tampabay.com

A hit man? Here?

Tampa streets (maybe even yours) are playing a part in the production of an independent thriller.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008


If it hasn't already, it may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you: The Messenger, a low-budget indie thriller, and the New Jersey film company behind it.

High-profile spots throughout Tampa have transformed into the backdrop of a hit man's struggle between good and evil. Crews put a woman inside a tank at the Florida Aquarium. They turned the Cuban Club in Ybor City into a poker joint. They planned to shoot in Oaklawn Cemetery, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Picnic Island.

And on a recent Wednesday, they sent a shiny, black BMW careening through a quiet neighborhood in East Tampa.

Gene Simmons no, not the Kiss guy sat outside his home at 17th Avenue and 52nd Street that day and watched the BMW stop abruptly in front of a crossing guard, who directed a group of children across the street. In scenes to come, the car would take off and narrowly miss an oncoming truck.

"About time something happened around here," Simmons said.

How did a New Jersey company end up shooting a movie in Tampa?

Some first-class persuasion from the Tampa Bay Film Commission, whose main goal is to get movies filmed in Tampa.

Local film shoots mean crew members stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants and spend cash on equipment at our stores, said commission manager Lindsey Norris.

So at last year's Gasparilla Film Festival, the commission put together a field trip for filmmakers, showing all the possible backdrops around the city.

P.J. Leonard, a producer who had just won the festival's audience award for his movie The Immaculate Misconception, told the commission he would be back. Less than a year later, he is, with the rest of his company and crew.

The weather here in January is more hospitable to outdoor shooting than it is in New Jersey, he said. The neighborhoods are diverse, and there's no competition from other film companies over locations.

On top of all that, the commission makes it easy for film crews once they get here, showing a catalogue of potential locations in Tampa, acting as a liaison with local government agencies, offering a one-stop permit for shooting throughout the city and helping find accommodations.

"I cannot believe there's not more people down here shooting," Leonard said. "The only thing L.A. has that you don't have would be mountains."

But so far, Tampa's best-known modern claims to fame have been John Travolta's 2004 movie The Punisher and the 1993 Burt Reynolds kid flick Cop and a Half.

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"We're really trying to revitalize this market now," Norris said. "We're really trying to update Tampa's image in that way, to make it more attractive as a feature film destination."

Most recently she's proud of Grace is Gone, shot partly in Tampa, which starred John Cusack and won the Sundance Film Festival's audience and screen writing awards in 2007.

Locally produced films like The Messenger mean that bay area talent doesn't have to travel far and can work on more than commercials and infomercials.

For Yola Taylor of Riverview, it's a chance for her 6-year-old son Andrew to be an extra.

For stuntman Jesse Toler of New Tampa, it means he doesn't have to drive down to Miami to spin out a car in a movie.

And for University of Tampa sophomores Kelsey Stroop and Anthony Rosa, it means three internship credits and lessons in terminology and shooting etiquette they haven't learned yet in the classroom.

Other Side of the River Productions, which is making The Messenger, took on five UT film majors and some students from the International Academy of Design & Technology to help on the shoots.

They wear headsets, set up locations, facilitate transportation and relay messages to crew members.

For many, it's their first movie.

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Cristina Gutierrez and her mother, Carmela Romano, walked two blocks from their East Tampa home to watch the filming that day. They stuck around because they heard a rumor: The guy from Prison Break was in the car.

No guy from Prison Break, producer Leonard said. And no high-profile Hollywood stars, either.

Lead actor Sonny Marinelli's resume consists mostly of one or two appearances on television shows. He also appeared in the 2004 Christmas film Noel, starring Susan Sarandon, Paul Walker and Penelope Cruz.

Mark Margolis is a bad guy - he played Alberto the Shadow in Scarface. And good guy Obba Babatunde was Lamarr the door man in That Thing You Do and was nominated for an Emmy for his supporting role in 1997 TV miniseries Miss Evers' Boys.

In the movie, a boy with a saintly mother and an abusive father grows up to be a criminal but finds refuge in a church. He struggles between established codes of honor and finding freedom and salvation.

"It's exciting," Romano said. "It takes so much to film one scene."

Romano and her daughter were excited to see the crews take interest in their neighborhood. Romano had never seen a movie filmed before. The crew plans to shoot scenes for The Messenger through Feb. 23 and doesn't expect to close any major streets.

A man with a long white beard watched the action from a plastic lawn chair in his front yard.

"They really need to stage on private land," Jack Wilkerson said, complaining about the three police cars closing off the intersection of the residential street.

Even so, he had been sitting outside, watching the scene for four hours. He held a camcorder steady by propping his foot up on a plastic bucket. What would he do with his video footage?

"TMZ," he said. "How 'bout that?"

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or 226-3354.



Tampa

Hell Harbor, 1930 (Rocky Point); A Guy Named Joe, 1944; and Strategic Air Command, 1955 starring ,Jimmy Stewart (MacDill Air Force Base).



Pinellas County

Cocoon, 1985 (St. Petersburg, Clearwater). , Movie director Ron Howard talks with actors Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche in front of the Snell Arcade.



Pasco County

Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder starred in Edward Scissorhands, 1990 (Dade City, Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel).

 

Tampa Bay area backdrops

Here are a few locally shot films you may remember.