What does a Construction Coordinator do?
"I'm the general contractor for the scenery", says TOM MORRIS. "I put together the team of craftsmen to get all of the sets built - Carpenters - 'Propmakers' in the film industry - Welders, Painters, Sculptors, Plasterers, Greensmen and Laborers. The size of the team can be anywhere from 20 people to 200 or more, depending on the size of the film, the scope and character of the sets, and the time allowed to complete them. We work for the Art Department, which tells us which scenes will be completely constructed on the sound stage, which shot on location and what alterations must be done to those locations. In short, Construction is responsible for the entire physical environment of the film, even the vegetable garden in which the heroine may pick tomatoes!"
What was your background? How did you get your first job in the business?
"I've been at this ever since the 8th grade in Asheville, North Carolina! Literally. The class did a play I wrote, about Valley Forge, in which I played George Washington - but I did a lot of backstage stuff too - helped build scenery, props. Then I majored in drama In college - acting again and working backstage - and did repertory during summers. After graduation I got a job as an apprentice carpenter for the Spoleto Festival. The following season I became a staff carpenter, and then head Flyman at the opera house - the Flyman is the one who raises and lowers scenery, and the curtain. Then for a time I ran the Scene Shop, where scenery is made.
One day a friend told me that a movie crew was in town and were looking for someone to build scenery. The movie was Heart of Midnight, with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Coyote, and Sly Stallone's brother Frank Stallone. He said they paid well - 'thirteen or fourteen'! I thought he meant thirteen or fourteen dollars an hour, and that sounded darn good. So I interviewed. Turned out it was thirteen or fourteen thousand a week! I was terrified - wondering what I had gotten myself into and what was going to be expected of me for so much money!
But after the first day, I realized that the job was just what I had been doing since the 8th grade - building scenery. Since I was the one in charge of the crew, it turned out that, on my first film, I was the Construction Coordinator, though I'd never heard that term before."
Where have you worked?
"Fourteen or so States, New Mexico to Massachusetts. And foreign places like Puerto Rico, Ecuador, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic."
Some of your favorite stories?
In 2000, Tom was working in Quito, Ecuador, on Proof of Life, with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. "Our largely Spanish-speaking crew numbered between 80 and 200, along with 10 experienced film construction people from the U.S. We lived and worked above 10,000 feet, which took a little getting used to at first."
There were unique challenges on the show, "one of which involved lowering the water level of a lake that was located above 15,000 feet in a place called Papallacta." The film company had shot a few scenes on the shore of the lake earlier in the schedule. A couple of months later, they decided that they needed to shoot some additional scenes there, but when the location scout went back up to Papallacta, he discovered that the water level of the lake had risen and that the set was now under water. "We had to pump a lot of water out of the lake, working 24 hours a day for several days, to re-expose the set to match the earlier footage."
Additionally, they had to build two and a half miles of road up the side of a mountain. "We laid lots of material down on the road, and lots of material washed right back down again. It was Ecuador's rainy season - which is pretty darn rainy! But we had to persist - the set was scheduled to be shot, and the road had to be finished. The crew worked through the nights in pitch dark - there's not much light that high, and away from civilization. We discovered that diesel engines don't work so well at that altitude, not to mention or own lungs!"
Luckily the production had a first-rate local crew. Everyone worked in the rain, all day, every day. "We had a tent in which the crew ate and we catered hot meals for them - plus candy in the afternoon. At the same time, we had to build the set at the end of the road, without having a real road to get there. But we couldn't delay that either. So we used Ecuadorian Army helicopters to ferry the materials up to the location. At the same time, we had to keep the road in constant repair, maintain it day and night against the constant rain. So one night, Russell Crowe decided to skip the hour's drive back to town and sleep on the set in his trailer. Well - around three a.m. he was awakened by very loud diesel-powered thumping noises - to his dismay, the huge steam-roller we used to pack the gravel was compacting away right by his quarters. I guess it wasn't as restful a night as he thought it might have been!"
At a different location, a bridge had to be built over a gorge at the base of a waterfall called El Pailón del Diablo - the Devil's Cauldron. "The only access to this location was a forty-five minute hike down into the gorge. When we started, it was still the rainy season and cloudy most of the day. But when the clouds finally cleared a month or so later, we saw that we were working at the base of Tunguragua, a twenty-thousand foot active volcano."
For MGM, Tom worked on Into the Blue, which was shot in the Bahamas. A lot of the film took place under water, because in the story, a plane has crashed and sunk.
"So we not only sank one plane - we sank three DC-3s, into which we had to build scenery for different story stages - all in fifty feet of water, and on the edge of both a coral reef and an abrupt three thousand foot deep ocean trench! We had to be intensely careful - not to contaminate the delicate reef, not to let the planes tumble into the trench - and to keep them steady for shooting - all in the winter ocean. In addition, we built a shipwrecked Spanish Galleon we carried out on a salvage ship and lowered into the water. The problem was, despite being partially filled with concrete, the galleon floated. So we had to lift it back on board and add quite a bit of steel flat bar to make it stay down on the bottom. But I've got to say - it was a gorgeous set when we finished!"
On the same show, Tom was also asked to build a number of the props, including cocaine bricks to be stashed in the plane. "These last had to be manufactured with a very specific density so that they would be neutrally buoyant - remain at the depth for which they'd been intended. A final irony, Tom recalls, "was that the bricks refused to obey! One of the carpenters, a woman with a chemistry degree who does wonders with plastics and molds, solved it. We called her fondly our Props Tart."
This all sounds daunting. How do you begin?
"At the start of a show, we get a script, a shooting schedule, and the designs from the Art Department. From these, I have to determine what each craft needs to do for each set, how long it will take them, and when they need to begin. Everything has to be done in a certain order by the different crafts, and completed in time to allow Set Decoration time to dress the set and Grip/Set Lighting time to pre-rig the set, and sometimes time for the actors to rehearse on the set.
In an ideal world each craft would start and finish their work before the next craft would begin. But given the time constraints on most films, that's not what generally happens. More often the crafts have to work side by side and sometimes almost on top of each other. So sometimes, we have to call for crews at night due to overlapping needs for the same space.
I also oversee Trans Lights - that's the giant backing with an image printed on it - an indoors scene, or a nighttime scene - sort of a giant transparency. If you light it from the front, it's day. From the back, it's night. I see that the Greenman puts flowers, or weeds - or maybe a scattering of dried leaves - where he should. Plants can tell you a lot about a scene - whether it's cared for or neglected. Or a sapling between the rails of a train track will show it's long unused."
Any other responsibilities?
"Two main ones", Tom explains: Budgeting/tracking and scheduling. "I'm responsible - with the Art Department - for submitting and managing the budget for all aspects of the construction of the sets. And then I'm kind of an engineer. Although I'm not actually accredited, I still have to construct things that hold up, and are approved by a real engineer. When one of them tells me 'You're not a bad engineer', I'm happy!"
What do you enjoy about the work?
"Every show is different, every set is different, every day is different. You end up working in so many different places, beautiful and not-so-beautiful. At times, it's like being a tourist on someone else's dime. It's creative and collaborative. I enjoy being part of the team that makes so many disparate parts and watching different people come together to create something that didn't exist before and will only exist on film when we're done. Every show starts and then finishes - that exact team has only come together for that one film. The next one will be different from the last. So I'd say that the most important aspect of my job is putting together the right team for the film. And if there's something you don't like, it'll end!"
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