Chelonia Mydas (The logger head sea turtle) are an endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the US Fish and Wildlife Act, and the Florida Statues. Each year from May to October, the females crawl ashore to lay their eggs. Several weeks later, also at night, the hatchlings burst from their nests and scramble towards the water. Moving quickly from nest to sea is critical for their survival.
On a natural beach, the moon over the ocean guides the hatchlings to the water. Artificial lights, however, confuse the hatchlings and they wander inland instead, not knowing where the ocean is. Lost and disoriented, they soon die from dehydration, heat exhaustion, or are crushed on nearby streets.
Hundreds of miles of Florida’s coastline are suitable for sea turtle nesting. In effort to help this threatened species survive, all local governments strictly enforce the Sea Turtle Conservation code. Violators are subject to fines and imprisonment.
The above is lifted pretty much word for word from an ominous pamphlet tucked into the permitting booklet sent to me by the Collier County Film Commissioner after I called her to discuss our plans to shoot Still Green in her community. This was back in May, when Doug and I were running our production office from his parents’ basement in New Hampshire, months before we set foot in Florida. The pamphlet was from an organization called Turtle Time Inc and the next page listed exactly what these “Sea Turtle Conservation Codes” were. Each item on the list was basically a paraphrase of the same ordinance”¦from May 31st to September 31st there can be NO VISIBLE LIGHT on the beach between 9pm and 7am.
After reading this I immediately panicked. At that point, a good third of the script took place on the beach at night. We needed to light the beach all the time.
But it was a controlled panic. I took this to be a problem, but one with a clear and most likely simple solution, as surely every house, hotel, and bar lining the beach wasn’t turning off their lights at 9pm for half the year and bumbling through the night in darkness. We’d already been to Naples twice and some of the hottest hotels and clubs were right on the beach and were clearly not following this black out ordinance.
I called the commissioner, asking her what people were expected to do to ensure that these baby sea turtles remained unharmed while lives and businesses continued to operate. She explained that because of the Hurricanes, all beach front property was already equipped with Hurricane Shutters which, in these crucial months, were to be pulled down post 9pm blocking all light from the beach. No problem.
As for what to do about actually lighting the beach at night, she admitted she wasn’t sure. She had never encountered this problem before. But she assured me a solution did exist and gave me the number of Mary, the head of Collier County’s environmental services department within the Florida Fish and Wildlife division.
There was a bit of animosity when I first spoke to Mary about our needs to light the beach, and an initial barricade of “I’m sorry, there can simply be no lights” had to be wedged through. But there was obviously a way around this rule. And the fact that I was calling her in the first place was indication that we were not a bunch of barbarians ready to crush all turtles that came into our way. We were normal people like she was, trying our best do something really hard. Eventually, we came to the following agreement.
Every morning, around 7 am, volunteers from Turtle Time Inc, who did seem to be the ultimate authority on the turtle laws, would walk the beach inspecting for turtle nests. If any were found, the area would be flagged. If this happened, we would not be able to shoot until the nests were hatched, no exceptions. But in reality, endangered species are not just up and mating and laying eggs everywhere. If they were, they wouldn’t be endangered in the first place. Apparently mating season hit its peak in July, so the later we shot those night scenes the better. Assuming there were no nests, we would rig grip equipment and drape blacks from the house to the edge of the water, giving us 100 feet to light and shoot in, but still blocking the light from any other hatching turtles. This was far from an ideal scenario, and the fear of a turtle nest’s untimely appearance the morning before a big night scene was giving both Andrea and I major nightmares, but we realized this was our only option.
Jon suggested that I go through the script and turn as many night scenes as I could into day. Meanwhile, Andrea reshuffled her production schedule, which was already a complicated piece of work, to move all night beach shoots to the end of production.
We assumed then that this problem had been solved.
Our entire above the line crew are earth loving, environmentally friendly, Wal-Mart and McDonald’s banning, recycling type of people and none of us had an any intention of harming baby sea turtles, or any of the beautiful wildlife we had come to capture on film. That being said, we were going to shoot on the beach at night at all costs and certainly wouldn’t be stopped by town politics.
I sadly said goodbye to some of my favorite scenes. I’d love to say I did this gracefully, or that I made any script changes gracefully, but that would be a big fat lie. Your script has no boundaries except for those in your own imagination. But when it comes to turning a script into a film, suddenly you are up to your a*s in boundaries. These prehistoric sea creatures who weren’t even aware we were making movie in the first place were suddenly co-writing my script. They were unknowingly adding their energy into my vision and shaping the way this story was told. It’s cool to think about that in theory. But in practice, when scenes you carefully weave into your script have to be cut, regardless of the reason, it hurts like something is literally being ripped out of you.
At any rate, we thought we had solved the problem of Turtle Time Inc. We hadn’t solved a damn thing.
The day before we left for Florida, I faxed my paperwork to the film commissioner. She called me to say that everything was set for Collier County. Then she asked me how the permitting process was going for Bonita Springs?
I said “What do you mean? Isn’t this paperwork taking care of everything we’re shooting in Bonita Springs (aka, EVERY scene we were shooting on the beach)?”
She explained that Bonita Springs was actually in Lee County, not Collier County. To shoot on the beach there, we were going to need to go through an entirely different office. I asked what this meant in terms of the sea turtles, and of everything we’d done to be able to shoot on the beach at night. She said basically, it all meant nothing.
Maggie hadn’t realized that all our beach scenes were actually being filmed in Bonita Springs, and she warned me that this would most likely be a huge problem.
She also warned me that Turtle Time Inc was actually based in Lee County, where the organization and the town residence were exceptionally passionate about the sea turtles, to the point where they were referred to as “Turtle Czars.”
On the way down to Florida, the Lee County director of recreational services called me to, among other things, assure me there was no way to shoot on the beach at night. I told her that wasn’t an answer I was going to accept and surely there was someone I could talk to who would be as compromising as they were in Collier County. She gave me the number of Eve, the head “Czar” of Turtle Time Inc.
You could tell by the sound of Eve’s voice that there would be no negotiating. Doug made the mistake of telling her that I’d already talked to Mary in Environmental Services and we’d worked out a compromise. She said she didn’t believe it and hung up the phone.
About ten minutes later, Mary called me, in a very different mood. Clearly, she had just been chewed out by Turtle Time Inc, and now told me that all the negotiating we’d worked out had nothing to do with Bonita Springs. I reminded her that I had originally given her our address very clearly in Bonita Springs. She said that was an oversight on her part, but that she would not be able to help us, and that she resented our using her name to suggest that the conservation codes were negotiable. I asked her what she would do if she were me. She said she knew of a lake in Naples that was “De-Alligatored” on a daily basis where a lot of local children would swim and picnic. Perhaps we could shoot there instead. Hmmmm.
Somehow, I doubted this kiddie-pool lake was going to work as the great Gulf of Mexico. Also, De Alligatored? What did that even mean? Even the locals, who swam in the shark infested Gulf without a care in the world, stayed out of the lakes. Everyone was afraid of alligators. Unless they were draining the lake on an hourly basis, dragging out any alligators they found lurking on the bottom, and pumping the water back in, I was not comfortable putting any of our actors in a lake to splash around for hours in the middle of the night.
Thus began what turned into a 5 week ugly stressful and often laughable battle to shoot on the beach at night, the details of which will unfold as these blogs continue.