PANAMA CITY BEACH — Award-winning choreographer, producer and director David Winters met me Tuesday in the lobby of the Shores of Panama resort. He was arranging to use the property as a location for shooting his upcoming movie, “East Side Story,” and he said he had been impressed by the local hospitality.
“It boggles the mind, the kindness of the people,” he said. “It’s a truly honest kindness, not because they want something. I just want to hug somebody like that. It makes you feel good about being here.”
He and Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon have been locking down more than 40 locations in the area for the film, which begins production in January. (They have invited PanamaCity.com to chronicle the progress, so check back in the new year for behind-the-scenes stories.)
Winters acted, danced and sang in the original Broadway production of the classic “West Side Story,” as well as the award-winning film version released in 1961. During an illustrious career, he choreographed four of Elvis Presley’s films, including “Viva Las Vegas”; choreographed “A Star is Born” starring Barbra Streisand; directed “The Monkees” TV show and tour; and choreographed a Diana Ross TV special including a performance by Michael Jackson, whom he counted as a close friend.
In 1998, the London-born Winters founded Equator Films, a U.K. production/distribution company that later purchased the prestigious Handmade Films (founded by George Harrison) and its library of titles including movies such as “Time Bandits” and “Runaway Train.” Handmade Films recently released “Planet 51.”
Gordon has been on this project since February, and managed to snag it away from other Florida cities including Sarasota and Miami, where the story was originally set. Winters recently re-wrote the screenplay to place it in Panama City Beach and to take full advantage of the Spring Break crowds that will begin arriving in early 2013.
“We should be grateful as a community,” Gordon said. “I am especially grateful that they are allowing me to use a number of interns from the colleges, as well as many local crew and talent that qualify.”
Winters credited Gordon with landing the production. “Her tenacity — she never gave up on us,” he said.
“East Side Story” focuses on two young lovers: a Beverly Hills girl and a guy who works in her father’s beachside resort. Among the featured dancers are Russell Ferguson and Jordan Clark, respectively the U.S. and Canadian winners of the hit TV series “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“At the end of the day, it really is just a love story,” Winters said. “She sees him dancing, and it’s like the world stops for her.”
The film is a “wall-to-wall dance film,” Winters said. It will be shot over a seven-week schedule using state-of-the-art technology; Winters plans to mount high-definition cameras on the dancers for at least one sequence, so audiences can experience the dance from their point of view.
Winters also will act and dance in the movie, performing “a boxing dance” with Gary Stretch, a British actor and former WBC light middle weight boxing champ. “I can tell you, that’s never been done before,” Winters said.
Winters was a guest for a recent performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Gulf Coast State College; he praised the production and director/associate professor Jason Hedden. He also had good words for the beaches area, both as a filming location and as a destination, adding that the stars of his film “are going to love it here.”
He was struck by the beauty of the area one day when taking a photo from his suite at the Tidewater: In one photo he captured the lake to the north and the beach to the south.
“I never saw a view like that in all my life, and I have traveled all over the world,” he said. “I’m really thankful to have seen that. I love bodies of water; they’re very soothing to me.”
>>Want to work on the film? Submit your audition video, resume or work history to EastSideStoryPCB@gmail.com