David Wolfe poses for a portrait at his printing shop on Pleasant Street in Portland. Wolfe and his Civil War-era press were filmed for the new movie “Little Women,” coming out on Christmas Day. Wolfe was hired to bring his press to Boston for the filming of the movie but isn’t sure whether he’ll make the cut. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Filmmakers contacted the right guy in their search for an antique working press – and a printer to operate it, in costume, on camera – for the movie “Little Women,” an adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott that opens in theaters Christmas Day.

The coming-of-age drama has a blockbuster cast of Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep – and a beautiful old press borrowed from a Portland printer, along with a couple of contemporary Mainers, if they make the cut.

Master printer David Wolfe specializes in antique presses and had plenty for the production company to choose from when they visited his shop in the Bakery Studios building on Pleasant Street in Portland a year ago, looking for the machine that would print Jo March’s book in the film. “They called me up and said, ‘We heard you might have a press up there that might be appropriate for the time.’ We had just finished restoration on a press that was a real showpiece, and very appropriate,” Wolfe said. “It came from the Boston area from that time period.”

A few days later, a couple of guys showed up with a truck and drove off with four or five printing presses, including a Civil War-era press that Wolfe had recently acquired from a mill in Biddeford. “It’s not likely, but it’s possible that press might have been in the shop that printed ‘Little Women.’ It’s not beyond the realm of possibility. I don’t know the exact history of the press, but it’s been kicking around New England, and it was built in Worcester,” Wolfe said.

Boston-based Roberts Brothers published the first volume of “Little Women” in 1868. In the new movie, the book is published by Volcano Press out of New York in 1871.

Photo courtesy of David Wolfe

Wolfe, 62, has been printing for 40 years and operated Wolfe Editions in Portland since 1997. In 2018, he received the Master Craft Artist Award from the Maine Crafts Association. He plans to attend a showing on Wednesday and will watch closely to see if his antique press – and he himself – end up in the movie.

The movie was shot last fall and early winter in and around Boston. Wolfe closed up shop in Portland and spent a week on the movie set at a huge complex in Massachusetts where many scenes were filmed. He had to break down the press to ship it, so his first task was setting it up in a period print shop constructed onsite and getting it operational. Before leaving Portland, he cast eight pages of the book to look like a near-replica of Alcott’s first edition and printed them on the press on the movie set.

He dressed in costume as a mid-19th century printer when the book came off the press. Other presses of his were in the movie-set shop, including a tabletop press that has been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since he held a workshop there, as well as an antique type case and historically accurate tools of the trade.

“They shot a lot of footage of me hand-setting, but I have no idea what they ended up using,” he said. “Probably what’s going to be in the movie are little shots through the press and the workings of the press.”

The press is an acorn-shaped iron hand press, built by Otis Tufts, a machinist, inventor and printer from the Boston area, who is credited among his accomplishments with perfecting the passenger elevator. Wolfe acquired it in a private sale two years ago with the intention of fixing it up and reselling it.

If he makes the cut, Wolfe thinks his scene will appear near the end of the movie, when Ronan’s character, Jo, who is based on Alcott, shows up at the print shop to watch through the window as her book is printed. The movie is about four sisters who come of age at a time when women are expected to marry, but Jo challenges that notion and expresses herself and her independence through her writing. Alcott wrote “Little Women” as a novel, but it is considered autobiographical. It has been made into a movie many times.

Wolfe didn’t appreciate the book until he got involved in this project. “I wasn’t familiar with the story. I never read it. As a young man growing up in the ’70s, you don’t read a book called ‘Little Women.’ But I should have. It’s a good book,” he said. “It’s about these four sisters who are dealing with becoming women. This movie version is very much about that, about how women are treated and how hard it was for a young woman to figure out what to do and (resist) the pressure to get married and live in a man’s world.”

The movie-making experience was often exciting and also boring. “I stood around a lot and waited. There were two or three days that I got into costume and nothing happened. We just stood around. They put me in the worst pair of antique shoes, with a nail coming up through the heel. I was limping around, ‘When are we going to do this?’ ”

The other Mainer who participated in the production of the movie is 19-year-old Will Denton of Portland. He was a photo double for actor Louis Garrel, who portrays the professor Friedrich Bhaer. He was cast as a photo double to Garrel because of their physical similarities, including a 19th century-style mustache that Denton wore at the audition for extras he attended in Boston last year.

Will Denton of Portland served as a photo double for actor Louis Garrel in the movie “Little Women.” Photo courtesy of Dana Baldwin

A photo double must look enough like the actor, in height, build, hair color and complexion, that they can be filmed at a distance or with their back to the camera and pass as the actor. Denton filmed his scene at a country home in Concord, Massachusetts, the town where Alcott grew up. “It was a huge mansion with a big pond out in the background,” Denton said. “I just kind of sat around until they needed me to walk along some fence and under some artificial rain,” he said. “There was all this anxiety over me being too cold and that I would have to get wet. But it was fine.”

He was amused that he was assigned an assistant to handle his props. “That was funny and very unnecessary,” he said.

Denton, a freshman at University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a similar hurry-up-and-wait experience as Wolfe, but with more comfortable clothes. He was costumed in a three-piece suit and cummerbund. “The suit was tweed, dark-brownish. I am holding a briefcase and an umbrella in a rain scene, and I have a black overcoat and top hat – or something. I actually don’t remember if I had a top hat.”

They filmed about 30 seconds, he said. He expects they’ll use 10 seconds, tops, if any. If he sees himself on screen when he attends the movie on Christmas Day, “I will freak out. I will cause a big disturbance in the theater.”

Before he got the assignment, Denton met with director Greta Gerwig “so she could judge if I could be a good photo double for the guy who was playing Friedrich.” As he met with Gerwig, Ronan and Dern were in the room. Watson was nearby.

Wolfe also had a star experience when Dern showed up in his dressing room. “She comes over and sits down next to me. They were putting makeup on, and she said, ‘Hi, I’m Laura.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ ”

Wolfe is not credited for a role the film, according to the online movie database IMDB. Had he worked one more day on the set, he would have been required to enroll with the actor’s union, he said.

He had a blast and said he was well-compensated for his time and expertise. He wouldn’t say how much he was paid, other than, “They asked me how much I wanted to do the whole thing. I came up with a price and went half-again more, and they said, ‘Oh, sure.’ It was good money.”

As good as the money was, Wolfe is pleased to represent his craft in a high-profile setting. He’s spent 40 years making fine-art prints, letterpress books and other print-based projects that require an artist’s eye and the technical talent and skills of a craftsman. It’s nice to have a chance to demonstrate those skills accurately and with authenticity on such a scale, he said.

“You go to the movies sometimes and you see somebody printing wrong. That’s not going to happen here. I don’t know how they’re going to present it. They may present it wrong, but it was printed correctly,” he said.


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