It's hard not to love Peter Mayle's novels. They generally involve antsy Brits who move to the French countryside, carrying their woes, only to have the countryside, people, food and wine work magic on them. Love stories, when they occur, are side dishes—slow cooked and savored—rather than a gooey, sweet dessert.
"A Good Year" is the latest filmed version of a Mayle book. Directed by director Ridley Scott, in a departure from his usual big budget actions, it was filmed on location in Provençe and stars Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. The production controller on the film was Gary Gillingham, a Sun Valley resident with 35 years of film production experience. Sadly, Gillingham was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Gillingham, 60, died in April 2006, a few months after the shoot. To honor him, his widow, Denise, will host the premiere of "A Good Year" at the Ski Time Cinema in Ketchum, 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10. The event will benefit the newly formed Gary Gillingham Research Fund at the ALS Association. The $75 ticket price includes a pre-screening cocktail party with wine and hors d'oeuvres in the penthouse of the First and First Building, an ALS bracelet and a free beverage during the screening. Tickets are available at Iconoclast books in Ketchum. Denise Gillingham worked diligently to create an event that would incorporate her husband's legacy with fundraising for ALS.
"One of the reasons I'm so excited about this is this is the place he loved," she said.
Her husband was a 17-year resident of Sun Valley. The first time he stepped foot in the area he somewhat prophetically said, 'This is the place I want to die.'
"He was so energetic, a very special person," she said. As the keeper of the budget, Gillingham was often on location for work. "He loved the business. He felt like a kid in the candy shop. He was really good at what he did. He had a sense of a movie's cost and a sense of what the business was."
A few years ago, they had back-to-back productions in Prague for the movies "Shanghai Knights" and "Hellboy."
It was during that time on a "gorgeous fall day sitting at Tully's that Gary said he had a weakness in his hand," Denise said. "It took them a long time to diagnose it. He was flying back and forth from Prague to L.A. and New York to see doctors. He was a fighter and didn't like negativity. His denial may have kept him alive longer."
Twentieth Century Fox (the studio that financed and is distributing the film) allowed her to use the screening as a benefit. "Fox was so good to him," she said. "And ALS rarely establishes named funds under $50,000."
Iconoclast Books is also donating 20 percent of the sale of the book to the ALS fund. Other donations of raffle prizes, French wine and food have come forth as well. The Sun Valley Company donated the grand prize, a 20/20 pass for the 2006-2007 ski season.
Denise Gillingham has good memories of the movie production, since she and their twin daughters accompanied Gary to France last year.
"He was very disabled when he was working on 'A Good Year.' Because of his disability we traveled with him. It truly was one of those 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' We started pre-production in August in Provençe. I found a place that was handicapped accessible. It was difficult to find. Without the love of those people on the crew if would have been harder. Everyone came together and helped. The movie is visually very beautiful. It's a wonderful story, I think. And it's fun."
The protagonist of "A Good Year" is Max Skinner, a one time financial whiz in his mid-30s, who inherits a vineyard in France from his beloved and eccentric uncle. The estate, however, is in need of repair and the wine cellar is filled with bottles of a dreadful-tasting swill. The arrival of Uncle Henry's long-lost daughter from California, who has designs on the place, and a vineyard scandal involving a high-priced, discreetly produced wine complicates matters.
The financial whiz could have been Gary Gillingham in Prague with his baby girls and wife, who was learning the violin. Falling in love with a new place, entertaining cast and crew, working hard.
"He wanted the girls to grow up in Sun Valley and be athletic," Denise said. "He made me promise to keep up with the violin and finish the children's book I'm writing."
She made the promises and then she did something else. She found a way to make Gary's death mean something in a larger sense.
"Every 90 minutes someone is diagnosed with ALS," she said. "And every 90 minutes someone dies from ALS, for now. The most powerful words are 'for now' We're getting closer to a cure."