Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dumb Luck

Looking into Mexico at from high atop the peak at the Coronado National Memorial site

Authors note: I recently wrote a story on a Ruby Tuesday post about Mrs. Spadoman and her involvement with the motion picture industry. Here is a reposting of a story I wrote in 2007 about my time in the motion picture industry:

As many of you know, I worked in motion picture production for some time years ago. I ended working for wages in November of 2001. My last “job” was working as a stunt driver operating a snow plow for a Nike running shoe commercial.

I started working in this business as a truck driver under the Teamsters Union in Minneapolis, MN. I had all the necessary licenses to drive pretty much any kind of rig that’s ever been made. My first gig in the motion picture industry was driving a water truck. A water tanker filled from a municipal city or fire department hydrant.

From there, I drove whatever they told me to drive. I pulled elaborate RV trailers for the movie stars, wardrobe trucks and trailers, make-up, props, grips and electricians. Carpenters, set decorators and painters. Limousines with important and seemingly unimportant stars. I mean, who knew Reese Witherspoon was gonna get an oscar? Or that Natalie Portman would achieve fame and fortune with Star Wars? I drove star trailers for Emilio Esteves, Kirstie Alley, Sophia Loren and others.

The really good ones, the ones comfortable with their money and what they achieved in the industry were also around at times. Greats like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. And Sophia Loren. All of them were on one of the sets in the filming of the movie “Grumpier Old Men”.

I have had many jobs in my life. I wasn’t always in the motion picture business. But the last place I worked before I had to stop working for a paycheck was with the movies. Not all of my jobs were driving equipment or hauling around personalities though.

I did some special effects, too. Special effects, or F/X as it is abbreviated in the industry, means a lot of different things. The company I worked for did mechanical effects. We would make water run out of faucets. Make it rain, make it snow, make it windy, make it dusty, make it smokey, make it foggy. We also made things look like they were exploding and made things look like bullets were riddling the ground or a car, or even a persons body.

Mechanical effects are fun to rig up. Sometimes it takes days to get everything set up for one minute of glory. A car over a cliff or an explosion. You wouldn’t believe the work involved with getting a simple water faucet to work on a design set. The water doesn’t come from a tap. It is temperature controlled so the actor or actress doesn’t burn themselves or flinch because the water is too cold. One time I was laying on the floor, under where the camera could see, and I simply slammed the door when the guy walked in, making it look like the wind blew it shut. Funny stuff.

The water truck was used for special effects as well. Look at the next car commercial you see. The streets will be wet 90% of the time, especially night shots. You can see the water spraying up from the tires if you look close. This is a trick used by photography directors everywhere. We also used the water truck in snow making, rain making and just about any water application.

I did some catering when I wasn’t working on a show myself. My spousal unit, Barb, had a catering and Craft Service business. I wrote about Mrs. Spadoman’s Craft Service and Catering Company, Eat This!, not long ago.

Many times, while working as a Teamster, we were the ones who would drive vehicles to and from the production set. Say a car had to be in a scene. A Teamster driver would go get the vehicle where it was parked and drive it to the set. The vehicle was put where it was suppose to be in the movie and a Teamster would park it just like the director wants it.

If the vehicle was going to be driven, maybe a Teamster or an extra would do the driving. If the driving was technical, a stunt driver would do the driving. At the end of the production day, a Teamster would return the vehicle to where it is parked and stored until next time it is needed.

One time I was returning a car used that day in the shoot. It was a regular police car borrowed from the county. It was “out of service”, but still had the lights rigged up on top. I was traveling down a highway late in the evening. The car ahead of me was speeding, but not too badly. I couldn’t resist hitting that light switch once, just for a moment. That car slammed on his brakes and went down to 55 in an instant.

Sometimes, they would need a driver to drive up in a vehicle, or drive away with a vehicle in a scene. They would use a Teamster there too, but because some portion of his or her body would possibly be in the picture, they paid a little extra money for it besides the regular hourly pay you were making.

In my short time working in the film industry, I drove a prison bus, two ambulances, many autos and trucks and once a motorcycle. When the conversation starts up about working in Hollyweird, people always ask me if I met any famous actors or so-and-so. I have, and it stands to reason, we're working together. Sometimes this involves work related communication about how a stunt will go or when to duck for the explosion. I have had a few times where I actually sat and talked with a real live movie star. On the set of A Simple Plan, I lit Bridget Fonda's cigarettes all night long, and on Feeling Minnesota, I got to meet and talk with Cameron Diaz. She was a wonderful down to earth human being and never acted like an elitist movie star. Maybe I should mention how beautiful she is in person.

One time, I found myself in a spot of good fortune. Let me tell you about it.

I was to go get an orange snowplow from a used truck dealer lot and bring it to the set. This is not unusual. When I get to the set and the truck is to be used, I was asked to drive it by the camera, down the street, and plow snow. Still not anything out of the ordinary. I mean, I was hired as a truck driver/equipment operator and getting paid a very good union wage for my efforts.

After the scene, a PA, Production Assistant, came up to me and told me that I needed to wear the same clothes to work for the next two days. The electricians got into the truck and mounted lights on the sun visor and on the floor facing up. I knew this meant that there was a possibility that I would be in the shot and for the purpose of continuity, I had to look the same each time I drove the snowplow. What would it look like in the commercial if the truck driver had on a dark blue jacket one day and a black one the next?

This didn’t mean much, but I figured that I should get the usual $60.00 bone that was thrown my way for maybe being seen as I drove. Then, the real stuff started. I had to drive the plow with over a half a million dollars worth of camera equipment strapped to it on the plow, the wing, the hood and the back tailgate. Then, there were timing sequences where I had to hit a mark. I had to thread between cars lined up and be plowing snow. I had to drive between cameras and there were people, human life forms, running close to the front and rear as I was driving. One slip of the clutch or failure of the brakes and I could have killed someone.

All in all, I had to do some pretty technical driving with the snowplow. I was up to the task. I knew how to do it and performed admirably. With all humility, it was no big deal and any truck driver worth a tinkers damn could do what I did.

I did this for three days of production. I did everything they asked of me. The shoot for the Nike commercial was over. It was time to turn in our time cards. Pay day would be in about a week. With over time and double time from working long hours, I had about two thousand dollars in wages coming to me which included the extra $60.00 per day extra because I might be seen in the commercial as the driver.

A friend of mine who works in make-up and hair, pulled me aside. She was involved with the inner workings of her union, the IATSE, The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. It seems that this production company that Nike had hired, was cutting things to the bone and a lot of people were not getting what was due them as prescribed by the union contract.

The Teamsters, the union of which I was a member, wasn’t having any problems, or so I thought. My friend explained to me that the part of the snowplow driver was a scripted part and required a stunt driver because of the risk to self and others involved with the shots. She asked me to call the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, (yep, the Oscars and all that), and talk to them about my role in the commercial.

As it turns out, indeed there was suppose to be a stunt driver hired and paid. And because it was a scripted part, that driver, along with other featured actors and actresses, like Marion Jones who appeared in the commercial, is suppose to get paid for doing it and also receive residuals every time it is shown on Network or Cable TV.

Depending on your standing with SAG, the amount you get per showing varies. Obviously George Clooney gets more than I would, but I really can’t see why. I’m just sayin’.

In any event, the SAG official verified what my friend had told me and I negotiated a contract that the production company would have to adhere to if they were to sell the shot commercial footage to NIKE. I signed on and paid a small fee to be in SAG. If I were to have stayed in the Screen Actors Guild, I could have a vote for future Oscar nominations. But I just wanted the money for the work I had done. Besides, I was close to being able to quit working for wages. This was going to be my swan song, my last official “job”.

Another problem that took place was that this production company filed bankruptcy right after the commercial shoot. They essentially ripped every hourly wage earner out of their money. It took us three years to get thirty cents on the dollar from them for our hourly work.

The good news was that the SAG money was from a different pot which was paid by NIKE and I would get the SAG wages for the stunt driving. I didn’t know how much it would be, but I thought I’d at least get some money. Too bad my Teamster brothers and sisters were getting screwed out of their wages.

Well, the first time the commercial was shown, it was during the third quarter of an NFL football game broadcast. CBS and FOX carried it on network, ESPN carried it on Cable. I saw it. It was cool because I knew I was driving the plow. We did enough for many spots. Thirty second and sixty second commercials all with the same theme. NIKE’s campaign was “Enjoy the Weather” and this particular seasonal theme was snow.

I got an envelope after the first week and I got paid for my part of the commercial. I didn’t understand the whole way things worked in the higher end of the movie trade, but I liked the results. I got two big fat checks and thought that was a good deal. I was satisfied and thought the whole thing over and done with, and definitely worth the extra effort to get in on the SAG end.

“End of story”, I thought. But I kept getting checks every week. And I mean some big fatties! One for Network, one for Cable, so much for each showing. This was manna from heaven. I never realized. This was what residuals are, and my contract was good from November 2001 all the way through July of 2003.

The Olympics were coming up and the sixty second version was gonna be shown about ten times for each NBC Olympic broadcast coverage. I was gonna be freakin’ rich! Then it happened.

When NIKE had to deal with the lost wages from the hourly employees because the production company that filmed the commercial had filed for bankruptcy protection, they pulled all the spots, for good. My cash cow was over. No Spadoman driving his way to glory and a trip to Aruba via Nike and Marion Jones running behind his snowplow.

I did do all right though. I pulled in around $40K for my three days work as a stunt driver. That's where the story title comes in. My good friend Bruce was so mad because I got paid handsomely and he didn't, and it was all because of some "Dumb Luck", as he calls it. He loves remembering this stroke of luck. I wish he could give me back the money I spent.

That was my brush with fame. It was a hell of a way to greet my retirement. My last job was the best paying. Kinda like Barry Sanders or Pele who went out at the top of their game, Spadoman went out with a flash, and a snowplow blade loaded with cameras and snow.

Through technology, I was able to make a YOU TUBE of my greatest moment. You don’t ever see me, but I can tell you, I am driving the snowplow. And HEY! The station wagon on the left side of the street in the beginning of the commercial, that’s my 1984 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. One of the best cars I ever owned. I got an extra $50.00 for using it in the shoot.

Here's the YouTube. It's 30 seconds long:

I also have a still shot of me in the orange plow. By the way I was smiling, you’d think I knew I was gonna make a lot of money!

Yours truly, sitting in the plow, waiting for the director to get the action rolling



Mel said...

What a very cool clip. And what a fun go of it the two of you had! Seems to me you two still have that going on, motorbike rides and morning coffees are a very good thing.

Of course, yaknow......I woulda done the same in the 'out of commission' police car. LOL

A 2 Z said...

Fun post Spade. I really envy you. What a great opportunity for the two of you. You worked with the best it seems. Hope you write more of your experiences with these guys.



rochambeau said...

Hi Spade,
What adventures you have had in the industry! It was cool to have a glimpse into your life in the movie biz. My husband and I lived in LA for a few years. It surprised me how "the industry" seeped into life everywhere. It is really different than other parts of the US.

Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment on my site.

EG CameraGirl said...

That's great pay for three days work! What a cool experience too. Thanks so much for telling us about it!

Unknown said...

What a great story Spadoman!! and how very cool to have that commercial.

I want to hear more!

Spadoman said...

Thanks very much, all of you, for stopping by here at Round Circle.

Mel... I guess we are still having fun. Wish I had all that money I made, I'd be having more fun!
Why doesn't it surprise me that you'd flash them lighjts at someone to scare the hell out of them? It was such fun! Thanks for your comment.


A 2 Z.. Thanks, it was a good run while we did it, but we look back and have no desire for the long hours and hard work. Thanks for coming by.


rochambeau... What an honor and pleasure to see you here. Your art community is fantastic. I enjoyed coming to your site and will be back. You are right, people don't realize that L.A. IS the motion picture business for the world. Thanks for stopping.


EG Wow... Thanks for being here. I applaud you for all the posts you do, great photos by the way. It was a good paycheck. Wish I'd had known about SAG long before I did.


Stephanie... Always a pleasure when you drop by. Thanks so much. I had to buy the rights to that commercial before I could download it, but it is a part of me for my Grandkids to see later on.
I'll tell you all about it one of these days. It's inevitable that i visit Mango Studio someday.


susan said...

That's another great story and a wonderful video. Good things happen when you're open to them and that's an excellent lesson plan you have here.

Fran said...

Well that was a fun romp into past history.
Cool story. Maybe you can get snow plow work in the winter using this as a resume item??

Spadoman said...

susan.. Thanks for being here and your kind words. I guess I was open for anything everytime I looked for a job!


Fran... Remember Maynard G. Krebbs? From the Dobie Gillis TV show? All I have to say is, "WORK!"
But it's a good idea. I should have thought of that when I was doing it, but then again, it was the last job, (for wages), I ever worked.
Thanks for stopping by. Great to see you.