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New Von Trapps head for the big screen

Four decades after Julie Andrews climbed every mountain and married a widowed naval captain in “The Sound of Music,” his real-life great grandchildren are hoping to make movie magic of their own.

The four von Trapp family descendants — Sofia, 18, Melanie, 16, Amanda, 15, and Justin, 11 — are taking time off from a world tour as a sibling singing act to star in a Christmas-themed feature film in the works for next year.

But compared with the lavish, Oscar-winning 1965 musical that depicted their forbearers singing Rodgers & Hammerstein songs as they traipsed through Austria’s countryside, the planned movie debut of the latter-day von Trapp children is a product of humbler origins.

Budgeted at less than $4 million — a pittance by Hollywood standards — the project is the brainchild of a North Carolina-based producer who has enlisted a former “Star Trek” visual effects specialist to direct his film and has cast onetime child star Jerry Mathers of the 1950s TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver” in a supporting role.

Behind-the-camera talent from several “Star Trek” TV series and movies were also recruited to serve as cinematographer, production designer and composer.

But the unorthodox pedigree of the production has hardly dimmed the enthusiasm of the film’s young stars, who have spent four years touring the world in Austrian costumes performing ”Do-Re-Mi,” “Favorite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd.”

“It’s something we’ve never done,” Melanie told Reuters in a recent interview. “This movie is going to be really different, but we’re all so excited for it.”

Singing, but not a musicalSophia, the eldest of the brood, said she and her siblings will be “pretty much playing ourselves” and singing in the film, though she added, “It’s not a musical.”

As described by executive producer John Demers, the story is a road trip that unfolds as the four kids head home from their busy concert schedule for a holiday visit with family, carrying with them a “very special” Christmas tree.

Along the way, they take a detour that involves attempts by a pair of bumbling bad guys to steal their tree while the kids seek to reunite two lovelorn friends. Mathers co-stars as Mr. Spinner, the Christmas tree salesman and narrator of the tale.

The screenplay for the film, tentatively titled “Von Trapp Children Christmas Movie,” was written by Paul Shapiro, whose previous credits include the 1990s road trip films “Breaking the Rules” and “Calendar Girl.”

Demers, CEO of privately held Studio in the Woods in Durham, North Carolina, lined up his “Trek”-based creative team through acquaintances made during a former job in state government as a liaison for public events including “Star Trek” conventions.

Demers’ ties to the von Trapp clan began, aptly enough, with a regional theater production of “The Sound of Music” a few years ago in which they played four of the children and he understudied the part of their father.

‘No handlers’He also was assigned the unofficial role as an adult minder for the youngest, Justin, stepping into the breach moments before one memorable performance to pull a lose tooth out of Justin’s mouth just before curtain time.

“They have such unique, honest and sincere personalities,” Demers said of the youths. “There’s nothing plastic about them. There’s no veneer, there are no handlers. What you see is what you get. A real wholesome act.”

The four are the grandchildren of Werner von Trapp, the younger of the two boys — and the fourth of seven children —depicted in “The Sound of Music” as Kurt (the child Julie Andrews remembers to include in her bedtime prayers with the line, “God bless Kurt.”)

The von Trapp youngsters also remain close to grandfather Werner’s eldest sister, their great-aunt Agathe — portrayed as Liesl (”I am 16 going on 17”) in the musical. “Our Opa and Aunt Agathe have taught us the most,” Sophia said. “They were our biggest influence.”

Werner, Agathe and sister Maria (the real-life name of the movie’s second-oldest daughter, Louisa) are the last surviving members of the original Trapp Family Singers, who fled Nazi-occupied Austria in the 1930s after their father, a widowed naval officer, married their governess.

Three children added to the singing family after Georg and Maria von Trapp were wed are also still alive.

Demers said the four grandchildren began rehearsing newly composed songs for his film last week and would start recording in Los Angeles next month. Shooting is set to begin in late December in the kids’ home state of Montana, with Demers aiming to get it into theaters in December 2007.

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