Betty Lane is usually a quiet Clearwater street in the mornings, where neighbors walk dogs, children ride bikes and golfers swing on the 11th fairway of a course across the street.
Monday morning was different, with the hustle and bustle of a major Hollywood production moving in for the day.
Dolphin Tale, a 3D feature film based on the true-life saga of Winter the bottlenose dolphin, began principal photography in the back yard of 500 Betty Lane, owned by Richard and Helen DiGesare, who'll probably make an exception to their movie-going habits when Dolphin Tale debuts in 2011.
"I can count on one hand how many times we've been out to the movies since we met," Richard DiGesare said, "and we've been married 43 years."
Helen DiGesare greeted the first wave of Dolphin Tale crew members at 5:45 a.m. and guided them to what attracted location scouts to her doorstep.
"They wanted a large pool with a big back yard without a screen," she said, declining to reveal the compensation for using her home. "My understanding is that they found our location on Google Earth."
By 7:30 a.m., eight large trucks packed with filmmaking equipment lined the street outside the DiGesare home, with an additional base camp of vans and campers parked nearby at the Clearwater Country Club.
The first day's filming was devoted to a poolside barbecue in honor of Kyle (Austin Stowell), a friend of Dolphin Tale young hero Sawyer (Nathan Gamble). Later, the project's co-star Ashley Judd was scheduled to join the filming, playing Sawyer's mother Lorraine. The set was closed to outsiders, so executive producer Bob Engelman set the scene for reporters waiting in the front yard.
"This is the scene where we meet a lot of our actors," Engelman said. "Sawyer and Kyle have a little bit of dialogue. It really sets up Lorraine and her sister Alice (played by local actor Kim Ostrenko), and really sets up a lot of the tone for the film."
Engelman said Monday's 12-hour work schedule will probably result in two minutes of actual screen time.
Only the DiGesares' back yard will be seen in the movie. Interior shots will be filmed on converted soundstages because 3D cameras are too large to fit inside most real houses.
"Probably my biggest concern is the weather," Engelman said. "Florida weather is very unpredictable. It rains a lot, and obviously that is a major problem for us that we'll have to deal with."
Weather concerns include not only rain but overcast skies. By midmorning Monday, developing clouds led to preparation of a "Condor," a 16-ton crane with a giant flood light attached. The Condor was driven over a path of 1-inch thick plywood spread on the DiGesares' lawn to reduce the chances of turf damage (although a sprinkler head immediately got crunched).
"This is what we'll use in case clouds come over in the late afternoon, so we can create the effect of sunlight," Engelman said.
Dolphin Tale uses Winter's true story of rescue and rehabilitation at Clearwater Marine Aquarium as a springboard for a family-friendly drama starring Judd, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman (who'll arrive for his scenes next month) and Harry Connick Jr., who is expected within the next two weeks.
Alcon Entertainment hasn't revealed the budget according to company policy, but such casting and the fact that Dolphin Tale is being filmed in 3D suggests a hefty bankroll.
Several Pinellas County locations, including the aquarium where Winter lives, will be used for the 10-week shoot. Tuesday will be spent at the Long Center recreation complex filming a swim meet. Over the next week, Engelman said, a local school, another neighborhood and several beaches will be used as locations before production moves almost entirely to the aquarium.
Betty Lane should be back to normal by then.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.