When Delaney Buffett and Chloe Corner led a film crew down to Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida to make a film about the mermaids, past and present, who entertain visitors to the park with elaborate underwater routines, they planned wisely. Hearing from some of their subjects that the Springs were a fountain of youth, they knew they probably couldn’t leave without experiencing it for themselves.
“The week we went down was the Sirens’ reunion weekend [when] past mermaids come back to swim and perform each year,” says Corner, who produced the film. “We filmed over three days in August, which was long enough for us to pop on some tails and get a mermaiding lesson ourselves!”
Thankfully, they have made a film in “The Spring” that’s every bit as refreshing as the experience they had making it, slipping audiences so thoroughly into the baby blue water of the Weeki Wachee tank so you can feel the same perfect 74 degree cool that the mermaids do. Still, as vivid a sense of place as Buffett establishes in her directorial debut, even she might admit it may slightly pale in comparison to the effervescent women she profiles who have found solace in the Springs.
Ranging in age from current members in their teens to mermaid emerituses in their sixties, the common bond between them – beyond performing the 30-minute shows in a town said to have a population of 12, but welcomes thousands each year to watch them flip and twirl – is a shared ability and sense of wonder, suspending all disbelief that mermaids can only exist in fairy tales. As “The Spring” wears on, you come to realize this bond between them, carried over generations, is a result of a transcendent joy only they know of in the water and the film is bound to leave you with a big, goofy grin in being let in, even slightly, on the secret that they share.
Shortly before the Tribeca Film Festival where “The Spring” will premiere this week, Buffett and Corner graciously answered a few questions via e-mail about what led them to Weeki Wachee in the first place, unearthing the rich history of the mermaids and capturing their beauty both underwater and above ground.
How did this come about?
Delaney Buffett: About a year ago, I was having dinner with my dad and he started to tell me about these real-life mermaids that swim at an amusement park in Central Florida and I had to see what he was talking about. I went on the park’s website and immediately found myself in an internet deep dive. I went through the entire roster of Weeki Wachee mermaids and learned about each of their favorite books, movies, celebrity crushes — we noticed a trend with Channing Tatum — and dream jobs. When I came out of the deep dive, I realized that these women had created their own world. It was a world that I very much wanted to be a part of.
There’s also something special about the crew you assembled. How did you bring this group together?
Chloe Corner: Assembling a crew of female filmmakers was an aspiration for this film from day one. A big part of that came from our mentality that as female filmmakers, we want to empower female filmmakers and we had a great opportunity with “The Spring” to take action. Admittedly, there are still fewer women in the industry than we’d like to see, especially in the more technical positions like camera, lighting and sound. But we were introduced to Frances Chen, an incredibly talented [director of photography], who helped us lock in a crew of amazing young women. So our crew came together in a really natural way, and that process allowed us to look at the story from a unique perspective. The women of Weeki Wachee have, quite literally, made their dreams come true, and as a group of young female filmmakers, we were all trying to do just that. We felt so inspired. We’ve since worked together on another project — and hopefully many more to come!
Delaney, could you tap into that same idea of following a dream as the mermaids? It was interesting to learn that you studied criminology before turning to filmmaking, so it seems like that might be a way in.
Delaney Buffett: To be honest, what initially attracted me most to this story was the people and the quirky community that they had created for themselves. I’ve always been a curious person who likes to know why people are the way they are. And that curiosity has definitely shaped my desire to observe people whether it’s in a classroom or on a film set. When I heard about Weeki Wachee, the first thing that entered my mind was who are these women and how did they end up becoming mermaids? As we spent more time with the mermaids, the story evolved. It was no longer just a story about a group of mermaids working at this obscure amusement park in Central Florida, but a story about a group of women who have found a way to truly love what they do and it was refreshing to meet people who were truly content with their lives, something that you rarely get to see at this day and age.
Had the plan always been to take the longview of the whole history of Weeki Wachee or did that evolve over time?
Chloe Corner: We had always planned to touch on the history, but I don’t think any of us anticipated how central it would become to the story until we were actually in the edit. It’s such a rich history, and the park is very much a product of its past. Over time, we realized that Weeki Wachee was actually as important a character as the women themselves, and that’s when the history really came to the foreground. The Sirens, who were in town for their annual reunion, brought that history, and so much of Weeki Wachee’s character, to life. The enchantment that we see in the younger mermaids will last a lifetime, and the Sirens were proof of that, so nostalgia and memory became really important themes. If you’ve ever felt an emotional connection to a place and time, you can connect to “The Spring” on a really deep level, and that, for me, is what makes the film so magical.
Delaney Buffett: For me, the greatest part about Weeki Wachee is its long and vibrant history. Some of my favorite moments from the shoot were talking with the mermaids who performed and lived at the park in the 1960s and 1970s. Every single one of the Sirens shared a unique story of her past at the park. Luckily for us, many of these stories came with old photographs [that the Sirens kept] of themselves swimming as young mermaids. While the Sirens provided us with many of the archival photos, I was also able to dig up some additional footage and photos from the Florida State Archives, [a lot of which] had been taken by tourists in the 1950s and the 1960s, which was great because they showed an entirely different perspective of the park. In the end, we were able to see the story of Weeki Wachee from the eyes of the performers and their fans.
There are some great shots of the mermaids underwater. How did you figure out how to shoot at Weeki Wachee, particularly those sequences where it appears you’re inside the tank?
Delaney Buffett: The staff at Weeki Wachee were incredibly accommodating of our crew. Everyone at the park has a lot of experience with film crews so they were able to show us all the tricks of shooting in such a unique space. For the underwater sequences, Frances, our DP, shot the majority of them from the other side of the glass and we lucked out because the spring is so clear that you’re still able to capture the nuances of the underwater performances without having to be inside the actual tank. We wanted to shoot from the other side of the glass so we could capture the perspective of the audience and show the performance how it’s designed to be seen.
Were there any happy surprises that made it into the film?
Delaney Buffett: When we were shooting, John Athanason, the park’s PR representative, asked if a couple of us wanted to go into the water and try swimming with the tails, to which we all responded, “Absolutely!” We decided that Chloe and Katie should be the ones to get in the water. Naturally, we filmed the entire process from the make up application to the swimming. When the mermaids say they make it look easy, they’re not lying. With the first-timers from our crew, there was a lot more flailing than swimming. We didn’t think we’d end up using the footage but if you look closely at certain parts of the film you can see both Chloe and Katie dancing with the mermaids.
What was it like finding out you got into Tribeca? Is it exciting to show the film to “city slickers” not unlike the ones you brought to Weeki Wachee to film this in the first place?
Delaney Buffett: It was incredibly surreal. When I got the call, I almost dropped the phone on the floor and I immediately called Chloe and Katie [Corwin] to tell them news. We shared a quality, happy cry on the phone. We were so excited for the opportunity to share this film with a New York audience. While Weeki Wachee is well-known in Florida and its neighboring states, it is not on the radar of most New Yorkers, so when we tell our friends from New York that we made a movie about mermaids, they usually ask if it’s animated. Serious confusion follows when we inform them that it is actually in fact a documentary. I guess I don’t fault them because mermaids aren’t supposed to exist, but at this state park, on the side of a highway in Central Florida, they do. When you see these women swim for the first time, it feels as though you’re in the midst of one your wildest, childhood dreams. We hope that our film instills this childlike sense of wonder in our audience and brings a smile to the face of even the most jaded New Yorker.
“The Spring” will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of the Shorts: Viewfinder program at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park on April 20th at 10 pm, April 25th at 9:45 pm and April 26th at 7 pm, and at the Cinepolis Chelsea on April 29th at 6:15 pm.