PANAMA CITY BEACH — The assistant director announced over loud speakers that dancers and extras should take positions, and people came pouring out of shops, trailers, a tent and bundles of blankets. They stripped off sweat pants and sweaters, long coats, wool caps and leg warmers, and gathered in a shivering mass at the end of the block dressed only in dancewear, skirts or shorts, and sleeveless tops.
It was cold Sunday night as the clock reached midnight and ticked over into Monday morning, and about 175 people prepared to dance in the street at Pier Park — for the third time in a night-long shoot. The four-minute sequence was shot from multiple angles over multiple takes to ensure plenty of choices once the film enters the editing phase.
The salsa number will be a highlight of “East Side Story,” the independent film being shot in Panama City Beach this month, according to director and writer David Winters. But it’s only one of the experiences he has had during his visit here that has him enamored with the area.
“It’s just been terrific,” he said as he hunkered down near a gas heater to view video monitors feeding the camera’s images to him. “All the merchants here kept their lights on for us. We’re just really excited about the place.”
Saturday, the crew shot scenes in the Pussycat Lounge at Club La Vela. And about a week before, some 800 extras turned out for a sequence filmed at Arnold High School. A number of locals have jobs on the set, from hair and makeup to production assistants to on-screen talent.
Many scenes have taken place at the Shores of Panama Resort, which also is where some of the crew is staying. Regarding the resort, Winters grinned when he related a story that illustrated how cooperative locals have been.
“They even painted the lobby for us, a different color than what they had originally because we asked,” he said. “We said it would be wonderful if it was light, so the people that own the place painted it light for us. It was incredible. I mean unbelievable. Try to do that in L.A.”
The dancers warmed up on the street and choreographer Brandon Bryant went over last-second details with them. Watching from behind the camera gear, Bay County Film Commissioner Julie Gordon got choked up.
“This is one of the biggest scenes we’ve been working on for a very, very long time,” she said. “And now that we’ve finally been able to pull it off, it has been more beautiful than we ever dreamed to begin with. The people themselves are having the best time of their lives. They are happy because all they want to do is dance.”
Gordon, who began working to bring the project to Bay County a year ago, said the movie’s theme was how people conquer the obstacles in their lives — fear, love, sorrow — in different ways, and these people do it through music and dance. She said you could feel the positive energy in the crowd.
Winters said he plans to move to Tallahassee for the post-production phase of the project, then he wants to return to Panama City Beach to shoot another movie. He said the new project again would be a family-friendly musical and dance-focused film.
“They’ve really made us feel so welcome and comfortable here,” he said. “So thank you, Panama City Beach. We love you.”
(Note: The producers called Tuesday to request that I remove a video of the salsa dance routine from our websites, citing music copyright issues and a desire to keep the sequence from being viewed publicly until the movie is released. I obliged. They said the video may be reposted at a later date.)