Giving a hoot
Environmental champions Jimmy Buffett and Carl Hiaasen hope their movie about a tiny owl will make a big impression on kids.
Roger Moore | Sentinel Movie Critic
Posted April 30, 2006
FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH -- When Jimmy Buffett was growing up in south Alabama, Florida meant "free orange juice at the state line," he says, "and ocean water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom."
He was used to the tannin-colored waters of Mobile Bay. But once the family station wagon reached Destin, "it was like arriving in paradise."
The singer-songwriter says that was the start of a lifelong Florida love affair -- Key West, "Margaritaville," the boats, beaches and bars of his ballads all came from those childhood trips.
The free orange juice is gone, Buffett says with a sigh. And so is that crystal-clear water that he fell in love with. But the man who has made his career as a walking-singing advertisement for "Floridays" isn't ready to turn his back on the place that made him.
"Deep down, I know there's a Florida worth fighting for," he says. Buffett takes that fight into the most lucrative concert tours in America, onto records, and into his philanthropy. And this week, he brings it to movie theaters.
That fighting attitude is shared by his friend Carl Hiaasen, acclaimed Miami Herald columnist and novelist. Where Buffett, the songwriting gypsy pirate, has romanticized the Sunshine State, Hiaasen, the muckraker, has made a career out of raging at runaway development, politicians in developers' hip pockets and the Florida that is being lost in the process.
"It's too easy to leave, to just throw up your hands and bail," Hiaasen says. "I stay and make myself miserable over what people are doing to this place. The point is to just keep up the fight."
"You remember how it used to be," Buffett says, "and what parts are still here worth saving, and you realize, 'Well, I may not change the guy with the bulldozer's mind. But I can get to his kid.' "
Hiaasen picked up on that for his first children's book, Hoot. When the Florida-native writer wrote a 2002 novel about Florida kids trying to save the state's rare burrowing owls, and the Florida-transplant entertainer-of-all-trades heard about it -- well, a movie had to be in the offing. Two of the state's environmental champions teamed to see if Hoot, Hiaasen's Newbery honored best-seller, could be a motion picture. For kids.
"Because the grown-ups are just too [messed] up to see it," Hiaasen says. "If your kids said to you, 'Dad, there's a gopher tortoise in the backyard. I'm gonna go bury him alive.' What would you say? The state of Florida says, 'If you're a developer, go ahead!'
"Kids have the clarity of youth. They know, 'That's wrong.' "
Career accomplishments aside, Buffett and Hiaasen are Florida environmental icons, "a perfect little snapshot of those few people outspoken and emotional about what's happening to wild Florida," says Bill Dion of the National Wildlife Federation. Their shared passions and values have made them friends -- fishing buddies -- for 20 years.
And in Hiaasen's novel, Buffett, an accomplished novelist himself, had the perfect weapon to reach more kids. Hoot opens in theaters across the country, including Florida, on Friday.
"I know people out in Hollywood," Buffett says. "I know, from experience, that most kids' movies you go to, you pray you fall asleep during them.
"I figured, this was a good story, it should be a movie. And as a shameless entertainer, I wanted to do it."
Like putting a band together
Hiaasen needed a little convincing. He has had "every novel I ever wrote" optioned to be a movie. Painfully so. Striptease actually became a film. And the rest, "from reading the scripts they came up with, I'm grateful they didn't film 'em," Hiaasen says.
But Buffett treated the project "like I was putting a band together." His friend, super-producer Frank Marshall (of the Indiana Jones franchise), came onboard. Another friend, comic-turned-director Wil Shriner, a veteran of TV's Frasier and other shows, would take a meeting.
"Got Wil on my seaplane, and we flew down to Carl's place in Islamorada," Buffett recalls. "Carl's son, Quinn, was out playing with the biggest set of toy construction equipment you ever saw. And Carl says, 'My wife's a Realtor. My son's gonna be a developer. How did this happen? I think we need to make this movie.' "
Just so long, Hiaasen says, "as the kids were like the kids in the book, Florida kids like the ones I knew growing up. I stole the whole plot from my childhood, from when friends and I would go out and move surveying stakes for developers that were about to bulldoze owl nests, or gopher tortoise holes."
Make the movie, Hiaasen said. Just "keep the owls."
If, as the old saying goes, "success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan," everybody involved with Hoot wants to take credit for those adorable owls. At a recent preview in Fort Lauderdale, the moment the 9-inch-tall, quarter-pound burrow-dwellers show up, the audience let out a reflexive "Awwwwwwww."
Hiaasen wrote the book around them. Shriner filmed some scenes with them for the movie. He says he realized, right off, "that we'd need more of the owls." Buffett says he was the one who insisted on that. And so does Hiaasen.
"Well, look at 'em," Buffett says. "I've lived here for 30 years, never saw one. And you thought manatees were cute."
Shriner, Buffett says, had a number of qualifications for being the right director for Hoot, including one only Buffett knew.
"He's from Florida," Buffett says. "He gets this!"
Shriner, 52, grew up in Fort Lauderdale, "taking a boat to school," he says. "You could jump in a canal and swim home, if you wanted to. Not today.
"When I was growing up, U.S. 441 was the end of town [Fort Lauderdale]," Shriner says. "Now, it sprawls almost all the way over to Naples. Carl, living in the Keys, has been a real champion of the environment we're destroying. Same with Jimmy, who does it with music. I wanted to get in on this."
Shriner describes Hiaasen, 53, as a Hoot character, the activist-in-training Mullet Fingers, "all grown up." And Buffett, 59, summed up his own idealism, and arrested development, in a song lyric years ago -- "I'm Growing Older, But Not Up."
Keeping it authentic
It took Buffett's decades in show business, his years of schmoozing with the Parrotheads (Buffett fans) who make movies, to get Hoot made. "Got turned down everywhere," he says. He fought the battles to find production money, and to keep the movie faithful to Hiaasen's book, "like I promised Carl I would do."
Then, once the production got under way, the Florida troubadour had to fight one last battle to get his songs -- original tunes, and covers of "Bare- footin'," "Werewolves of London," and "Wondering Where the Lions Are," and others onto the soundtrack.
"You think, 'Floridays,' about living in Florida, will work," chuckles Buffett, leaning back and looking off a beachfront hotel balcony at the sailboats, float planes and tourists who are his musical stock-in-trade. "They couldn't hear it. They did. Eventually."
Shriner's job was to re-create the Florida of his youth, "which you pretty much have to go to the Bahamas to do," he jokes. They filmed in Boca Grande; at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island; in Silver Springs; and in Fort Lauderdale, "with the skyline, just out of view."
All, Shriner says, to keep Hoot Florida-authentic.
"That was what we wanted, to be faithful to Carl's book, and to kind of show the state as it used to be, and in some places, still is," Buffett says.
He shakes his head over the battles Floridians concerned with the environment still have to fight -- boaters whose bumper-stickers suggest a less-than-environmentally friendly attitude toward manatees, disappearing wetlands. It's the sort of stuff that makes Hiaasen mad, and Buffett ready for another fight.
"It seems obvious to me, and I know it's not that obvious to everybody else," Buffett says. "But a few of us get it.
"I know, from my own kids' experience, that attitudes can change. I'm so old, I was around before sunscreen. But my kids have SPF 45. They see things like race and the environment differently.
"So if we can't change some developer's mind about bulldozing Ramrod Key, maybe, with a movie like this, we can change his children's minds."
Roger Moore can be reached at 407-420-5369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.