ST. PETE BEACH
Before sunrise Thursday, the Don CeSar Hotel's beachfront was transported to another time, another place.
Dozens of crew members for The Infiltrator, a $47.5 million production starring Bryan Cranston, assembled lighting reflectors and camera dolly tracks in a palm tree-shrouded walkway near the swimming pool. Extras were herded to waiting areas, dressed in 1980s beachwear.
A vintage telephone booth was installed at sand's edge, perhaps with a 305 area code — The Infiltrator has the Don posing as a Miami Beach resort.
When the sun came up, the star came out.
Cranston sat in a tall director's chair beneath an pool umbrella. He wore pastel slacks and white shirt, with a sport jacket and Panama hat ready. The Magnum P.I. moustache firmly placed the actor in the era that director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) seeks to recall.
The Emmy and Tony winner looked over his notes, amiably chatting with hotel employees about visiting the Don CeSar years ago.
"You've been here before?" one asked. "I've been everywhere, man," Cranston replied, a put-on smile creasing his face.
This time, the Breaking Bad star added his name Thursday to the hotel's registry of famed actors co-starring with the historic pink palace. Cranston joined the likes of Robert De Niro and James Woods (Once Upon a Time in America), James Garner (H.E.A.L.T.H.) and Ray Liotta (Forever Mine), with a movie that is likely to sell more tickets than any other filmed at the Don.
Cranston stars as Robert Mazur, a Tampa resident and former federal agent whose memoirs inspired the screenplay. Mazur is one of the film's producers and was on set Thursday as a technical adviser.
"I've come to learn this is not a documentary," Mazur said during a break in filming. "If people want the real story, fortunately for me, they'll have to read the book."
One obvious gaffe in The Infiltrator: At 5 feet 11, Cranston is several inches taller than the crime buster he's playing. "Everyone's taller than me," Mazur joked.
Cranston and co-star Said Taghmaoui performed several takes exiting the building and traversing the brick walkway toward the pool, carrying on scripted conversation. Taghmaoui plays Amjad Awan, an international banker laundering drug money, who became Mazur's connection to the cartel. "He was the key, really, to bringing me within the inner circle of (the conspiracy)," Mazur said.
Production on The Infiltrator started Wednesday, a day earlier than expected, at Tampa's shipyard, where a cargo ship needed to be filmed before it sailed.
"Kind of a dress rehearsal for us," production manager Carla Alcoin said. "We had to fly some actors in at the last minute. … It was a crucial scene, so we had John Leguizamo fly in, and we got the shot. It went off great. … It allowed us today to come in even more prepared."
Leguizamo is also scheduled to perform his one-man show Latin History for Dummies (A Work in Progress) this weekend at Improv Comedy Theater in Ybor City.
Filming was halted briefly during Thursday's morning rain. Later, the Don's pool deck and spa terrace were used for filming.
The production also was slated to film in the afternoon at the nearby Dolphin Beach Resort, with Cranston's Mazur confiding to his wife, played by Juliet Aubrey (The Constant Gardener).
Alcoin estimated her Florida crew includes "at least 125 local crew members," after spending six weeks shooting in England, which, through movie magic, is subbing for Florida.
"That's a fantastic number," she said. "We do have people who came in from England for continuity reasons, so we have a lot of hotel room nights (booked). It's pumping a lot into the (Tampa Bay) economy."
St. Petersburg-Clearwater film commissioner Tony Armer scanned the set activity, satisfied that long negotiations to bring The Infiltrator to Tampa Bay are paying off. "There's so much lead time on these; you talk to people for months and months ahead of time," Armer said. "When it finally happens, it's good stuff."
Armer's Hillsborough County counterpart, Dale Gordon, said her agency has worked on landing The Infiltrator "since my first day on the job," nearly two years ago. Gordon said The Infiltrator's production team has been uncommonly collaborative, even asking her what part of Tampa she would prefer showcased.
"I said Tampa Theatre, because that's probably our most iconic location," Gordon said. "Not only did they agree … but then they went in and saw how magnificent it is, and now they wrote a scene for it." Gordon wouldn't comment on when that scene will be filmed.
The Infiltrator is scheduled for release in 2016.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.