The Lure of Lovers Key, Filming Underway

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“My wife Pam and I were drawn to Southwest Florida by the water,” said acclaimed filmmaker Tom James of Pelican Media, smiling at the irony that he is now producing a film on Lovers Key State Park (LKSP) that attracts roughly one million annual visitors to enjoy its sugar white sand beaches and water-related natural and recreational activities. “Pam is a scuba diver and I a fisherman, and from the time we married in St. Petersburg in 2008, we felt it was only a matter of time before we would relocate from Kansas City!”

Many area people are familiar with James’ work as director of “Preserving Our Waters: 50 Years of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve,” the WGCU Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary that provided an in-depth look into the State of Florida’s first-ever aquatic preserve on its golden anniversary. James is now turning his camera on LKSP, to produce a similar PBS project, as the State Park readies for the construction of its much-anticipated Welcome & Discovery Center, LKSP’s first indoor facility that will feature educational exhibits and other amenities.

Almost By Accident & 9/11

“I ended up in video production almost by accident,” Tom laughed at the memory! “I started out in graphic design and began working for a company that did television shows for medical conventions back in 1994. I literally started out holding a clipboard, before working my way up to the grip, then production assistant, and eventually the ‘B’ cameraman, and the more I did, the more I loved it, especially the storytelling aspect!”

Filmmaker Tom James’ newest PBS documentary is on Lovers Key State Park. Photo by Gary Mooney.

Everything suddenly changed for Tom professionally, however, with 9/11. “We were in Boston for a pharmaceutical convention the day before. When the disaster struck, the organizers cancelled the rest of the convention and our boss told us to go home. Little did I know but that immediately changed the medical industry; we went from covering 10 or 15 medical conventions every few months down to almost zero, as no one wanted to travel or gather together in large groups in one place, so after almost 10 years, we had to find something else to do. I reached out to some Kansas City friends who hooked me up doing commercials for Walmart.”

Around that time, the production company owner retired, “and a friend and I purchased the firm, because after all, we already had the business cards! While the previous owner only sought contracts worth $250,000 and up, we were perfectly happy with jobs for $5,000 to $10,000! A niche market we tapped was veterinary medicine, as the I-70 corridor from Kansas to Missouri is called ‘The Animal Health Corridor’ due to the large number of veterinary schools and facilities because of that region’s strong agricultural economy, and things skyrocketed for us. My partner’s wife worked for the local PBS station, so we hooked up to produce a documentary called ‘Bad Blood,’ about Bloody Kansas and John Brown and many things that eventually led to the American Civil War. Pam worked for that PBS station and that is where we met; she became my boss on that project and remains my boss to this day!”

Another project came up, with Kansas City’s Sea Life Aquarium acquiring “Gertrude,” a rescued sea turtle with a missing flipper. “They wanted to document this process,” Tom recalled, “so PBS sent me to Clearwater, and we had dinner on the beach, and I called Pam and asked, ‘Why don’t we live here?’ Little did I know that as soon as we hung up, she started looking for jobs in Southwest Florida and found an opening with WGCU! She went through the process, they offered her the job, and suddenly I went, ‘Oh My Gosh – this just became real!’ She moved while I stayed in Kansas City to sell our home and my share of the production company, then I came and started ‘Pelican Media.’”

Almost immediately, WGCU used Tom “for production work they were too busy to handle, including the documentary, ‘Hertz: Road to Paradise,’ detailing the move of their world headquarters from Park Ridge, New Jersey, to Estero, including why they chose Southwest Florida. Professionally, however, for the prior decade, I longed to do a water project but nothing came my way. Within 6 months of moving here, the opportunity presented itself to do the film on the 50th anniversary of the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, and I hopped at the chance, to convey a message that positively shows what we can all do to successfully move forward, and that became the dream project of my life so far! The funny thing is, prior to ‘Preserving Our Waters,’ I had no idea where Estero Bay was!”

Déjà vu All Over Again

Tom had that same sensation when beginning the LKSP project! “Pam and I, like thousands of others, put up an umbrella on their fantastic beach, and we even played around on the bike trails, and of course we knew it was a State Park, but that was it! When we first moved to Florida, I became a Master Naturalist, but I did not know anything about the LKSP ecosystems, so I pretty much started from scratch.”

Louise Kowitch of the “Friends of Lovers Key State Park” (FOLKS) Board reached out to him, “to tell me about the Welcome & Discovery Center and I loved it, so we discussed if there was a project here. I in turn contacted WGCU who thought there would be a PBS audience for this, and we started work on what will ultimately be a 30-minute documentary, along with a roughly 15-minute companion piece to one day show inside the Welcome & Discovery Center.” In addition to FOLKS, funding comes from the Botana Family, who are the owners of Bay Water Boat Club & Rentals, with production assistance from WGCU; to contact Tom, email tom@pelicanmedia.tv or see pelicanmedia.tv.

He hopes the film’s primary message is what he learned while attaining his Florida Master Naturalist certification: “Whether it be upland regions, coastal areas, or freshwater ways, everything is interconnected, so what we allow in one part of the system eventually affects the entire system. When we dump polluted stuff upland, why should we be surprised when the beaches look horrible – what did you expect; something different? The quality of our water is in direct proportion to the quality of our life in Southwest Florida, so we must all do what is necessary to attain and retain clean water. That is the lesson to spread – that it is all, including us, interconnected!”

The Lure of Lovers Key

Tom expects to complete the documentary in Summer 2020. “Right now, for a working title, I am leaning toward ‘The Lure of Lovers Key!’ I anticipate it will include the historic role of the Calusa and Spaniards, nature and education, what the developers thought when they wanted the land and the preservationists felt when they saved it, including elements most people do not see, like its ecosystems and hiking trails, as so many just head right for the beach and bury their toes in the sand. We want people to experience all LKSP offers.”

Water quality will play a big part, Tom added. “We examine what role Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) students play in the clean water effort, along with other prominent groups like the Calusa Waterkeeper. We will address resiliency, as LKSP is always changing, and what it will look like into the future. When I made ‘Preserving Our Waters,’ we shot over seven hours of film for a 26-minute documentary, and we will have the same issue here – what to leave in and what to take out! Fortunately, the ‘cutting room floor’ is no longer a graveyard! Thanks to Social Media, we take snippets and package them for the Internet and sites like FOLKS, WGCU, and FGCU, in fun and informative factoids, as more and more people use Social Media as a resource.”

As for what Tom now most appreciates about LKSP that he did not prior to filming, “I was shocked to discover how many Gopher Tortoises live here! Generally, you do not see so many in such a confined space, but since they do not swim and so much of LKSP are barrier islands, this is where they established their colony, so this is where they stay, and I find that fascinating! Another thing is how young most of the natural areas really are; when you see the trees and vegetation, you assume they are hundreds of years old, but the property was pretty much cleared for development in the 1960s, so almost everything we see came after that. This is why this film will be so important; so everyone understands that LKSP is much more than just sugary sand beaches, and it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure we preserve it for future generations to enjoy!”