“YOU MUST NEVER AT ANY POINT IN YOUR LIFE IGNORE THE POSSIBILITY OF SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY COMING ALONG.”
DIRECTOR RON HOWARD, IN HIS DVD COMMENTARY FOR COCOON
For the fictional Florida retirees in Ron Howard’s 1985 film Cocoon, the extraordinary came from outer space — when aliens turned a swimming pool into a fountain of youth. • For St. Petersburg, the extraordinary came from Hollywood, when the little movie with an emerging director arrived for 11 weeks of filming, and put the city in the spotlight. • Call it typecasting; the city’s reputation as “God’s waiting room” had been sealed years before with a Johnny Carson joke. St. Petersburg in the early 1980s was the city of green benches, lawn bowling and shuffleboard courts, where retirees spent final days in rickety recreation. • After its debut on June 21, 1985, Cocoon became Academy Award-winning confirmation of that image. • Then something else unexpected happened. Like the movie’s cosmically rejuvenated heroes, St. Petersburg grew younger. The green benches disappeared. Games played then by seniors evolved into multigenerational pastimes. • God waits longer than ever. • Twenty-five years ago, Cocoon was a retirement community’s coup. Today, it’s much more. It’s a cinematic time capsule, an artifact of old landmarks and a few regrets. • This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s closeup. The St. Petersburg Times collected memories of Cocoon in telephone interviews with people who made it happen.
Cocoon sprang from an unpublished novel by an unknown writer named David Saperstein. A producer named Lili Fini Zanuck saw something in the story and paid $2,500 for it, developing it into the $17 million project that would be her filmmaking debut.
Little-known screenwriter Tom Benedek tweaked it into the quirky tale of eight retirement home residents, three of them frequent trespassers to a nearby vacant house with an indoor pool. They’re disappointed when the house is rented to tourists, and astonished that the visitors are actually aliens in human form.
These “Antareans” are retrieving comrades stranded in pods on the Gulf of Mexico floor, then storing them in the pool, now energized with an alien life force. The seniors continue to sneak in and swim, getting a miraculous new lease on life and an offer to join the aliens on their planet and live forever.
Producers David Brown and Zanuck’s husband, Richard, both Oscar nominees for Jaws and The Verdict, agreed to co-produce. One key decision was choosing St. Petersburg as the setting.
“It was written for St. Petersburg, but in movies that doesn’t mean anything,” Lili Zanuck said. “You could end up shooting it somewhere else. At that time, there were probably a lot of reasons to shoot in Miami because of the fact that there were more crews there.
”We were also very stubborn that Florida isn’t California; the lights are different, the palm trees are different, everything.
”Locations can be another character in a movie, and St. Petersburg was a character in ours.”
Finding a director was much more complicated. Zanuck said 22 directors turned down the job before it was offered to Howard, whose first blockbuster, Splash, was just hitting theaters. Howard was still Opie from The Andy Griffith Show to folks outside Hollywood. To Read more click here.