The great thing about shooting a movie during the height of Hurricane Season was that housing, equipment, and everything else would be a whole lot cheaper. The bad news was that during Hurricane Season, there are hurricanes.
Let me back up. I am Georgia Menides and am the writer / one of the producers of Still Green. As Stephen Petty’s 13 week web series called Making Still Green unfolds on Film Threat, which documents the awesome and the horrific that went down behind our scenes, I will be writing weekly blogs to accompany his episodes. Steve knows what he’s doing, and I think what I was feeling at the time will already be captured. So I am not going risk being redundant by simply recapping his webisodes in my own interior monologue. I don’t want to bore you. I want to use this opportunity to elaborate, or give back story, or sometimes front story, to some of the issues he touches upon. Most of Steve’s series takes place during actual production. This was by far the most exciting time of this process and the most harrowing. But, of course, a film begins long before that and ends far after that. Here is where I think my perspective will be the most interesting. Sometimes I might trace a theme all the way back to writing the script or fast forward all the way to where we are now. This will, I hope, give you some extra info that is not already in his series. I thought I’d start with something we all love and care about…nature.
We had meant to arrive in Florida in May, shoot June-July still in off season (aka, still cheap) but then wrap and get the hell out of there before Hurricane Season started up in August. But it wasn’t until June that we had enough money in the bank to actually say “Yes, come hell or high water we are shooting Still Green this summer,” which meant we’d arrive in Florida in July, and shoot August-September. This is smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Season.
I initially went into denial about this. I proceeded to talk to literally every contact we had in Florida hoping to hear some words of hope, a reference to some magical year where August rolled into September hurricane-free. But it was quickly confirmed by everyone I talked to, from the Film Commissioner to the guy at the Marco Times interviewing me for our first piece of FL press, there was no such thing as a magical year. Unquestionably, we would be battling a few hurricanes while shooting in Naples.
This may make someone ask why we wouldn’t just set and film somewhere else? It’s a legitimate question. There was talk of filming in Cape Cod, Maine, and a few other Hurricane-free zones. But that all just felt wrong. We had already fallen in love with the vibrant tropical landscape of Naples, FL and its lush Gulf waters. We were all, by then, married to the idea of this darker story being set to a contrasting colorful paradise. There were too many thematic moments tied to the necessity of filming Still Green in calm water that teemed with life, too many to switch locations.
Film production is business but it is also art. Threaded into even in the most practical mentality that surges though all film sets, there is still spirituality. An indescribable energy in Florida was calling to all of us. It just felt right, in that trippy destiny way that’s hard to explain, but when it’s there you can just feel it and we were all the type of people that went with our gut. We figured whatever might go down in the event of a hurricane was most likely meant to happen and would lead to something even better coming from the film.
On the realistic side, not every hurricane is Katrina. Sometimes it’s just a bad storm. People do live in Florida despite the hurricanes, just like people live in California despite the forest fires. None of the locals seemed nearly as afraid of these hurricanes as we were. Entire counties full of people rich enough to bolt if it were really that bad functioned their way through hurricane season every year. We figured if they could do it, so could we.
There were many reasons Doug and I picked Still Green as the script for our first stab at producing a feature. It is not a complicated script. There are only ten characters. A few scenes took place in the ocean, and we knew these would be a nightmare. But most of the action took place inside a beach house. The plan, in the event a major hurricane touched down while we were shooting, was to drive everyone to a back up location and shoot these interior scenes inside a different house. We had a friend whose grandmother owned a house in Crystal Springs. This town was about five hours inland, and on a tributary to the Gulf, but not on the Gulf itself. Crystal Springs was, for the most part, a hurricane-free town. You could see a large body of rippling water from the windows of this house, and we decided that, in a jam, it would work as our back-up location.
As it turned out, this plan was not to be. There are a laundry list of ripple effects that go hand in hand with Hurricanes, even if the Hurricane is hundreds of miles away, and being from New England, we knew next to nothing about any of this.
We were not prepared the for daily lightening storms that would start up mid afternoon, downpour and wail relentlessly for an hour or two, and then retreat leaving us with a clear beautiful sky but plenty of wasted time.
Another reason we picked the Gulf of Mexico was to shoot in calm,still water. But during Hurricane season, that still water becomes as intense as the Atlantic, sometimes for weeks, and you simply cannot film in the ocean until it calms down again. And it took us a month to finally get water insurance because (surprise,surprise), most insurance companies do not want their clients throwing equipment onto boats during Hurricane season. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hurricane Katrina we may not have found any water insurance at all. This Hurricane will be fully discussed in future bogs. For now, suffice to say that each time we were hit with a barricade in shooting exteriors, our solution would be to film yet another scene indoors, and after two weeks, we had shot ourselves into a corner where swapping interior locations was no longer an option.
The first Hurricane to hit Naples actually followed us as we drive down the coast, making for a harrowing ride, as my car was a total piece of s**t. Her ventilation system sucked and she did not do rain well at all. Hurricane Cindy picked up its momentum as a class one Hurricane in Virginia, blasted through North and South Carolina, wreaked all kinds of havoc in Miami, and then made its way west to Naples. After driving through this storm, we arrived in Naples the day before Cindy was scheduled to hit.
I was a little panicked. I asked the property manager at the rental office what we were supposed to do when the Hurricane started. She said we had Hurricane shutters on the house and we should close and lock them. That was it?
I didn’t get a wink of sleep that night. What would happen if this Hurricane was bad one? What if buildings were destroyed? What if roads were destroyed? What if our locations were destroyed? What if we had just blown thousands of dollars on a movie that wouldn’t even last through one day of preproduction?
Hurricane Cindy was to be our first lesson in the reality of inaccurate reporting in television news. Not to shatter anyone’s faith in the media, but sometimes news channels exaggerate and dramatize a bad situation to up their ratings. Sometimes there is a huge difference between what the news claims is going on, and what is really going on. In reality, at least with this Hurricane, nothing happened. It was a little windy in the morning. The sky was dark. One tree fell. Chunks of palms blew onto the roads. That was it.
By noon the sun was out, the sky was clear, and we even decided to go to the beach. Meanwhile our entire crew, not to mention our parents, was calling us totally freaked out. Doug’s mom said she was watching the news, and assured us that harsh rains and winds were attacking Collier County. Were we going to be okay? Doug assured her that the sun was out and we were firing up the grill. She said that was impossible, she was watching television and there was a wild storm in Naples. My parents called, also convinced that we were in the throws of major disaster. We were curious. We turned on the news ourselves. And sure enough, as we were opening our windows to let in the bright sunny air, on the television news, Naples FL was being blasted by severe storms.
Not that I’ve ever believed everything I’ve seen on the news, but this was especially eye-opening. And it did give me a sliver of hope. At the time I thought, “Maybe the reality of Hurricane Season won’t match its dreaded media hype. Maybe a few leaves will blow off a few trees here and there and that will be it.” I was wrong.