"The Truman Show" may have starred A-list actors such as Jim Carrey and Ed Harris, but for locals, the real star was Seaside.
It took some convincing to make sure the film's director, Peter Weir, and production designer, Dennis Gassner, chose Seaside as the primary filming location. After all, the Australian director had never even heard of the quaint 30A community. Even the late Roger Ebert was unfamiliar as he referred to Seaside as a "a planned community on the Gulf Coast near Tampa," in his 1998 review of the film.
Getting Hollywood to Seaside
It was the fall of 1995 and the Okaloosa County Film Commissioner was Destin resident Linda Sargeant. At work, she got a fax from Paramount Studios saying they were looking "for a small town with a fountain, possibly downtown Panama City," she recalled.
But Sargeant had something different in mind.
"After talking to them, I knew that wasn't what they wanted," she said. "That's the challenge, to get them to look at what you want. I hounded them, telling them, 'I've got the perfect location.'"
"I knew Seaside was it.”
After making the proper arrangements, she picked up Weir and Gassner and gave them a tour of Destin and Walton County.
"I picked them up in my ratty, little Toyota Corolla and drove them down Old 98," she said. "Alys Beach wasn't there yet, but I showed them Crystal Beach, I showed them all of the communities. They were sold."
That evening, Weir, Gassner and Sargeant discussed logistics over drinks at Shades and made plans to speak to Seaside founder Robert Davis and his wife Daryl. The next night, the five of them dined at Criolla's in Grayton Beach and sealed the deal that would put Seaside in the spotlight.
Having never made a Hollywood deal before, the Davis's called upon a friend in the movie business to help them negotiate a location fee. The money was then used to build the Seaside Neighborhood School.
"When that school opened, it made my heart soar," Davis said. "It was a vindication of what we had done."
"The Truman Show" did more than just showcase the beachside community to moviegoers. While cast and upper-level crew members were filming during the fall/winter season they stayed in Seaside. Carrey rented a beach house a few miles away from location and lower-salary crew stayed at the Holiday Inn in Destin.
"Some of the local area got a huge shot in the arm," Davis said. "We were able to rent one-third of our inventory to actors and upper level staff at a time when we would've otherwise been sucking in air."
The out-of-towners also enjoyed local fare as local restaurants catered food in and actors dined out. Sargeant even hosted an opening cast party at The Red Bar.
"I thought there should be a kick-off party, so I told them, 'Let me take you someplace,'" she said. "We closed the place down."
While Seaside was already a popular destination, after "The Truman Show" was released in June 1998, a whole new flock of tourists made the pilgrimage to the town, whose movie name was “Seahaven.”
"The after-effect was very strong," Davis said. "People wanted to see where 'The Truman Show' was filmed. The Gaetz family renamed their house, The Truman House, and people would go in to Modica Market and shake Charlie Modica's hand."
When the movie was set to be released, locals celebrated in style, with an exclusive release party that benefited the Seaside Neighborhood School. The event started with a screening of "The Truman Show" at United Artists in Fort Walton Beach — remember, Walton County and Destin didn't have premier theaters at that time — and ended with a black tie optional gala at the Seaside Lyceum.
Tickets were $100 per person, or $115 including the round-trip shuttle ride. Guests were gifted with a champagne glass engraved with "The Truman Show" logo and the event date, Wednesday, June 3, 1998.
Today, you can still find the movie's poster proudly hanging in the Modica Market. You can also purchase DVDs at Seaside retail stops such as Central Square Records.
Mingling with Tinsel Town
As Seaside's founder, Davis is rather particular about the town's perception and visual appeal. It could not have been easy for him to relinquish creative control to Gassner and the rest of crew.
"I was frankly disappointed in some of the set design — it was more post-modern, more corporate and ugly," he said. "I tried to persuade them to build with plans we already had on the shelves. I think at the end of the day, they were designing buildings Truman would walk past and never go in."
More than 3,000 locals were cast as extras in the film, making around $100 a day, including Davis and his wife and Charlie and Sarah Modica.
"Almost everybody that came to the casting call got at least an extra part," Sargeant said.
"It was a cold, long, boring day," Davis recalled of his acting debut. "Our son Micah ended up on the cutting room floor and our dog, Bud, did not get to be in the scene, but in retrospect it was great to have done it."
The only thing Davis regrets of his 15 minutes was that he didn't get to soak it all in.
"I would do it all over again," Davis said. "You only live once. I would've liked to spend more time on the set; I got to meet interesting people, but I didn't get to know them."
Of Carrey, Davis said he was surprisingly approachable considering his Hollywood status. Weir, who also directed another funnyman in a dramatic role — Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" — and Gassner, whose last was credit production designer for "Skyfall," were warm and welcoming, Davis said.
"They were extremely pleasant and interesting people," he said.
The night Sargeant gave Weir and Gassner the 30A tour, she found a kindred spirit in the director.
"He was so incredible and down-to-earth," she said of Weir. "I had a big crush on him."
And as for the movie's success, "The Truman Show" has become a highly regarded film. The film has an eight out of 10 rating on IMDB and a 95 percent critic review rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In a time before the outpouring of reality television, the movie almost predicted what entertainment would look like in the coming years and poses the same questions society asks today.
"We're invited to think about the implications. About a world in which modern communications make celebrity possible, and inhuman," said Ebert in his 1998 review.
It may not be the first or last time a movie crew heads to our local beaches, but "The Truman Show" is certainly something to celebrate.
"It was pretty brilliant in retrospect," Davis said of the film. "It really holds up in foretelling what is now the reality of reality TV."