WEEKI WACHEE — Since swimming star Esther Williams and comedy sidekick Red Skelton brought national fame to Weeki Wachee Springs in the 1949 film Neptune's Daughter, myriad movies shot at the City of Live Mermaids have enraptured audiences with fantasy-like, sequin-tailed ballerinas dancing in crystal-clear underwater scenes.
But a recent weekend's production of a festival-bound short film has local connections like no other, said park spokesman John Athanason.
With the working title Winding Waters, the story was written and the filming directed by Chris Fickley, a former theater and drama teacher at Springstead and Hernando high schools.
The lead role is played by Ocala native and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader Brooke Newton, a notable actor in the soap All My Children.
Current mermaids schooled Newton in rudimentary elements of underwater performance. And local residents with film production experience joined the working crew of 15.
"All the cast is from Florida or lived here," said Fickley, who moved to Los Angeles a year ago.
"We're always told to write what we know," Fickley said between shootings.
He grew up in Brooksville, graduated in 1993 from Hernando High and taught locally for 10 years. For him, mermaids were part of his upbringing.
Winding Waters — a literal translation of the American Indian "Weeki Wachee" — "is kind of the journey of our lead," Fickley explained. "Her life is a bit of winding waters. She's a mermaid here (at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park), with a child. She's trying to put her life together and not very successful at it. She gets a chance to go to Vegas to perform. She's torn between life as she knows it and what she's always wanted."
The three days of filming, beginning at 6 a.m. daily, will be edited down to 12 minutes, Fickley said.
A reporter's visit to the set revealed the reasons for the long hours. Costumers, sound techs and film-monitoring people constantly intervened as Fickley directed.
"Is the white shirt okay?"
"Where's a script?"
"Is it all right if the monitors go this way, or should they go that way?"
"Where do you want lunch? In that pavilion?"
Shooting what will end up as maybe a one-minute appearance in the film by the lead's young daughter required a half-dozen shoots over some 20 minutes at the springs' theater window.
The shooting was punctuated by repeated calls for "more bubbles!"
The daughter was portrayed by two 3-year-olds, one of whose performance will end up on the cutting-room floor.
"We're constantly busy," Fickley said.
Many of the cast and crew members volunteered their time, Fickley noted. Still, the production will carry a price tag of about $24,000, he said, $11,700 of that already contributed by 181 backers he rounded up.
"The majority of expense is getting here, from L.A. and New York, and staying here," Fickley said.
He plans to enter the film in festival competitions next year: Sundance in Park City, Utah, in January; South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in March; and an Oscar-qualifying festival in Orlando in April.
Of his current production, Fickley said: "It's more compact than what I'm planning for a feature (film)." He said he would like to continue making movies that are set at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Sketching his career, the 38-year-old Fickley said, "I wanted to be an actor, but I ended up teaching instead. When I was teaching, I discovered that I enjoyed directing, helping actors."
While teaching, from 2001 to 2011, he co-wrote and directed Gunfight at LaMesa, distributed in 2010 by Lionsgate Entertainment Corp.
"It was fun to walk into Walmart and buy your own movie," Fickley said.
He directed another movie, Date Night, that made the big screen in 2012.
Fickley noted that he has received help in recent years from friends and people with whom he went to school and college. He reconnected with many of those during the filming this month at Weeki Wachee Springs.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]