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  1. Florida

Lights, camera, action: Here’s how St. Petersburg homes played a feature role in new movies.

As the Tampa Bay area becomes a more frequent filmmaking destination, residents provide behind-the-scenes help.
Irma Lunderman poses in her Old Southeast home. The interior and exterior of her house was used in the Hallmark movie, True Love Blooms. SCOTT KEELER I Tampa Bay Times
Published May 1
Updated May 1

Irma Lunderman opened her door one February afternoon to find a note tied to the doorknob.

What she expected was some sort of scam. Try out our pool business, maybe, or let us mow your lawn.

What she found was surprising. ‘We’re interested in having the exterior of your home in a movie.’

She brought the note to her husband and they both scrutinized the flyer in disbelief, putting it on the countertop and reading it again. They stopped to consider the offer before coming to a swift decision.

“No, no,” they said, laughing.

***

In the last three months, the Tampa Bay area has become a sort of filmmaking destination.

It started with the February shoot of Hallmark romantic flick True Love Blooms, a tale of a woman whose community garden is threatened by a condo developer. Do they butt heads and eventually fall in love? It’s possible.

A film crew follows actor Sara Rue who stars in a Hallmark Original Movie of the Week called Garden Party, along 5th Street South. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Then Hallmark announced that they were considering making as many as eight films in the Tampa Bay area in the next year. Within a month, they had brought another create-conflict-then-fall-in-love film to St. Petersburg, with scenes shot in downtown and at Fort De Soto Park.

Just as the second Hallmark film wrapped, another independent film began shooting in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast. That movie, a thriller entitled I Saw a Man with Yellow Eyes about a teenager struggling with schizophrenia, brought stars Katherine Heigl and Harry Connick, Jr. to the area.

Local filmmaking presence is nowhere more apparent than the block between First and Second Street North on Seventh Avenue North. Here, trucks line the right side of the street and a row of cars is directly to their left, seemingly making it difficult for residents to park. Orange traffic cones create a barrier between passersby and film staff.

Filming for a movie is taking place at 640 and 656 1st Street N and on 6th Ave N and 7th Ave N. DIRK SHADD | Times

A white flyer in block black letters offers an explanation: “Local residents of this block only."

The road’s partial closure could be seen as an inconvenience to neighbors shuttling to work or walking their dogs. It’s certainly been a source of curiosity in the neighborhood. But many of those around the block on a Monday afternoon were happy to welcome the film guests to their neighborhood.

A post from neighborhood forum Nextdoor from someone asking about the Old Northeast shoot. Photo from Nextdoor

Eric Kent has lived on Seventh Avenue for three years, one of a few occupants in an apartment building. He works as a painter, so he’s home for much of the day. He watched the film crew set up with interest. One day, he was even milling about nearby and ended up as an extra in a scene.

The St. Petersburg-Clearwater Film Commission actually has a database of locations, public and private, that producers can consider for their latest project. Residents contact film commissioners for a listing in the database. Then the commission will send someone to take pictures of the house, said film commissioner Tony Armer.

Their database holds 445 locations. Of the top 20 viewed locations, nine of those are private residences. About 78 percent of those who write in asking for more information specifically mention private locations.

“It’s kind of like the value of when we see one of our beautiful beaches or downtown St. Pete in a movie, it’s, ‘That’s my hometown. How cool is that?” Armer said. “People feel the same way about their home. ‘That’s my house. See that furniture? They loved it for the movie.’ It’s a sense of pride.”

In the case of the Old Northeast film shoot, production companies generally notify residents before they come into the neighborhood. They give letters to the residents that say: We’re coming to the neighborhood. Here’s how to contact us.

One resident spent Monday afternoon trekking between her apartment’s laundry room and her apartment. Danielle Sibilio said the nearby film shoot had had minimal impact on her.

“I haven’t heard any complaints,” Sibilio said. “I don’t think they’ve been bothering anybody.”

***

Irma Lunderman’s house sits on a quaint corner in the Old Southeast. The sea-foam green, two-story home is accented with white paneling. A bright yellow door centers its porch. Flowers with pops of pink and green surround the front.

A few hours after finding the note offering her house the opportunity to be a film set, a man showed up at Lunderman’s door.

“This is a Hallmark movie,” he told her. “The exterior of your home is very beautiful. We’d like to use it.”

Irma Lunderman poses in her living room in the Old Southeast Neighborhood, St. Petersburg. SCOTT KEELER | Times

As he walked into her newly remodeled house, he saw its airiness, the way light streamed in through windows scattered around the house, the open layout. He climbed the stairs to their bedroom that contained a side nook and sloped ceilings.

“This is perfect for the bedroom scene,” he told her.

But all Lunderman would say was: “Well, you know, we’ll give it some thought.”

The master bedroom of Irma Lunderman's home in the Old Southeast neighborhood, St. Petersburg, was used in the Hallmark movie True Love Blooms. SCOTT KEELER | Times

It took a phone call with assistant location manager Cathy Bigham to fully convert her. On the phone, Bigham called the house the “perfect place” to shoot and assured her that damage to her home was unlikely.

“When you go looking for a house, you’re looking first for that exterior style. You get a feel of what you think the inside is going to look like,” Bigham said in a later interview. “When we first went in, we realized that it was roomy and had just been remodeled. We weren’t looking for something brand new--we knew we could dress it either to be more homey or more modern.”

A meeting with production staff, including the director and producer, led the Lundermans to sign a contract.

The house’s role would earn them some money: $500 each for set-up and take-down and $1,500 for the day of shooting.

***

On the morning of filming, the Lundermans awoke to the sounds of caterers in their backyard.

The backyard of Irma Lunderman's house was set up for caterers during a day of shooting for the Hallmark film, True Love Blooms. Photo courtesy of Irma Lunderman.

The night before, production staff removed much of the Lundermans’ furniture to create a sort of blank canvas. They took away their table and art pieces and placed them in a truck stationed outside of the house.

At around 5:45 in the morning, Irma Lunderman peered out of her window to see trucks and vans on the street and tables set up in the yard for actors to take a break and enjoy their meals.

By mid-morning, there were at least 60 people in Lunderman’s house, she said. The staff set up a chair for her in the front of her house and she watched as the cast shot scenes at a table in her dining room.

A look at the filming of Hallmark film, True Love Blooms, which filmed in part at Old Southeast resident Irma Lunderman's house. Photo courtesy of Irma Lunderman.

Lunderman’s house features prominently in the film. Her bedroom serves as the waking-up shot for the main character, played by Sara Rue. Her house’s exterior is Rue’s mother’s house and the inside of the bottom floor would be the interior of Rue’s best friend’s house, Bigham said.

Each time a scene began, it was punctuated with a loud call of “Rolling,” she said. Then there was complete silence.

Although Lunderman was fascinated by the process, she was immune to certain elements of the filming. When her neighbor found out that Sara Rue was in the Hallmark movie, she practically burst into tears. For her part, Lunderman hadn’t fully realized who Sara Rue was.

When the crew came to take away the furniture and trinkets they had filled the house with, they offered to clean the house to return it to its former state. Lunderman laughed. They had covered the floors and stairs with a heavy cardboard. There was almost nothing to clean.

The floors and staircase of Irma Lunderman's house were covered with a heavy cardboard for filming. Photo courtesy of Irma Lunderman

“If you want to clean the bathrooms, go right ahead,” Lunderman told them.

Before the film aired in early April, Lunderman issued a warning to her family and friends: My house will look different, she told them. The art’s not there.

Lunderman still has not seen the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film. She admits that it was strange seeing on screen a house that looked just like hers but had different finishing touches.

But when she saw little details that belonged to her, like the barstools or the counter, she recognized them. It felt sort of like home.

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