MILTON - It was only 4 a.m. but they were preparing to make some movie magic in Milton.
"That's what time they started setting up," Mary Manning of Frothingham Street said as she watched crew members prepare a scene for the thriller "The Box" at the home of Jim and Barbara Vaughn on Lantern Lane.
When a film crew invades a neighborhood - in this case a quiet side street off busy Canton Avenue - it tends to be all-encompassing, whatever the hour. Neighboring streets become crowded with trailer trucks, nearby parking lots are commandeered, and roadblocks are set up at key intersections.
For five days in November and December, the normally sedate suburban town of 25,000 people became Hollywood Central, with town residents enlisted to serve as extras, police controlling traffic and providing security, and the neighborhood buzz centering around how much taller movie star Cameron Diaz appeared in person.
It's exciting but not all that new. Mild-mannered Milton is becoming accustomed to hosting Hollywood glitz.
Four films have been shot in Milton in recent years, according to the Massachusetts Film Office and town officials.
First there was "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a 1973 crime drama starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle, based on a book written by the late George V. Higgins, a Milton resident. Milton was one of several area communities featured in the film. Then came "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" a 2001 comedy starring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito and directed by Sam Weisman, who has two children who graduated from Milton Academy.
The school was also used as a backdrop for several scenes in "The Witches of Eastwick," the 1987 film that mixed comedy and horror and starred Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, and Cher.
And now the shooting of Richard Kelly's "The Box," which aside from Diaz stars James Marsden and recent Tony Award winner Frank Langella. Diaz and Marsden play a troubled married couple who are given a magical box that grants them wishes of fame and fortune. But for the wishes to come true, an unknown person must die.
During filming, Diaz could be spotted on Lantern Lane, drawing a crowd outside the Vaughns' house while shooting a scene in which she puts children on a school bus.
In several scenes in the movie, Milton is portraying Richmond, Va., and Milton's resemblance to that Southern city was one of the reasons the town was chosen for filming.
In addition, said Scott Levine, the unit publicist for "The Box," producers were drawn to the area by other factors - a strong base of skilled film professionals available in New England, and the excellent interior and exterior locations available, such as Milton Academy.
Cathleen Everett, a spokeswoman for Milton Academy, said the look of the 209-year-old private school attracts filmmakers. "The brick, windows, classic architecture, and classic-looking spaces are appealing to moviemakers," she said. Added Paula Bonnarigo, director of program development, "We are sometimes contacted by location scouts when they are looking for a typical New England boarding school setting."
Add to that new tax incentives passed in 2006 and 2007 that revised the state's tax code, offering new tax incentives to filmmakers. It has led to an explosion in the number of major movies shot in Massachusetts in the last couple of years across the state.
News of plans to shoot "The Box" in Milton emerged when the Vaughn family got a call from a scout at New England Locations, who told them the producers of the movie wanted to use their residence as the home for the movie's main characters.
The couple had a chance to meet stars Diaz and Langella during the filming and said they couldn't have been more gracious.
Diaz "told us, 'Thanks for letting us use your house,' " said Jim Vaughn.
There wasn't enough room inside the Vaughn home for the actors and all the needed equipment for some scenes, so some of the rooms were carefully re-created in a South Boston warehouse.
During the three days of filming in late November, the Milton Woman's Club a few blocks away became the staging area for the caterer, a parking lot at the nearby Glover Elementary School was crowded with equipment, and huge tractor-trailers lined Cape Cod Lane and Frothingham Street.
Because the movie is set in the 1970s, a fleet of 1970s vintage cars - including a Dodge Charger, Plymouth Road Runner, Buick Riviera, and Cadillac - idled along Canton Avenue, waiting their turn to provide backdrop for the scene being shot.
At several points during the filming, Mother Nature refused to cooperate with the moviemakers. During the November filming, late-falling autumn leaves had to be carefully swept up because at the time it was supposed to be Christmas in Virginia.
Later on, during filming at Milton Academy on Dec. 18 and 19 that occurred after the second of two winter storms, cold weather and snow forced the cancellation of some exterior shots. Snow just wasn't in the script.
Frothingham Street resident Manning said after watching what filmmakers went through, spending about 37 hours on Lantern Lane over three days in November to film about 12 minutes worth of scenes, "I won't be complaining about ticket prices for a while."
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.