Barry Roberts and his horses play roles in production of Emily Dickinson biopic ‘A Quiet Passion’ during Amherst filming

Last modified: Wednesday, August 26, 2015
AMHERST — Barry Roberts’ horses have provided wagon rides for children at the Merry Maple celebration and the Taste of Amherst, pulled wedding carriages for newlyweds and participated in real-life funeral processions.

But until Monday morning the two Shires — and Roberts himself — had never been involved in the production of a feature film.

Wearing 19th-century attire, including a black coat provided by the filmmakers and his own top hat, Roberts helped create a funeral scene for “A Quiet Passion,” the Emily Dickinson biopic starring “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon as the poet. The movie, written and directed by British filmmaker Terence Davies, also stars Keith Carradine and Jennifer Ehle.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Roberts, reached by phone Tuesday during a day away from the set. “I’m really enjoying this and seeing what I can learn. It’s amazing what it takes to put all this together.”

Roberts — an Amherst developer who owns Muddy Brook Farm and serves as president of the board of directors for the Business Improvement District — observed numerous technicians, makeup artists and the assistant director on the grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum on Main Street, as well as the high-tech camera and sound equipment.

His responsibility was to arrive with the horses and have them pull a 19th-century hearse and carriage, provided by Florence Casket Co., outside the museum. Most of the film has been shot in Belgium, where a replica of the Dickinson Homestead was built, but filmmakers came to Amherst to shoot scenes that would lend the movie more authenticity. The museum was closed for several days this week to accommodate filming.

What struck Roberts was how time-consuming filming is — even to get the small amount of footage that may be used in the final product.

On Monday between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., the scene Roberts appeared in was meticulously choreographed, with the horses and carriage in motion filmed over and over. “If we didn’t do it 38 times, we didn’t do it once,” Roberts said.

While there were downpours, that didn’t faze the film crew, which adapted by having the onlookers at the funeral hold period umbrellas.

“At 1 p.m. we heard ‘that’s perfect’ and everyone clapped,” Roberts said.

Roberts was back out again Wednesday, with his horses on Main Street near the museum.

Scenes were also shot at Wildwood Cemetery on Strong Street, where Roberts serves as treasurer. Roberts said he had already dug a hole on site where a casket could be placed.

The filmmakers are substituting Wildwood for the West Cemetery — where Emily Dickinson and her family members are actually buried — in part because the historically accurate location is too modern, with traffic, buildings and overhead utility lines nearby.

Roberts said he has enjoyed the project so far and may be ready to take on Hollywood.

“It’s been a great experience,” Roberts said. “Maybe this will be the beginning of a movie career.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.