In 'Suncoast' movie, Clearwater shines. Most of it wasn't filmed here. – Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER — Clearwater is the main backdrop of the movie “Suncoast,” about a teenager coping with the pending death of her brother. Local landmarks and businesses populate scenes, and a fictitious school bears the city’s name on its building, van and uniforms.
But very little of the movie starring Woody Harrelson and Laura Linney, which is now streaming on Hulu, was actually filmed here.
A crew shot a few days of exterior B-roll footage in Pinellas County to establish the area as the focal point. Everything else was filmed in Charleston, South Carolina, and its surrounding area. And it’s as hard to tell the difference between the real and fake Clearwater as it is an actor from a stunt double in a well-made action flick.
“People who live in the Clearwater area will notice the foliage at times is wrong, and that the causeway doesn’t match what the actual Memorial Causeway looks like, but otherwise it’s a convincing reproduction of a Florida city,” said Tyler Martinolich, head of Film Tampa Bay, which is Hillsborough County’s film commission. “The film industry are masters at creating magic on screen and finding locations anywhere in the world that can replicate somewhere else.”
The production chose to recreate Tampa Bay because Florida does not offer state incentives to movies and South Carolina does.
A spokesperson for the Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater tourism bureau said the production infused an estimated $20,000 into the local economy while filming B-roll. Nearly $11 million was spent in the Charleston area, according to the South Carolina Film Commission.
“People have been saying for years that our beaches and locations are enough to attract business to the state, but time and again that’s proven wrong when other states are chosen as a stand-in,” Martinolich said.
“Suncoast” is based on writer and director Laura Chin’s childhood in Clearwater. As her brother was dying of brain cancer in 2005, he was in the same hospice as Terri Schiavo, whose irreversible persistent vegetative state sparked a nationally-followed legal battle between her husband and parents over whether her feeding tube should be removed.
In the movie, the Shiavo story unfolds as it did in real life, while the details of the teenager based on Chin are mostly fiction, according to her statements released through the movie’s studio, Searchlight Pictures.
But “all the emotions are autobiographical: the grief, the guilt, the love, the jealousy, the desire to just be normal,” Chin said. “All the myriad feelings I experienced during that time, all the pain and all the laughter.”
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The emotions of a family dealing with a loved one in hospice are perfectly captured, as was how the media and protestors from both sides of the Schiavo debate descended upon and impacted the facility, its patients and their families, said Jonathan Fleece, the CEO of Empath Health that ran Suncoast Hospice in Clearwater. It’s where Chin’s brother was cared for and inspired the name of the movie.
“Many of the examples in the film were true … bomb threats and death threats,” he said. “There were times we had to close the facility to the public, even for families and certainly have upgraded security because it was a very vulnerable and chaotic time.”
That Suncoast Hospice building has since been torn down and replaced with Empath Life, a facility that offers comprehensive care for seniors, Fleece said.
Chin recreated the hospice at a facility building in Charleston’s May Forest State Park, according to the South Carolina Film Commission. Charleston’s neighboring Isle of Palms barrier island became Clearwater beach. And Charleston’s Trident Technical College served as the fictitious Clearwater Christian Academy.
Carly Belivea said she “did a doubletake” after watching the movie trailer, wondering if the school was based on Clearwater Central Catholic High School, where she works as the assistant director of communications.
“The uniforms are very similar to the ones we just sunsetted,” she said. “Even the stitches in the collar.”
B-roll of Dunedin’s Edgewater Park, Clearwater’s Surf Style Store, Jamminz Beach Bar and Sand Key Bridge, and streets and homes throughout the area, further place the movie in Tampa Bay.
Charleston businesses double as a Ybor City nightclub and a Hyde Park dress shop.
There is still a chance the Tampa Bay area can profit by being used as the story backdrop.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by Visit Florida, 22 percent of domestic tourists in Florida said something they saw on film or television contributed to their decision to visit the state.
Martinolich said the area just needs to hope those who watch “Suncoast” don’t learn where it was shot. “Film induced tourism is real. But when viewers do their research to find out where the project filmed, they will find it has filmed elsewhere, leading to those far off locations and states benefiting from the marketing, tourism, and economic impacts a film can bring.”
Paul Guzzo is a culture reporter who covers all things interesting in Florida, from pro wrestling to the film industry. Reach him at
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