Moving Pictures

Teamster Scott Pierson pulls the grip trailer, shown here, which holds all the equipment used by the camera and electrical assistants (called grips). In his 28-year career, Pierson has met many big-name actors, including Bruce Willis and John Wayne.

Next time you watch a movie, take a closer look at the credits rolling across the screen at the end. Look for titles like “honey wagon driver” and “generator operator,” and you’ll see the names of truckers whose jobs are in many ways like the average over-the-road driver – and yet incredibly different.

Dusty Saunders is a transportation coordinator. Sounds like a normal trucking job until you hear where he does it – on movie sets all over the United States.

Saunders is in charge of all the transportation on a movie set – trucks filled with props, electrical equipment and dressing rooms; vans that carry actors and crew where they need to go; and background vehicles called picture cars (see Making the Scene on page 26) to help create the movie’s setting.

When a movie starts production, Saunders handpicks his team of drivers by seniority and reputation from the roster list of the Teamsters Local 399 union in Los Angeles and the Teamsters unions around the shooting area. He and the drivers hop from studio to studio. They have to follow DOT rules and fill out log books, just like regular truckers – though they might only drive three total hours in a full day of work.

“Throughout the picture, nine times out of 10 the drivers are on the set each day,” Saunders says. “We move locations. The drivers are there full-time, and they stay with the truck. They move them around, so it’s easier for the crew.” The drivers are also responsible for packing up and moving the necessary equipment from location to location.

This summer, Saunders and his crew of drivers settled in the Memphis, Tenn., area, where 20th Century Fox was filming Walk the Line, a movie based on the life of late country legend Johnny Cash and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as his late wife June Carter Cash. The film is scheduled for release in spring 2005.

At the end of August, shooting on Walk the Line was wrapping up on a rice and cotton farm a few miles east of Tunica, Miss. When the rain wasn’t beating down and turning the road between base camp and set to thick mud, the summer sun was. Hollywood glamour seemed a million miles away as the mud-spattered crew trucked back and forth on the rutted dirt road, sometimes working 18 hours a day.

“It’s nothing to put in a 16-hour day,” says Terry Jones of Savannah, Ga., who has been hauling on movie sets since 1975. “In transportation it’s not unusual to work 18 hours. It’s only glamorous at the Oscars.”

Jones’ main job is hauling the “honey wagon” – an 80-foot concoction consisting of a Class 8 tractor and two trailers divided into restrooms and dressing rooms. The arrangement, rented from Lightnin Production Rentals out of Atlanta, is considered specialized equipment and requires a special designation on Jones’ license.

But Jones’ work isn’t finished when the honey wagon is settled in its spot at base camp, where most of the preparation happens. He is responsible for keeping the bathrooms clean, the dressing rooms maintained and the generator that powers and cools them running smoothly. The dressing rooms are for the “day players” – lesser-known actors who may only be on the set for a few days. The names of the characters they play are taped on the doors below a red star.

As for the big-name actors, they each get a 40-foot travel trailer of their own, also hauled by a trucker. On Walk the Line, trucker Ralph Page of Jackson, Miss., has the job of hauling the trailer of its star, Phoenix.

“It’s a home away from home,” says Page, 61, a member of Jackson Teamsters union 891. “It’s where they dress, lay down. It’s like a big apartment.”

Page, who has been driving for the movies since 1995, has driven his share of stars on movies like A Time to Kill and A Beautiful Mind, but “they’re just people to me,” he says. “You drive a movie star around, you drive a truck – whatever.”

The only star he has driven more than once is George Clooney, who he met on the sets of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Out of Sight. He says one of the nicest he has met is Robert Redford, who was the director and producer of The Legend of Bagger Vance.

“You get to know them on every show,” says Jones, whose film credits include The Big Chill, The Pelican Brief and Enemy of the State. “You interact with them. I can’t tell you names – too big of names.”

Debbie Bowden, 40, has met Robert Redford, Dolly Parton and Mark Ruffalo, among others, in her six years of driving on films like 21 Grams and A Painted House.

“For the most part, they’re just like you and me,” says the Nashville, Tenn., driver. “They’re just a little higher on the hog.”

But rubbing elbows with celebrities is only a small part of the job.

The drivers – 22 on this set, a small number in an industry where 40-50 drivers on a movie is common – are all assigned to specific vehicles but aren’t limited to driving one thing. They must have a Class A commercial driver’s license so they can drive “anything on the set with a steering wheel,” as more than one driver put it.

One frequent duty on the set of Walk the Line is driving the white vans that carry actors and crew from base camp, near the highway, deep into the field of rice and beyond the tree line to a set including a replica of the Cashes’ farm house, built especially for the movie.

“During the day there’s 1,500 requests,” Saunders says. The set captains, Steve Moffitt from Southaven, Miss., and John Librand from South Carolina, make sure everyone – and everything – gets to the proper places.

“They use me because of my knowledge of the area and the people in the area,” says Moffitt, whose movie experience started with The Firm 11 years ago. Moffitt is also in charge of mechanic work on the generators and picture cars. His wife is a driver for Swift Transportation.

Special equipment
When they’re not hauling people, the drivers are in charge of the equipment, most of it rented from various companies around the country. A typical movie set requires four or five 18-wheelers – the honey wagon and trailers for lighting and electrical, props, wardrobe, massive generators and air conditioners, and a fuel truck to keep them all running, Saunders says.

The prop trailer is full of “anything an actor will handle or use when you’re making a movie,” Saunders says. “We have boxes upon boxes of books, watches, etc.” Because Walk the Line is about a musician, the 48-foot prop trailer carries a special cargo. “It’s almost filled from one end to the other with musical instruments we’ll be using in making the movie,” Saunders says.

California driver Gary Stalker’s main responsibility is hauling and maintaining the 1,400-amp generator that powers the whole base camp, along with the 48-foot wardrobe trailer full of clothes and accessories behind it. “It’s a lot of power,” says the 47-year-old driver.

Stalker, who started driving 15 years ago, compares himself to a gypsy, always on the move and working for different companies. He is filling in for a friend behind the wheel of a 1980 Kenworth cabover on Walk the Line and usually hauls a trailer with twin 1,400-amp generators that power set lights. Cabovers are common on movie sets, he says, because they take up less room in often-tight quarters.

Scott Pierson, 57, of Canoga Park, Calif., usually pulls the grip truck, which contains all the equipment used by the camera and electrical assistants (called grips), like screens to put in front of the lights to soften the lighting and dollies used on the set. Pierson, whose last job was a new Bruce Willis flick called Hostage, has been driving for the movies for 28 years, following in his father’s footsteps. His dad drove for the movies for 40 years.

As dedicated to the job as Pierson is, he says he doesn’t want his children to carry on the family tradition. “It’s a different business than it was when I started. It used to be family-oriented, and now it’s just business,” he says. “My son’s a plumber, and I’m happy with that.”

On the road
Like over-the-road trucking jobs, hauling to movie sets means certain sacrifices, especially time at home with the family.

Like a typical over-the-road driver, movie set drivers travel all over the country. But unlike a typical driver, they hunker down in a new town for days, weeks or even months.

“Some shows you’ll shoot for a few days in one town, then move to another and another,” Saunders says. For example, the movie Natural Born Killers, with which Saunders traveled all over the nation.

But Walk the Line is different. “This show’s been nice because we do 90 percent of our work in and around the Memphis area,” Saunders says.

That can have its benefits. In a few weeks or months, drivers can really get to know a town and its people in a way they couldn’t speeding by it on the Interstate.

“It takes you a lot of places,” Stalker says. “This is all down back roads, beautiful country. A couple months ago, I was in Elvis’ old suite in Vegas.”

Jones likes a lot of the cities he’s visited – Boston, Baltimore and particularly New Orleans, where he’s been going since 1987. “I like the people down there,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of friends. Going down there is like going home.”

But Jones, who calls himself a “family man,” also likes filming at the studios in Wilmington, N.C., because it’s just a few hours’ drive from his wife and children in Savannah, Ga.

It’s common practice on the set for spouses to come out for long visits and for the drivers to fly or drive home occasionally during a long shoot.

Pierson’s wife came out to the set of Walk the Line for two weeks. “That’s part of the business,” he says. “Normally my wife travels with me.”

Unlike most of the drivers on the set of Walk the Line, local captain Moffitt gets to go home at night to his house eight miles away. Most of the other drivers, cast and crew stay in hotels and apartments.

“I go all over,” says Page, whose home in Jackson, Miss., is only about 200 miles away from Tunica. “I usually try to stay within a 200- to 250-mile radius, but I’ll go where they call me to go. Basically, we work all over – anywhere from here to New York.”

Challenges and rewards
The established drivers haul for movie sets six to nine months out of the year, making an unusually good living along the way.

The drivers are paid by the hour – usually somewhere around $24 per hour, depending on the equipment, Saunders says.

“It’s a very good living,” Stalker says. “It’s stupid how much you work, but that’s what makes it a good living. I don’t know what else I would do to make a living like this.”
But it doesn’t usually start out that way.

“People who are just getting started in the industry, you may only work three months of the year,” Saunders says. “Over the years, you move up the roster. I tell them when they start to save your money and have something else to fall back on.”

In the L.A. Teamsters 399 union, drivers move up through three groups as they gain seniority. When all the drivers in Group 1 have been hired, production companies can hire Group 2 drivers, and so on.

Saunders was lucky when he started out in 1975, while he was still a student. “I got a break and heard they were hiring in the movie business,” he says. “It just happened in ’75 that was the heyday of movies, so there was plenty of work.”

Today the ’70s boom has slowed. Many movies are being filmed in Canada because the U.S. dollar can buy more there, Saunders says. “We used to be able to work regularly 10 months of the year,” he says. “Because of movies moving to Canada, the average member is working seven to seven and a half months a year.”

And that’s not the only challenge. Movies can film on a secluded farm, on top of a mountain, smack in the middle of a major city or anywhere in between, all of which create their own special difficulties when trying to maneuver an 18-wheeler.

“The type of terrain we’re on is where trucks don’t normally go,” Jones says. “This year we’re in a rice field. Last year we were in a cane field in Louisiana. That was tough.”

Jones worked on Patch Adams, part of which filmed in the eastern Appalachian Mountains – high up the Blue Ridge Parkway, where commercial vehicles aren’t allowed. The production company got special permission to take commercial vehicles up there, but they could only make it up halfway and had to set up base camp there.

In the city, tight spaces, people and traffic combine to make a challenging movie shoot for all involved. “We don’t drive normal trucks. My truck is 80 feet,” Jones says. “Sometimes you reach a place you can’t turn around, and you have to back it out – especially down there in New Orleans in the French Quarter.”

In spite of some tight spots, safety is never sacrificed, Saunders says. “The one thing in Los Angeles that we’re proud of is our safety record. It gets pretty difficult when you drive the equipment we do and work the hours we do.”

But the benefits outweigh the difficulties, says Page, who originally joined the Teamsters union to haul cars.

“I didn’t have a choice after our terminal closed down, so I went into movies,” he says. “This is better, easier. It’s hard work hauling cars.”

Making the Scene
‘Picture cars’ help create the right setting

The right vehicles in a scene can tell a lot about the setting – the time period, the neighborhood, the socioeconomic status of the characters. Finding and setting up these “picture cars” is one important job transportation coordinator Dusty Saunders and his set captains John Librand and Steve Moffitt handle on Walk the Line.

“It is my job or the picture car captain’s job to go out and find these cars,” Saunders says. “The script may say he’s driving a Cadillac down the street, and the director may want to see seven or eight different cars.”

In a scene where Johnny Cash goes to Mexico, he has to push the car, Saunders says. “We have to pull the car back to the same exact spot because the cameraman has already set the camera for that spot,” he says.

One of Moffitt’s jobs is keeping the picture cars running smoothly. He got into the movie business when a truck broke down during the filming of The Firm in Memphis in 1993. “Somebody called me because they had a truck broken down in downtown Memphis late at night,” says Moffitt, who inherited the trucking bug from his dad. “I fixed it, and they just kept calling.”

Meals on Wheels
Trucker/cook keeps crew fueled with plenty of grub

There’s one benefit to being a driver rather than a star on a movie set – you get to eat lunch a half hour earlier. On the set of Walk the Line the drivers take an early lunch so they’ll be available to drive the vans when filming breaks at 2:45 for lunch served from a catering truck manned by chef and Teamster Mike Grean.

“I cook all day and pull that truck wherever they want me to go,” says Grean, who works for Deluxe Catering but is paid by the production company, like the other Teamsters. “Some companies have full-on 53-footers. I knew this place would be a tight squeeze, so I brought the smaller one.”

From his trailer, Grean says he has served more than 8,000 meals over the course of this 11-week shoot for the film crew, actors and drivers. A second, 45-foot refrigerated trailer containing extra food and supplies is parked at the Memphis Convention Center about 60 miles away.

Grean and three other chefs cook the food, but he is the only one with a Teamster designation. He has to have a CDL so he can pull double duty as a chef and driver.

“When you’re on the road, it’s all you,” Grean says. “You do all the ordering, everything on the show.”

Grean presents a variety of food for breakfast and lunch. “I got more [stuff] than Cracker Barrel,” he says.

Grean is originally from New York but now lives in Los Angeles – when he can get there. He’s been on the road working various movies for a solid year with only one week at home.

“In a year period, I’m hardly ever there, kind of like a long-haul trucker,” he says. Also like a long-haul trucker, he has to keep a log book. “I always keep one because if they stick me on a scale, I might be over.”

But trucking on a movie set has one significant difference – the Teamsters get paid something called a “meal penalty” if they don’t get to eat every six hours, Grean says. “One of my checks had $600 meal penalty,” he says.

The Muscle Truck
Portable gym keeps actors fit on location

Personal trainer Valerie Waters first saw a need for a portable, on-location gym when she went on set with actor Jim Carrey. That realization led to the creation of the Muscle Truck, an air-conditioned, 48-foot trailer equipped with all the exercise equipment an actor and his or her personal trainer requests.

“I’ve been a personal trainer for a long time, and having gone on location with actors, they don’t have facilities available,” Waters says. “We were putting a pair of dumbbells in their regular trailer.”

With the Muscle Truck on set, actors can exercise before or after work or even during a break in filming.

“If they’ve got a half hour, it allows them to go in and pump up,” Waters says. “I find that it makes their time more efficient.”

Actor Hugh Jackman pumped up between scenes when filming Van Helsing, Waters says, and Jennifer Garner liked to work out in the morning before filming on the set of 13 Going on 30.

Exercise is important to actors not only because of the way they look but also because of how it makes them feel, Waters says.

Movie and television production companies rent the trailer and hire their own drivers to haul it from a storage facility in Santa Carita, Calif., to the set, where it stays for the duration of filming.

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