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The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


(May 2006) As film production expands in New England, thanks to reduced shooting and development costs, tax benefits and unique locations, I continue to be pleasantly surprised with the talent base residing within our little part of the world. Rhode Island is going full-throttle right now. From “Waterfront,” “The Brotherhood” and Disney’s “Underdog,” the Ocean State is abuzz with activity. Two of my students are discovering firsthand how films are shot—one actually given a critical speaking part and learning what benefits come with being a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild.

How are these films developed and what goes into their production? How do local actors get cast? Let’s look at a case study of a film recently released: “AQUAMARINE.” Developed by 20th Century Fox, the film stars Massachusetts resident, Sara Paxton. Opening March 3rd, 2006, the film garnered moderate reviews and generated $18,241,382 during its first 38 days of release. It’s future looks solid for DVD and cable release and it will probably fare well with international distribution. It will definitely open more doors for its young star..


Sara Paxton (the title star of “AQUAMARINE”) currently headlines as ‘Darcy’ in the hit NBC family comedy “Darcy’s Wild Life,” a Saturday afternoon series from the creator of “Lizzie McGuire.” Ms. Paxton, who contributes the song “Connected” to the “AQUAMARINE” soundtrack, sings two songs on the “Darcy’s Wild Life” soundtrack album and has recorded a solo album.

On the big screen, the actress has been seen in such films as “Liar Liar,” “Soldier,” “Music From Another Room,” “Durango Kids,” “Perfect Game,” and “Sleepover.” She also appeared in Joe Dante’s 4-D film experience “Haunted Lighthouse,” for Sea World Adventure Parks.

And yes, she is in demand and always working. Ms. Paxton’s TV credits include the tele-films “Gepetto” and “Hounded;” she’s a regular role on the WB series “Greetings From Tucson;” she shot a pilot remake of “Mr. Ed” for Fox; and has recurring roles on shows like “Action,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” and “Summerland.” She also appeared in episodes of “Working,” “Passions,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “CSI: Miami,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Will & Grace,” and “Quintuplets.”

Did I mention that she’s all of 17 years old?

When Sara Paxton was cast last year to star in the new Fox movie, AQUAMARINE, a comedy-fantasy in which she stars as the mermaid, little did this rising young star know what kind of whirlwind year would follow. She co-stars alongside Emma Roberts and JoJo,
Beyond the critical acclaim, Ms. Paxton’s role on “Darcy’s Wild Life” has spawned a CD soundtrack released by BMG last May featuring two solos, and a 12-book publishing deal by Penguin Books that launched during October 2005. Ms. Paxton has worked with some of Hollywood’s leading actors, including Jim Carrey, Debbie Reynolds, Leah Thompson, Cindy Williams, Sherilynn Fenn and Sherman Helmsley, to name a few.

Ms. Paxton also has a deal with Epic records to release her first solo album. You can check out all of this news at www.sarapaxton.com

Oh yes, she began her acting career at age 6 in a Coca-Cola commercial.


“AQUAMARINE” is the story of Claire (EMMA ROBERTS) and Hailey (JOANNA “JOJO” LEVESQUE), two 13-year-old best friends who embark on the adventure of their lives when they discover a mermaid (SARA PAXTON) named Aquamarine in a swimming pool.


Aquamarine had washed ashore after a big storm battered the small town Florida beach club where Claire lives with her grandparents. Claire and Hailey are trying to come to terms with Hailey’s impending departure: She’s moving to Australia with her marine biologist mother after this last weekend of the summer.

The beautiful, blue-haired, 18-year-old mermaid swam away from home just before her arranged marriage, in search of real love. If she can prove to her father that love is not a myth, he’ll let her out of the underwater wedding, but he’s only giving her three days. Aqua enlists the help of Claire and Hailey, who are self-styled relationship experts—educated from the pages of magazines that they read and quote daily.

The girls hope that as long as Aquamarine can keep her land legs and avoid sprouting her massive, mythological tail, everyone will see their wishes come true. More importantly, they learn some important lessons about the power of friendship, the true magic of love – and the importance of standing on your own two feet.


The journey of “AQUAMARINE” began with the novel by the acclaimed author Alice Hoffman, whose other books Practical Magic and Here on Earth had previously been adapted for the screen. Fox 2000, which owned the rights to Hoffman’s book, sent a copy of it, along with a preliminary screenplay, to director Elizabeth Allen. Though Allen had not yet directed a feature, according to their own press book, the studio was impressed with her award-winning short film “Eyeball Eddie,” and had been looking for a project to collaborate on.

Allen immediately sparked to the material. “I was so inspired by the story, it really spoke to me,” says Allen. “I thought it would be wonderful to explore the relationship between the best friends, and to watch these girls embrace their individuality and learn to take pride in who they are.

“I was also excited by the unique, visual potential of the story. It was a chance to do something we really don’t see on screen too often, especially in movies aimed at teenage girls. In fact, it seemed like the kind of movie I would’ve wanted to see at that age!”

Once Ms. Allen finished developing the “AQUAMARINE” script she started to explore casting, beginning with who would play best friends Hailey and Claire. The first two girls brought in to audition were Emma Roberts and Joanna “JoJo” Levesque.

“They just blew us away,” recalls Allen. “Everyone in casting at Fox was incredulous, used to spending months and months trying to find the perfect young actresses for a role. In one fell swoop, with one audition, we found our leads.”

Casting Aqua, the sexy mermaid who turns Hailey’s and Claire’s world upside down, was a longer process. It took several months to find someone with just the right combination of beauty, freshness, and nutty comic ability to play the magical woman of the sea. Enter Sara Paxton.

The filmmakers faced several challenges when selecting the shooting locations. Production was restricted to Emma Roberts’s and Sara Paxton’s February-to-May television series hiatuses, so it was impossible to shoot the summer-set story in the script’s original Northeastern U.S. setting.


Locations all over the country, including sites in Louisiana, Florida, and California, were scouted to accommodate the scheduling issue, but ultimately the perfect spot was found halfway around the world, in Australia.

The continent’s Gold Coast, as scenic and adaptable as it was, looked too tropical to double for, say, Massachusetts, so the filmmakers changed the story’s American location to Tampa Bay. This meant recreating Florida’s Gulf Coast in Australia, specifically the sleepy beach town of Tallebudgera, Queensland, which is located about 45 minutes south of Brisbane.


Certainly one of the biggest challenges was the costuming creation of Aquamarine’s tail, a task undertaken by Jason Baird’s Gold Coast-based company JMB FX Studio, which had previously worked on the two “Matrix” sequels; “Star Wars: Episode Two – Attack of the Clones;” and “House of Wax.”

“The tail had to be very realistic,” says Baird, “an extension of Aquamarine herself; sleek and sexy, yet subtle and delicate in movement.”

JMB FX Studio created a tail simulating real fish scales with a sleek line that hugged the natural curves of the female body. Unlike any mermaid tail ever seen on the big screen, over 5000 individual scales were hand-painted and hand-laid on each of four tails required for filming (including the “hero” tail, worn only by Sara Paxton; a stunt tail; a skirt section for upper body shots; and an animatronic tail that moved more fluidly and gracefully than the hero tail).

Each tail was designed to fulfill the requirements of specific scenes. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Aquamarine performs back flips in the air, to the delight of Claire and Hailey. To create this effect, the JMB FX team built a rotating rig onto which Paxton, as well as the animatronic tail, was strapped. The actress and her “tail” were then filmed in the studio against a green screen with the animatronic portion remotely operated by puppeteers.

Of course, the person who was most “connected”--literally and figuratively--to the animatronic tail was Sara Paxton, who plays free-spirited mermaid Aquamarine. Each day the actress would have her “tail” glued-in, which necessitated her being carried by stretcher from the prosthetics bus to the set. This was on top of the many hours it took in hair, make-up, and costumes to become a mermaid.

Though it was a grueling process, Paxton took it in stride.

“This may sound weird, but growing up, I always wanted to be a mermaid,” says Paxton. “I don’t know, maybe it was because of how often I watched the movie “The Little Mermaid.” My cousins and I would play in my pool and pretend we were mermaids. Playing Aqua, I got to have blue hair and a blue tail, so how cool is that?”

GTM: You began your acting career at age 6 with a Coca Cola commercial; what drew you into this profession?

Sara Paxton: When I was little, I used to model clothes for my Aunt’s clothing store. One day my cousin got her picture in the paper for modeling and so I got really jealous. I decided I had to take acting lessons for fun. Then after booking my first commercial for Coca-Cola, I knew I wanted to keep acting because it was something I really liked to do.

GTM: How did it feel to you when you went in front of the cameras for the first time?

Sara Paxton: Because I was so young, I wasn’t nervous at all! I was just really excited and I felt like I was playing dress up. I didn’t start getting nervous and self- conscious until I was older.

GTM: You've done a number of major films, working with some of Hollywood's major stars; how have you been able to separate their celebrity from just being real people you worked with on a film?

Sara Paxton: I never really see a person as a "celebrity." I always see them as actors who are just doing the same job I’m doing. I’ve never really been one to be star struck, however, I am in awe of Goldie Hawn, Reese Witherspoon and Mick Jagger, so if I ever met them I’m sure I’d be speechless!

GTM: Were you surprised when you saw how films were developed that the process was so different from the final product the general public sees?

Sara Paxton: I wasn’t surprised, but I found it interesting to learn how people don’t know how much goes into the filming of something!

GTM: How easy has it been for you to keep yourself grounded and real, given the work you do and the visibility you have?

Sara Paxton: I go to a regular school with regular kids, so that has kept me pretty grounded. Also, I’ve had the same best friend since 6th grade so she keeps me grounded, and of course my family.

GTM: What has it been like working in "Darcy's Wild Life" on Discovery Kid's channel?

Sara Paxton: Working on “Darcys Wildlife” has been so much fun. Me and the other cast members get along really well, so its like we’re at summer camp goofing off, not like were working.

GTM: What was it like working on "Aquamarine?"

Sara Paxton: Not only was Australia amazing, but Emma and JoJo were the nicest, funniest and most amazing girls to work with! We became such close friends. Working on this movie was so much fun! I hope we do Aqua 2!

GTM: Did you find it difficult or complex in a fantasy film with special effects?

Sara Paxton: It was physically challenging to swim in the tail, because it was so heavy. There were also a lot of special effects in which I had to act in front of a green screen, which is a little bit difficult when there’s no one there to react off of.

GTM: Could you tell us a bit about the shooting process for the film; how you prepared yourself, and how you created your character?

Sara Paxton: To prepare myself for the film, I went to the gym everyday and I had to have swimming lessons everyday. I knew how to swim, but I had to be very strong to support myself in the tail.

GTM: What was it like working with the film's director, Elizabeth Allen?

Sara Paxton: Elizabeth is an amazing director! I felt like she was just one of the girls and one of my friends, which made her really fun to work with. I felt I could take direction from her.

GTM: What does it feel like to see yourself on a big screen. Does it seem a bit freaky?

Sara Paxton: No, not really. Sometimes I can’t watch myself, because I’m too harsh a critic.

GTM: You have a solo CD coming out; how did that come about?

Sara Paxton: Well, I’ve been singing my whole life. I did musical theatre and I sang a duet with Jesse McCartney.

GTM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Sara Paxton: What would you like to accomplish and where would you like to see your career head? I would love to get more involved behind the camera. In ten years, I see myself starting my own production company and producing movies.

GTM: There seem to be so many pitfalls regarding celebrity and fame; who has inspired and motivated you in your life to keep your feet on the ground?

Sara Paxton: Celebrities who manage to keep their lives in balance while acting inspire me in my own life. People like Reese Witherspoon and Goldie Hawn seem to still lead normal, down to earth lives.

GTM: If you were able to go back in time and speak to yourself when you first started in this business, what advice would you give?

Sara Paxton: I wouldn’t change anything because if you don’t make mistakes, how do you learn from them?



Thanks Sara. I could not have said it better…


About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and will be presenting his current research paper “Teaching and the Blogosphere” at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August. He can be reached at flicksart@aol.com