Skylark, the sequel to the hugely successful 1991 TV movie Sarah, Plain and Tall, has been filming near the picturesque coastal town of Belfast, Maine, for almost a week, and yet the cast has only one thing on its mind: chiggers. The pesky insects are nowhere to be seen, but both Skylark and Sarah were shot largely in the chigger-ridden fields outside Emporia, Kan., and the memory lingers.
Christopher Bell, 8, who has played Glenn Close's stepson in both films, sums up why he prefers Maine to Kansas: ''No chiggers.'' Close says she adopted a dog on the first Sarah set and named it Chigger. And Close's taciturn TV husband, Christopher Walken, turns almost chatty when asked how many chigger bites he suffered. ''Four,'' he says. ''All on my hey're very painful. They bore under the skin and cause a scab. It's itchy, like crabs.'' (He's not referring to the local shellfish.) Then, with a wistful look in his eye, he adds, ''Good old crabs.''
The bugs were only the first natural obstacle faced by Close, Walken, and company when they returned to Kansas last September to film Skylark fitting, perhaps, for a tale of simple farm folk battling the forces of nature. Skylark will air Feb. 7 on CBS, virtually two years to the night after Sarah became the highest-rated TV movie of the 1990-91 season and the highest-rated Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the prestigious series' 41-year history. It was the Hallmark name that convinced Tony winner and five-time Oscar nominee Close to do Sarah for TV. ''I would only consider doing it for Hallmark because they have such an incredible tradition,'' says the actress, who also starred in 1988's Stones For Ibarra for Hall of Fame.
Close first encountered Sarah Wheaton, the strong-willed New Englander who journeys to the Midwest in 1910 to care for a widowed farmer and his two children, when she recorded an audio version of Patricia MacLachlan's award-winning kids' novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall, in 1986. The ensuing TV movie, with Close as star and co-executive producer, connected with such a broad audience of adults and children that Close urged MacLachlan to write the teleplay for Skylark even before the author finished the corresponding second novel (it will be published in late 1993). Now there's talk of a third Sarah TV movie and maybe even a spin-off series, which Close would produce but not star in.
And yet all this Sarah success came as a surprise. ''Sarah is unusual for television,'' Close says. ''It's a very subtle story, and a lot of the drama happens between two people's eyes.'' But can Skylark match Sarah's numbers in a season when the highest-rated TV movie was The Amy Fisher Story? In contrast to Amy's sex and violence, Skylark's suspense boils down to one question: Will it rain?
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the answer was yes: Director Joseph Sargent (Miss Rose White) shot the story of a drought which forces Jacob (Walken) to send Sarah and the kids back to Maine during the wettest summer in Kansas history. ''It really stuck to the old adage, 'If you don't like the weather, stick around for 10 minutes,''' Sargent says. ''We'd start a scene in broad daylight and it would quickly become a heavy downpour.''
There was another troublesome element: A fire sequence scheduled to be shot in one night ended up taking three. ''It was the kind of scene you can't normally do on a TV budget,'' Sargent explains (Skylark's modest price tag was about $5 million). ''You need a little more money and a little more effort and a little more everything.'' A different scene, in which Close's skirt catches fire, also got out of hand. ''When Chris Walken was putting me out, he got singed on his chest hair and his arms,'' Close says. ''But it was fun for me. I had fire-resistant underwear on.''