Old Iron in Hollywood

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This John Deere Model D tractor played a brief but pivotal role in "Seabiscuit." The scene called for the engine to backfire when starting, startling a nearby racehorse with disastrous results.

Remember the 2003 Academy Award-nominated movie Seabiscuit?

If you’re an aficionado of vintage tractors and trucks, there’s a good chance you’ll recall seeing more than a dozen antique vehicles in the film, including a 1926 Autocar truck, a 1930 John Deere Model D, a 1932 Case Model CO, a 1924 Samson M, a 1950 Minneapolis-Moline U, a 1926 Ford Model T dump truck and a 1931 Diamond T truck.

Perhaps you saw the vintage Caterpillar Sixty dozers that appeared in the 1996 movie Mulholland Falls starring Nick Nolte. Or the 1924 Samson Model M tractor, 1924 Samson truck and 1939 Adams grader in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck. Or the 1912 Case steam tractor engine in the film Tremors 4.

When production companies film a period movie intended to depict a certain time and place, vintage automobiles and other historically accurate props are essential to help establish a specific era. But in some period films, antique tractors, trucks and farm equipment may be just as important to the set as an old Model T or a classic Packard.

Much of the vintage farm and construction equipment that appears in period movies is supplied by the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum (AGSEM) in Vista, Calif. Located on 55 acres between Long Beach and San Diego, this living history museum has long worked with California’s film and television production companies.

“Because of our proximity to Hollywood, and the extent of our collection, we are frequently contacted by film industry prop managers, set designers and companies that contract with the movie industry,” says Rod Groenewold, museum director. “We have over 20,000 items in our collection, and as a living history museum, fully 95 percent of our equipment collections are operational.”

Over the years, the museum has supplied antique equipment for more than two dozen movies and documentaries including Bugsy, L.A. Confidential, Stargate, The Time Machine, Wild Bill, Murder in the First and the 2008 movie Changeling starring Angelina Jolie.

Contracting with film makers

Because of its close working relationship with the movie industry, the museum staff has developed a rental contract that spells out rental prices per item, and includes provisions for insurance, transportation, staff time and other details.

“Our contract generally specifies a rental charge of $300 to $500 per day, plus insurance, transportation and so forth,” Rod says. “In most cases, production companies may need our equipment on the set for at least a week, although we will typically negotiate a rate reduction on days to allow them time to transport the equipment and dress it for the film.”

While many collectors are justifiably proud of their fully restored trucks and tractors, Rod says film companies aren’t always looking for newly painted equipment.

“Sometimes they want equipment that is operational, but which shows signs of use,” he explains. “We keep duplicates of many popular models in varied states of repair and restoration. And if the film company wants an antique tractor or truck to appear dirty or muddy for a particular film, that’s up to the property manager or set designer, as long as we discuss and approve any modification. However, our contract specifies that each item be returned to us in ‘as taken’ condition.”

Sometimes, “movie magic” is used to transform equipment. Ashley Jaques, AGSEM collections curator, says the production company that filmed Changeling wanted to change the paint scheme of the museum’s 1932 Available truck to green. They did so by using water-soluble paint that is easy to wash off.

The contract also specifies that none of the equipment owned by the museum or its members can be purposely crashed or destroyed. “The Model A that got crashed in the movie Seabiscuit, killing the son, was a wreck belonging to one of our members,” Rod explains. “They actually used two vehicles for that scene, one before and one after the crash.”

Setting the scene

Vintage equipment occasionally plays a pivotal role in period films. For example, the tractor that frightened the famous racehorse in Seabiscuit belonged to the museum, Ashley says. But in many cases, antique trucks, tractors and construction equipment mainly serve to provide background.

“One of the most complex film projects we’ve been involved with was Stargate, which was filmed with Kurt Russell in 1994,” Rod says. “They spent more than a month shooting the early Egypt scenes in the sand dunes east of Yuma, Ariz. We trucked quite a few pieces of equipment to the location, including a 1924 Best 30, a Model TT truck, a 1931 Diamond T truck and a 1926 Rumely OilPull tractor. We were paid a bundle to have all those pieces on the set, and when the movie came out, our equipment was only in the background for a split second.”

Rod says many of the period films that feature equipment owned by the museum or its members are shot on sites owned or leased for film production in the southwestern U.S. “Directors have to be able to control the background and the sound,” he explains. “So in most cases, filming has to take place away from airport flyways, housing developments, transmission towers and public crowds.”

Location, location, location

But not every movie is filmed in southern California, and not all of the vintage farm equipment used in the movies is supplied by the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum. Some production companies seek unique locations appropriate to the movie plot and time period.

Portions of the 2008 movie Leather­heads, starring George Clooney and Renée Zellweger, were filmed in South Carolina. When a property scout for Universal Studios went looking for a vintage tractor to appear in the film, he found a local collector who owned an original-condition John Deere Model A.

Many of the scenes for the 1995 HBO movie Truman, starring Gary Sinise, were filmed in and around the Kansas City and Independence, Mo., areas where Harry S. Truman lived and worked. You may spot a 1936 Case Model L in that film, part of the collection at the National Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan. And when a production crew went to Clarkedale, Ark., in 2002 to film the Hallmark Hall of Fame television mini-series A Painted House, the crew contracted with a member of the Bottomland Tractor Club to supply numerous props, including a 1942 John Deere Model B and a 1951 Studebaker truck.

Supporting roles

Supplying vintage equipment to a film company can also lead to an on-camera role for the owner or operator. In some cases, AGSEM requires that an experienced operator accompany vintage equipment to a film set, particularly steam equipment that requires a certified operator. And when Leatherheads was filmed in South Carolina, the owner of the steel-wheeled John Deere Model A was hired as an extra to start and drive the tractor in the movie. Ashley says those hired as extras can earn $300 to $550 per day, depending on the extent of their involvement in the film.

Virgil White, a retired diesel mechanic, museum member and antique vehicle collector, has served as an equipment operator and mechanical adviser for numerous movies over the years. He’s supervised or operated vintage equipment on the sets of Pearl Harbor, Lansky, A Father for Charlie and the pilot for the HBO series Carnivàle.

“The studios prefer to have someone go along with this old equipment, because each piece has its own idiosyncrasies,” Virgil says. “Sometimes I’m just there as a mechanical adviser, and sometimes they put me in costume to run the equipment. If you look real quick, you can spot me behind the wheel of my old Rumely tractor in the movie A Father for Charlie. And in the movie Lansky, I was running a load of bootleg booze in my ’24 Mack truck.”

While Virgil says he gets a kick from being on a movie set, he admits it’s sometimes like watching grass grow. “A director may ask me to drive past the cameras four or five times to get the action, lighting and sound just right,” he explains. “And although it may only take a day or two to shoot scenes with antique equipment for some movies, I’ve spent as much as three weeks on the sets of films like Pearl Harbor.”

Of course, movies aren’t the only opportunity for collectors to have their equipment in the limelight. Advertising agencies sometimes seek antique farm equipment to appear in print or broadcast advertisements, and in marketing videos and DVDs. Antique tractors, trucks and farm equipment have been used as props in documentaries, for the covers of music CDs, and in calendars and books.

Dreaming of seeing your vintage tractor or truck in a movie? If you’re a collector located outside of southern California, you’ll probably have to wait until a film company decides to shoot a movie in your area. If and when they do, you’ll likely have a better chance of being contacted by a production company if you’re a member of an antique tractor club. FC

For more information: Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, 2040 N. Santa Fe Ave., Vista, CA 92083; (760) 941-1791; www.agsem.com.
Jerry Schleicher is a freelance writer, humorist and cowboy poet whose latest CD, “The Missouri Matador,” features a 1940s Farmall on the CD cover. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; e-mail: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.
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