for Remember Me, on July 6,2015. She plays a recently widowed woman whose grandchildren have come to put her in a senior home. Photo: David Yee

Rita Moreno sat in a brightly colored sled on the Tilden Park carousel as it whirled around, its accompanying music quiet for a change. A crew of camera operators and sound technicians crouched before her on the carousel floor, capturing her pensive expression.

From the adjoining room, producers Heather Haggarty and Nanou Matteson watched Moreno on a monitor and murmured instructions for the crew into a walkie talkie. As the carousel slowed to a halt, the production team hurried out to the side of merry-go-round to discuss their next moves.

The scene, which took place on Monday, is part of Remember Me, a movie in production by Bay Area company Sparklight Films and slated for a 2016 release. It’s currently being filmed in locations across Berkeley and the East Bay and stars Moreno alongside Steve Goldbloom, who is also the project’s writer and director, and Joel Kelley Dauten.

Actors Joel Kelley Dauten, left, Steve Goldbloom, and Rita Moreno on the Tilden carousel during a break from filming. Goldbloom and Dauten had to be coached on blowing bubbles with chewing gum for their parts as Moreno’s immature grandsons. Photo: David Yee

Moreno, whose fame is both local (for her Berkeley Rep performances) and international (the Puerto Rican actor is one of the few winners of an EGOT, or Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards), plays Gloria, a recently widowed woman whose grandsons, Vincent (Goldbloom) and Barry (Dauten) have come to deliver her to an assisted-living facility. They quickly realize that it is overmedication that is causing Gloria’s confusion, not dementia, and as Gloria comes out of the fog of her meds, the trio finds opportunities for both growing up and staying young.

“We hope that it will touch a lot of people,” Matteson said. She and Haggarty are hoping that Goldbloom and Dauten’s youth and comic appeal will draw the younger audiences, while Moreno’s “decades of professionalism” will anchor the film in its heavier themes: aging, loss and family.

The producers believe that the film’s premise will resonate with the 40 and up crowd. They know many people who are struggling to care for aging parents and grandparents, Matteson said, and it can be difficult to preserve the “dignity of age” when busy with other responsibilities. A major idea in the film is that “age does not diminish people,” Matteson said. Gloria’s revitalization is a shock to her grandsons because they “had written her off as just old.”

Moreno, though 83, is the opposite of “just old.” She is a lively presence on the set, laughing and bantering with her co-stars between takes but falling into character the moment she is needed.

“What appealed to me when I read [the script] is it deals a great deal with grandson and grandma in the most wonderful way,” Moreno said. Gloria’s grandsons “are ostensibly taking her to a senior home, but only since they think they’re supposed to,” and on the ensuing road trip the grandsons begin to wonder if a senior home is where Gloria belongs.

Goldbloom, left, Dauten and Moreno talk in between takes in the kitchen of the snack bar at the carousel. Photo: David Yee

Moreno connects with her character most in her moments of sharp wit: Gloria is a no-nonsense woman and is quick to put her grandsons in their place.

“I love smacking them on the head,” she said, which the script often calls for.

While the movie is tightly scripted for the most part, there are opportunities for improvisation from all actors, which is a first for Moreno.

“They’ve let me loose,” she said. “It’s very silly sometimes,” with many moments when the trio would “break up” in laughter during scenes and have to compose themselves before reshooting.

Goldbloom had written Barry’s character with Dauten in mind — the pair met eight months ago on another set — but he had not expected the windfall of signing Moreno onto the film. Haggarty and Matteson, who had met Moreno several times, sent the script to her agent and the actor “loved it,” Matteson said.

“When we got her it was a huge surprise,” Goldbloom said. “I barely have to direct her.”

“Just get out of her way, she knows exactly what she’s doing,” Dauten advised.

This will be the first feature-length film for both Goldbloom and Dauten. The pair have acted in short films and online series — Dauten in Video Game High School and Goldbloom in PBS’s Everything But The News — and both use a snarky brand of humor that often appeals to the millennial crowd. They agreed that working with Moreno, who has more experience with dramatic roles than comedic ones, has been wonderful.

“She’s a fire” on the set, Dauten said.

Moreno shrugged off her numerous accolades, even the EGOT, saying that “people are very impressed by it, but it doesn’t get you jobs.” She hinted that she will be receiving another award soon, to be announced this week, but couldn’t say for what or from whom.

Goldbloom, left, and Dauten run up a hill toward the Tilden Park Merry-Go-Round as they film a scene for Remember Me. Photo: David Yee

Acting in the Berkeley hills looked exhausting at times. In a scene where the grandsons are frantically searching for their wandering grandmother, Goldbloom and Dauten had to jog up a steep hill four or five times before the cameras could get just the right shot. By that time, the morning fog had burned away and much of the crew was sheltering from the sun behind hats while the actors ran around in the growing heat. Moreno, who was not in the scene, held an umbrella to block the rays as she watched from a bench.

“It’s wonderful filming in Berkeley,” Haggarty said. The Bay’s small film community is a tight-knit group, she said, and while the distinct roles in the film industry can be isolating at times, the team working on Remember Me “work[s] very closely together.”

“All of our crew is local,” Matteson added, and includes more women than the typical film crew.

The variety of landscapes in the Bay Area is a boon as well, Haggarty said: they’ve shot in multiple locations around the East Bay, including Café Raj, the Piedmont Gardens retirement community and a Berkeley house. After they wrapped up at the Tilden merry-go-round, the cast and crew caravanned over to Ashkenaz to shoot a scene in which Moreno stumbles upon a flamenco class.

The shooting wrapped up at 11:30 a.m. when the cast and crew sat down for a lunch break. Some of the crew had been at the carousel since 5:45 a.m. The five hours of filming would amount to about four minutes of action in the final product. Even so, Matteson said the project was moving smoothly.

“It’s going so well,” she said. “The actors are bringing their all.”

Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.

Rita Moreno’s life laid bare in ‘Life Without Makeup’ (09.08.11)

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Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...