TAMPA — Producers generally spread the word when they're filming a project so they can generate buzz and maybe boost their box office.
But that wasn't the case when a team was in Tampa last summer filming the indie flick “Sex Ed,” a raunchy comedy about middle school students who take ad-hoc lessons from an inexperienced teacher of the topic.
They kept their work secret out of concern there might be a change of heart or even protests by those associated with the campus used for the filming: Sacred Heart Academy, 3515 N. Florida Ave., a Catholic school that closed in 2012 for lack of enrollment after 81 years in operation.
“There was more making out in the convent during our film than in the total history of the building,” quipped the film's director Isaac Feder.
Producer Dori Sperko said she was surprised when historic Sacred Heart Church downtown and the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg agreed to allow them use of the campus for a fee. Sperko wouldn't say how much.
She had been rejected by a number of other local public and private schools once they read the script. At Sacred Heart, no one asked to read it.
“But they knew the name of the film and what it was about,” Sperko said.
Neither Sacred Heart nor the diocese responded to repeated requests for comment from the Tribune.
The movie stars Haley Joel Osment, who gained fame in 1999 as the boy who talked with the dead in “The Sixth Sense.” Osment was in Tampa for weeks filming “Sex Ed,” his first feature film since “Secondhand Lions” in 2003.
“Sex Ed” follows an aspiring math teacher played by Osment who can only find work overseeing detention at an inner-city public middle school. When he realizes the students know little about sex, he takes it upon himself to teach them — even though he's a virgin who is as ignorant as they are.
The movie is scheduled for limited release Nov. 7 in cities including Tampa.
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Sacred Heart Academy is not represented by name in the film. The setting instead is the fictitious Ybor Middle School. A convent at Sacred Heart serves as the Osment character's apartment, which he shares with his promiscuous roommate, portrayed by Glen Powell of “The Expendables 3.”
Adding to the irony of the setting is the involvement of Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of the birth control that the Roman Catholic Church preaches against.
Planned Parenthood donated contraceptives, sex education text books and pamphlets, and made sure the film's messages about birth control were factually correct.
“A Catholic school and Planned Parenthood are part of the same movie,” Sperko said. “Talk about strange bedfellows.”
The script called for a public school — sex education in a Catholic school might stretch credibility — so the crew worked to hide all the religious imagery still in place at Sacred Heart.
Faux concrete pillars were manufactured to cover the statues of the Virgin Mary that stand on either side of the academy's main entrance. The giant cross atop the academy had to be cropped out. Classrooms could only be filmed at certain angles. And in some scenes, like when students placed condoms on bananas, crews turned religious statues to face the wall even when they weren't in range of the camera.
“We didn't feel right with Jesus watching us,” director Feder said with a chuckle. “The movie is funny. But if we widened some of the shots and showed off all the Christian imagery that surrounded us, yeah, it would probably be funnier.”
In one scene, Sperko said, a list of sexually transmitted diseases is written on a blackboard that had the Ten Commandments on the other side.
“We never desecrated the school or faith in anyway,” she added. “Whenever we were near more spiritual areas of the campus everyone without being asked was on their best behavior out of respect.”
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Other Tampa locations are featured in “Sex Ed” — The Hub bar downtown, the University of Tampa, the Riverwalk and the streets of Davis Islands and Ybor City.
In a nod to the city's history, the mascot at Ybor Middle is the Rough Rider, for Theodore Roosevelt, who launched his expedition to Cuba from Tampa in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
“This is not just another independent film,” said Joe Restaino of Tampa, another of the film's producers. “This is a movie with major star power.”
Besides Osment and Powell, it also features Lamorne Morris of “New Girl,” veteran comedic actor Matt Walsh from films such as “The Hangover” and “Ted,” Parker Young of “Suburgatory,” and Abby Elliott from “Saturday Night Live.”
“We have full support of the actors and they are going to be promoting this film,” Restaino said. “And this film shows all different areas of Tampa — not just beaches but how downtown and Ybor are large culture-filled areas. Other producers will see it and want to film here.”
If not for the chance to use Sacred Heart Academy, the production may have bypassed Tampa.
The original setting was Chicago, home of director Feder and screenwriter Bill Kennedy, who is best known for his work on the Netflix political-intrigue series “House of Cards.”
But Sperko, who has lived in the Tampa Bay area for 40 years, lobbied for her home state.
“I believe in Florida as a production state and thought a film of this caliber could do great things for the state's reputation in the industry,” she said.
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The writer and director were willing — but only if Sperko could find them a piece of Florida with a unique and authentic look.
Sperko told them about Ybor City.
“Ybor has such an iconic look,” Sperko said. “It is so culturally diverse and has amazing architecture.”
Feder fell in love with the place, but things looked bleak when school after school refused them.
Then they discovered Sacred Heart Academy. It was perfect, Sperko and Feder agreed. Its rustic brick aged over eight decades provided the look they wanted. The gritty neighborhoods nearby provided the inner-city feel.
The production staff reached out to Sacred Heart and the diocese, while considering Sarasota and Bradenton as alternatives.
“It was a blessing that Sacred Heart gave us permission,” Feder said. “We owe them a lot.”
Raunchy jokes and promiscuity aside, many Catholics may sympathize with the central message of the film, Feder said.
“Our hero is a virgin looking for love and who cares about his students,” he said. “He's honorable and the film teaches sexual and moral responsibility.”
But there was one moment during filming that had some in the crew wondering whether they had stepped over a line.
Clear Tampa skies quickly gave way to afternoon storm clouds, and just as everyone ducked inside, a bolt of lightning struck nearby.
A sign from above?
“The storm held off long enough and got us to do what we had to do so we did not go over budget that day,” said Ferko. “And no one was hurt. That is a blessing.”