Perfect Casting

Actor Dylan Walsh, best known for his role as a biologist in the 1995 film Congo, is huddled over a laptop computer at a beat-up card table surrounded by mismatched chairs. On location in Fort Lauderdale, he's playing Adam Lazarus, a struggling writer who lives with his girlfriend, Jane (Laurel Holloman), in a quaint clapboard home.

Zero is a semiautobiographical film written by Aaron Mendelsohn, who penned the scripts for the two Air Bud movies. Mendelsohn has moved from kiddie fare to romantic comedy for his directorial debut, which focuses on a writer who thinks he'll be branded a loser if he doesn't get a book published by age 30.

In Mendelsohn's script, which is being independently produced for about $1 million, Adam often plies a lazy river in a weather-worn dinghy. So while it stands to reason that his residence needs to be near the water, the house isn't supposed to be too posh. After all, this guy's an unpublished writer, and his girlfriend is a film-school student who makes extra cash waitressing at Hooters.

Enter location manager Julian Valdes. "You dissect the script and try to get into the head of the character and try to imagine where he would live," he explains. "Our main character being a writer, we didn't want a house that was too neat, but it had to have character."

It also had to be located in South Florida, which is home to Valdes, who was born and raised in Miami. Although Mendelsohn originally set the film in Venice, California, funding ended up coming from Florida investors who insisted the film be shot in the Sunshine State. "It was very serendipitous," says Mendelsohn. "Fort Lauderdale is like the sister city to Venice, because of all of the canals."

Valdes' first stop was the Fort Lauderdale-Broward County Film and Television Commission, where he sifted through piles of location photos. "The moment I saw the picture of this place, I knew this was it," he says of the Riverside neighborhood home. There was one problem, however: The photodidn't have an address. But while scouting the New River for another site, Valdes spotted the white house with green trim and recognized it immediately. "I liked the bend in the river, the overhanging trees, that sleepy feeling," he says. "He's a writer, so he needs a peaceful place to work. This is his little oasis."

Once you get past the fact that the three-bedroom house sits on a pricey slice of river frontage, the premise works. Thus far the house's claim to fame is that it was inhabited in the '20s by William V. Wheeler, then a well-known Fort Lauderdale hardware merchant. Should Zero become a hit, however, the house may become a tourist attraction. In fact, the film could work as an ad for Fort Lauderdale in general. Several other city sites are serving as locations, including Las Olas Riverfront; the offices of the law firm Becker and Poliakoff, which will serve as a publishing house in the movie; and the Vinnette Carroll Theatre, where one of Adam's friends works.

The house itself is almost a character in the movie, providing clues about Adam's life. For example, back in the dining room, after Valdes has given a visitor a tour of the location -- which is strewn with wire, lights, cameras, and huge fans -- the props have changed. Adam's ramshackle card table has been replaced by a black lacquered dining room table and matching chairs.

Hmm. They must be getting ready to shoot a scene featuring the successful Adam. He's sold his book and isn't wasting any time spending his advance. The proof is just outside the window, where, tied up next to that beat-up dinghy, is a gleaming new speedboat.

-- John Ferri

Zero is scheduled for release in June.

 
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