By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(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
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..
MEET SARA PAXTON
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
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
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
THE FILM’S STORY
“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
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
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
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
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,
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.
THE MERMAID’S TALE
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
“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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com