While exploring an underwater cave system north of Lake Okeechobee, government hydrologist Clay Benson stumbles upon a mammoth fresh water spring, one huge enough to supply pure drinking water to thirsty South Florida for decades to come.
But soon after reporting this coup to his boss, funny things start to happen. Benson's scientist buddy, Dwayne Smith, drowns mysteriously in a diving accident. His canine companion, Rufus, dies from drinking from a toxic slough. The state-owned land surrounding the spring is inexplicably sold to commercial interests and quickly rezoned for development.
Water, its magical value in Florida's subtropical civilization, its role as the next great magnet for greed, is at the heart of a new feature film script by South Dade moviemaker Mark Witzen. "Water is going to be like oil," says the 30-year-old Witzen, who beat out 152 other entrants to win the Seventh Annual Florida Screenwriters Competition. "This is an area that has so much of it, yet the management and use of it is amazingly problematic."
Witzen, who with his partner, Mark Moormann, has produced and directed several documentaries -- including one about cave diving and another chronicling the renaissance of South Beach -- wrote Dirty Water on weekends over the course of a year, while working as boom man on various feature films and TV commercials. He says he was inspired by daily newspaper accounts of the legal battles between the local U.S. Attorney's Office and state government over Florida's water management, and by the continuing commercial development of wetlands on the eastern edge of the Everglades near his parents' house in Homestead.
Witzen's 97-page script posits the existence of an evil cabal made up of a shopping mall developer, a chemical company magnate, a sugar baron, and a zoning lawyer who also serves as the head of the fictitious South Florida Water District Management (not to be confused with the real South Florida Water Management District). The cabal first gains control of the giant fresh water spring, then plots to poison Lake Okeechobee. Its goal: to monopolize South Florida's drinking-water supply. With the help of his wife, Kylie, and a courageous chief federal prosecutor, Clay Benson uncovers and foils the diabolical plot. He winds up with a new job as head of research for the Sierra Club.
Linda Seger, an independent screenplay consultant and author of Making a Good Script Great, is among the five industry pros who judged fifteen finalists in the Florida competition. She says she chose Witzen's script because of its originality and attention to research. And the screenplay's ecological themes give it a chance of commercial success, she says, noting that Hollywood may be ready for a "green" hero.
The Florida Screenwriters Competition, jointly sponsored by the Florida Commerce Department's Film Bureau, Universal Studios Florida, and the University of Central Florida, was designed by former Gov. Bob Graham to supply the state's budding film industry with a steady supply of viable scripts. One of the contest's requirements is that "75 percent or more of the screenplay must be set in Florida."
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This week Gov. Lawton Chiles and various Universal Studios film executives will host an awards ceremony and dinner for Witzen. They will not, however, fly Witzen to Hollywood to meet movie producers there, as was done in past years for previous winners. "The contest has kind of been downgraded from what it used to be because of budgetary constraints," says Ken Cooksey, development representative for the Florida Film Bureau.
James Welke, director of the School of Communications at the University of Central Florida, concedes that no winning script in the state contest has ever actually been produced as a full-length feature movie, though options on a few have been purchased.
Witzen will share the honors, and $2500 in prize money, with four other contest winners. While none is from this region, two of the winning scripts are set in South Florida: The Real McCoy, a mystery-love story, takes place in the Keys, and Bad Luck Big Time is about a Miami newspaper that folds.