Reeling in the Sunshine state

'Basic' crew takes extra steps to double Florida

“When a film set is ‘doubled’ to look like another area of the country, or the world, for that matter, attention to detail is paramount,” said location manager Mitch Harbeson.

When lensing on a film was skedded for within days of 9/11, the challenge was even greater.

“Basic,” with John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Connie Nielsen, was set to film on location in Panama, where the story was set, but after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Harbeson’s team had to immediately refocus its approach from an international to a domestic setting.

The plot demanded a location that provided a barrier from local residents that would, in effect, keep the “peace” during several months of filming machine gun firefight scenes amid a set-created hurricane.

To keep the search interesting, the crew also needed to duplicate an old Army military base in Panama City, Panama, for the new domestic location. Harbeson’s team found Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., which boasted a closed military base surrounded by several thousand acres, including a large area of Water Oaks that would retain its greenery during the winter months.

Working the area, part of the Florida wetlands, efficiently and safely during night hours required building a road that would surround the set and was also strong enough to support production trucks during Florida’s heavy rainfall.

The crew had to be mindful of preserving the local environment and minimizing the impact of production.

“We had to be very careful how this road was cut into the dense tropical vegetation and forest,” said Harbeson. “Prevention of senseless tree cutting and trimming had to balance with a road designed not to impact camera sight lines during filming.”

Florida’s flatter topography differs from Panama. To create the jungles, hills and valleys, the team placed 120 truckloads of dirt into the area forming the necessary undulation and added two truckloads of plant life.

“This was only permitted by the (Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection) because of my guarantee that I would not introduce foreign soil or water into the area and that it would be brought back to its original condition, within an inch,” Harbeson explained.

His past experience working with the department bolstered their confidence all would go as planned.

Next, the crew faced the daunting task of generating an on-demand hurricane. To do so required hiding numerous water hoses and large turbine wind fans, drilling well points around the set — and ordering soil and water tests to ensure the safety of the crew.

Working closely with the military was necessary as well because the film’s location was near an airstrip where pilots were being trained for deployment in the Middle East. Balloon lighting was employed to prevent dangerous distractions for military aircraft.

Harbeson’s team had just two weeks to accomplish this task before the next mission: bringing the old military base back to life, which required restoring the sewage, water and power that had been severed for demolition purposes, among other things.

“After that, we attached generators to all the buildings,” Harbeson recalled. “It was a beautiful thing that night when we did our first light test.”

Several years later, Harbeson was once again navigating locations in his native Florida, this time for production of HBO telepic “Recount.”

Securing locations required the assistance of the supervisor of elections, committee leaders, the governor and mayor. Harbeson made certain he always got the political parties in front of the conversations while being careful to edit his personal opinions.

Florida’s fondness for college and pro football meant planning the film’s large public scenes around the games and acquiring permission to reroute the century-plus-old Florida A&M U. homecoming parade. In addition, Harbeson’s team was the first film production unit ever allowed into the Florida Supreme Court.

“Regardless of what jersey people wore, Democrat or Republican, Floridians wanted to be a part of this film and represented the film well,” said Harbeson.

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