The Chamber of Commerce had nothing to do with it and the Cultural Council didn’t have a clue when last weekend, a star-studded movie that’s set in Vero Beach opened here and across the country. About the only locals who knew about “I Do…Until I Don’t,” were a handful of the writer/director’s former classmates at St. Edward’s School.
“We rolled pretty incognito in Vero,” says writer and director Lake Bell, reached by phone in Los Angeles. The well-known actress who has a lead role in the movie, says she has known and loved Vero Beach since she moved here in sixth grade.
“I met her literally the first day she came to town,” recalls Elizabeth Sorensen, part of the Sorensen family of real estate brokers.
It was June of last year when Bell got in touch with Sorensen for help scouting locations in Vero where the story takes place. With most of the movie being shot in Long Beach, Calif., “we were filling in the blanks,” says Bell.
Those local shots that made it into the movie include Corey’s Pharmacy, the Sebastian Inlet and, of course, the downtown shuffleboard courts. Bobby’s restaurant on the beach also figures into the film: it lent its menus and napkins as props.
In an early scene, Bell “gave a shout-out to the Sorensens.” They are also mentioned in the credits.
Friday, the day “I Do … Until I Don’t” opened nationwide, Bell was bursting with pride driving to an interview on Sirius-FM, part of a publicity blitz that included an August segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
In Vero, she somehow managed to avoid stares as she slipped in and out of town with her crew.
The film starts out with a cynical view on the institution of marriage – hardly the stuff of the Chamber of Commerce – but eventually turns into a group cheer for the status quo. An obnoxious documentary filmmaker (Dolly Wells) picks Vero to prove her thesis that marriage contracts should have a seven-year limit. Gleefully she signs up one miserable couple after another, but is ultimately crushed when loyal, legal love wins the day.
The exteriors shot in Vero include the homes for the three couples in the script. Make that two couples; the third, played by Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac, required more of a tropical campground. In an open relationship, they live with their young son in a New Age commune of drum circles and free love.
Heard’s character is the sister of Bell’s character, Alice, who with her husband, played by Ed Helms, are the meekest and most straight-laced couple. They run a weary-looking Venetian blinds shop, a ringer for any of a dozen mom-and-pops in Vero’s downtown.
The third couple is Vero’s most familiar spousal specimens, a couple of retirees played by Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser, who came to Vero after the wife “read that article about Prince Charles playing polo in Vero Beach.” (He did.)
“I lived there. Obviously I treat it with great affection in the movie,” says Bell. “I tend to only write what I know intimately, and since I’ve spent so much time in Vero, it was the perfect place to set our scene.”
Bell, whom Sorensen recalls was “very funny” even as a kid, left St. Ed’s for boarding school at 14 – Westminster in Connecticut. After a year at Skidmore College, she headed to London for drama school: Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.
By her early 20s, she was landing roles in film and television, including as Ashton Kutcher’s boss in “No Strings Attached” and roles on “E.R.” and “Boston Legal.” Bell’s reputation swelled with roles in the HBO series “How to Make It in America” and the Adult Swim series “Children’s Hospital.” She also played a memorable part as Alec Baldwin’s wife in the movie “It’s Complicated.”
In 2011, she ventured into screenwriting and directed her first effort, a short called “Worst Enemy.” It debuted at Sundance and played at festivals in Nantucket, Dallas and Aspen. Two years later came “In a World …” in which she played the lead: a voice coach and voice-over actress who finally breaks the gender wall in film trailers. That film got great reviews, and won Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
Throughout her rise in celebrity, Bell has continued to visit Sorensen in Vero, timing her trips to coincide with Miami’s Art Basel (her husband is also a fine artist) and visits to her two grandmothers in West Palm Beach. Her mother no longer lives in Vero Beach.
“What’s lovely about Vero is that I can count on it not being dissimilar from when I was a kid. That’s comforting,” Bell says.
Even if only a few scenes are actually Vero, watching the movie delivers a constant jolt of geographic familiarity. The town’s name pops up throughout, including in the lecture Wells gives to a crowd assembled in what looks like the Heritage Center (it’s not). There’s also a climactic scene in Riverside Park, though the only aspect that’s in Vero is the sign, “Riverside Park.”
As for Bell’s own marriage, Sorensen is familiar first-hand: She went to the wedding. The star-studded 2013 ceremony took place in New Orleans, Campbell’s home. The couple have two small children.
While celebrity doesn’t seem a problem for Bell, she clearly preferred her Vero visit be kept quiet. “I kind of got the feeling they didn’t want a lot of people to know about it,” says Jerusha Stewart, executive director of the Vero Beach Wine and Film Festival, whose inaugural event took place less than three weeks before the shoot last year.
The festival organizers seemed to be the only folks in town besides the Sorensen clan who knew Lake Bell was in town. They found out through a board member who follows Bell on Instagram and saw photos posted from the shoot.
And just as Bell didn’t alert city or chamber officials she was coming, Sorensen kept it quiet too.
“My relationship with Lake is very personal,” says Sorensen. “I’ve never tried to promote her work, but this one being in Vero Beach … it’s different having our town be the stage.”