In many ways, K.C. Schulberg’s life reads like a screenplay. Here’s the concept: The progeny of a Hollywood dynasty, who’s worked on more than 200 films and television mini-series, falls in love with Naples, Florida, and steers his formidable talents toward advocacy for water conservation and social justice.
In the COLD OPEN, a 5-year-old Schulberg, a self-proclaimed “film brat,” is in buckle shoes and knee socks, waiting for his walk-on role as an extra in Wind Across the Everglades. It’s 1957, and his father, prominent director/producer Stuart Schulberg, and uncle, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, have teamed up to make the eco-themed film, starring Burl Ives and Christopher Plummer, on location in Everglades City.
When the crew wraps for the day, young Schulberg learns how to ride a bike and looks for needlefish and gators with Damas Kirk, son of the wildlife expert consulting on the film. The two boys run around the sleepy town, population 350, fishing rods in hand. They wet their lines off the docks of the Rod and Gun Club and marvel at the sparkling waters of the Barron River.
MATCH CUT: a similar scene 55 years later. Schulberg, now a film executive, and Kirk are on a fishing boat on the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing’s biting, so the conversation turns to real estate. Schulberg, whose family film legacy has been tied to Hollywood since the 1920s, has been wanting to buy property in Los Angeles, but the market is blazing and his offers have gone unanswered. He turns his focus to Naples instead, charmed by its peaceful vibe, waterways, and wide-open spaces.
“I found a house I really liked,” he says. “It had been abandoned for two years but it was on five acres and had a horse farm. So I made an offer.”
DISSOLVE TO 2016. Schulberg enjoys living in Naples with his actress wife, Ynda, though he misses making movies. He joins the advisory board for the Lorenzo Walker Technical College media department and mentors young people in the film program. At the same time, his banker introduces him to Vito Trupiano, a local budding filmmaker. Schulberg and Trupiano collaborate on an arthouse film called Wastecase, starring Ynda and a cast of amateur actors.
Schulberg is heartened. “You can find creativity anywhere,” he says. “Sometimes you have to be a little resourceful.”
He continues his quest for intellectual stimulation. “I like to nurture things and see them grow,” he says. “When I was [in senior-level positions, from production to marketing, in the 1990s] at Hallmark Entertainment, we doubled the size of that company every year.”
He hears about a nascent grassroots group called Collier Freedom, which promotes activism on social issues. He shows up at a planning meeting for a women’s march and says, humbly, “I’m here to help.” Translation: he’s all in. The event draws more than 1,000 people, thanks largely to his ability to motivate folks.
Schulberg appreciates this group’s mission so much that he joins for the long haul. He helps organize events around social issues, including the environment. He develops a series of workshops on climate change and water quality, and hosts a screening of the 2017 documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power at the Silver Spot Cinema. The unexpected success of that event—they have to arrange a second screening on the spot—captures the attention of John Capece, one of the founding members of Calusa Waterkeeper.
The two become friendly and Capece is among the guests at gatherings the Schulbergs host at their home. The more he learns about Schulberg, the more he appreciates his talent and work ethic, not to mention his charisma.
But conflict is brewing in the background. The Schulbergs want to further their work as filmmakers and long for the energy of Hollywood. They start to talk about moving to L.A. and eventually put their house on the market.
Break into two.
Everyone is bummed about this news. Capece says, “When their friends would get together at their home for meetings or social gatherings, as soon as K.C. and Ynda would leave the room, the rest of us would start talking about how we might be able to prevent their departure. We’d joke about undermining the house sale somehow, but would then get serious and discuss possible carrots.”
Meanwhile, Capece is working to transition Caloosahatchee Riverwatch into Calusa Waterkeeper, a Fort Myers–based clean-water advocacy nonprofit. QUICK CUTS of Capece’s aha moment: Schulberg’s history with the Everglades, his ability to organize around social issues, his background in film, and his family’s connection to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the international Waterkeeper Alliance.
A carrot indeed!
Capece puts Schulberg forth as a candidate for the Calusa Waterkeeper executive director position. Board members are skeptical—a film producer?—but change their minds the minute they meet him. Ruth Watkins, the board president, loves his energy. “Apparently on the drive from Naples to meet with us, he came up with an idea for an event. He had a name for it and everything, and had it planned in his head.”
He’s hired. First order of business: to execute that event he dreamed up in the car. The Big Calusa, an ambitious weeklong series of cleanups, boat tours, kayak races, and a Culture Night where storytellers share the history of the waterways, is a huge success, cementing Schulberg’s reputation as rainmaker.
Working with the Waterkeeper, John Cassani, he learns that Southwest Florida water bodies, including the Caloosahatchee and the Gulf of Mexico, are under threat by harmful algal blooms (HABs), triggered when heavy rainfalls necessitate the release of water from Lake Okeechobee into feeder rivers. To compound the problem, the cyanobacteria responsible for the freshwater blooms is aerosolized, which presents a public health risk. Schulberg says, “If blue-green algae is in the air and everybody’s breathing it, what are the health concerns we’re facing? It’s necessary to get the word out.”
Contemplating how best to do that, he thinks, as he often does: Why not make a movie?
MONTAGE of filming scenes: aerials of the Caloosahatchee; green sludge on the river; research scientists Paul Alan Cox, Elijah Stommel, Walter Bradley, and others; local residents impacted by the blooms; a slew of front-line nurses and doctors; and Schulberg directing.
In 2019, Troubled Waters is released. The 40-minute documentary gets tons of attention for its educational message about the respiratory and neurological risks of exposure and the economic impact of diminished water quality. Once again, Schulberg’s talents pay dividends for the community.
But he doesn’t rest. “We need to keep educating people,” he says.
Break into three.
Walking his property with his 2-year-old rescue mutt, Heavenly, Schulberg reflects on the inspiration and friendships he’s found in Naples, the small town with the big heart and passion for conservation and the arts. “It’s been a good ride, and we feel that we’re doing good work and contributing to the overall well-being of our community,” he says.
Creatively supercharged, he makes a second movie for Calusa Waterkeeper—Eternal Vigilance—about restoring the Estero Bay tributaries. The film is set to premiere November 14, during an online fundraiser. He also continues work on personal projects, namely two feature films produced by his company, Glade Runner. The first, Kahar, is set in Afghanistan and explores women’s rights through the lens of two sisters. It’s inspired by the real story of Ynda, who’s Afghan Algerian, and her cousin, a well-known Afghan actress. “I’d like to put out a movie with a message,” he says. “I think this one will have a whole lot of resonance.” He hopes to release it in 2021.
Equally meaningful to him is The Dare, based on a short story written by his late uncle Budd. He describes it as “a magical-realism mermaid tale set in an out-of-time period.” With its South Florida setting and sprinkling of Everglades, Seminole, and old Florida lore, this film is a full-circle moment for Schulberg.
The overarching theme to Schulberg’s story is to improve the world through his work, art, and advocacy. “I don’t think it’s enough to make money or to coast or to take accolades,” he says. “You have to render the world more humane and more compassionate.”
He muses on success: “It has as much to do with what you’ve accomplished for other people as what you’ve accomplished for yourself.”
As far as that goes, the story is still writing itself.