The big-budget blockbuster next door: Ca' d'Zan mansion transformed into Hollywood studio

All photos courtesy of Martin Steele

“Places, everyone,” the director, a portly Australian man in a yellow baseball cap, barked to the bleary-eyed crowd of tuxedo-clad extras. “Make sure everyone’s accounted for … anyone who shouldn’t be on set right now, get out of the shot!”

I couldn’t help but feel like this last remark was directed at me; still, I stuck around, careful to stay out of his line of sight.

The clock on the wall indicated that it was well after midnight and several of the older folks in the room attempted to stifle a yawn. “Energy, people,” an authoritative voice shouted from the balcony. “ENERGY!”

After a few more instructions were gruffly delivered, the extras began to chatter and mill about, preparing for the scene to begin in medias res. A production assistant held up what has to be the prop most evocative of the classic Hollywood atmosphere – a black-and-white clapboard emblazoned in bold face with “PARKER” – to the camera. “ACTION!” the director shouted as the assistant clapped the board, performing the iconic scene-starting gesture.

The experience may have felt like a scene pulled straight out of a Hollywood studio, but the action all took place right in New College’s backyard. From Wednesday, Sept. 28 to Friday, Sept. 30, the Ringling Museum’s Ca’ d’Zan mansion was transformed into a full-fledged movie set, mimicking the site of a high-society auction (and immediately thereafter, true to the style of an action-packed blockbuster, a massive explosion and daring jewel heist) for the upcoming movie Parker. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the film, starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte and directed by Taylor Hackford, is a $30 million crime thriller set to hit American theaters on Oct. 12, 2012.

According to various crew members on the set, as of Wednesday night, most of the filming had already taken place in and around the West Palm Beach area and thus the film’s top-billed stars wouldn’t be coming to Sarasota, but the Ca’ d’Zan provided the ideal picturesque setting for some of the movie’s background shots (not to mention a waterfront balcony crucial to a scene involving a narrow scuba-diving escape). To help give the scene the life and character it needed, the producers hired Orlando-based R.J.’s Casting, Inc. to appeal to Sarasota locals to participate in the movie-making experience.

According an online Sarasota Herald-Tribune article published on Friday, Sept. 23, individuals interested in a “fleeting moment of feature film fame” had the opportunity to send a head shot and contact information to – specifically, the company was seeking approximately 200 “glam extras,” hoping for “high-end, wealthy-looking ‘Palm Beach’ types ages 30 to 70.” They also sought “12 pretty women and 12 handsome young men” to play caterers, an assortment of “preferably real” musicians and several “fit,” “clean-cut” men “with strong looks” to play firemen, police officers and security guards.

A number of Catalyst staffers, myself included, opted to apply, but regrettably, none of us seemed to fit the bill. Not to be daunted by rejection, I, accompanied by fellow staff writer Daniel Ducassi, with the permission of a production crew member (who wished to remain anonymous for safety’s sake), quietly paid a visit to the filming site on Wednesday night.

Dressed in Oxford shirts and ties, the two of us blended right in as catering extras, giving us ample room to mill about with the idle cast and crew outside the mansion, every angle of which was flooded with light from scattered generators. Multiple limousines were lined up in the roundabout – I secretly hoped one might be carrying J-Lo or Statham, but alas, they were just there for show. As we chatted with our chaperon, he occasionally shot a furtive look towards the open front door of the mansion, hoping the director wasn’t giving us the evil eye, and reminded us that we only had 15 to 20 minutes before “someone started asking questions.”

After several minutes, an impatient shout echoed from inside the building, giving the cast and crew their cue to file in. Urging us to follow quickly and closely, our chaperon took us around to the back entrance, holding up his walkie-talkie as if to look perfectly busy.

On the way to the back door, we passed a few cigarette-smoking extras, receiving puzzled looks, and a giant white weather balloon tethered to the railing. Curious, I asked our escort about it. “Oh, that’s going to be the moon,” he said. “Yeah, they’ll float it up there and light it up.”

After slipping in, we weaved through an intricate maze of dislocated furniture and velvet ropes, ending up being parked right between a camera and a table filled with a floral arrangement and 200 champagne flutes filled with ginger ale (just for show).

“Shit, they’re going to knock these over,” our chaperon cursed, realizing that the crowd of extras, panicking and flooding down the exit lanes in the wake of a fiery explosion, was going to brush right past the table. As we ducked out of the director’s sight behind the massive flowerpot, the crew member scrambled to push all of the glasses to the middle of the table in the moments before the shot began.

A couple minutes later came the call of “action,” after we’d been shuffled around to various hiding places while the director prowled around the set. The room was eerily silent as an elderly woman at the front of the room spoke her lines – everyone knew full well about the chaos that was about to erupt, but did their best to pretend they didn’t, all for the sake of a well-acted scene.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait long.

“BANG!” a booming voice, presumably the director’s, screamed all of a sudden, causing the extras to abandon their plush velvet seats and run, shrieking, for the exit. The vocal cue was meant to fill in for the aforementioned explosion, which would later be added in with the help of CGI and post-production movie magic – the result at the time was hysterical in several senses of the word, as I couldn’t shake the image of the room’s inhabitants as incredibly timid folk scared senseless by a loud noise, a mere representation of the fiery, life-threatening concept it was supposed to embody.

Presumably, the theatrical cut will produce a rather different emotional response.

As the old folks drifted past us, some still hamming it up despite being off camera, our chaperon gave us the cue to make good our escape. Using the crowd as cover, he led us out the way we came in, briskly escorting us back to the boundary line between Ringling and New College. We said our thank-yous and goodbyes, promised to see the film when it comes out and returned to our lives as mild-mannered Catalyst reporters and NCF students.

I may not have gotten my 15 minutes of fame in front of the camera, but as far as I’m concerned, the experience was still a surreal shot of unadulterated Hollywood movie-magic. That’s a wrap!

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