By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Smashing the weekend box office as the 2016 fall movie season kicks off, Sully is the true-life story of the rescue drama and the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s heroic Jan. 15, 2009 landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River, after a geese strike caused both engines to fail.
Nearly seven years to the day after the damaged airplane landed on an icy Hudson, Hollywood descended upon LaGuardia Airport to film the movie’s runway and terminal scenes. Oscar-winning Director Clint Eastwood brought with him Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, along with a full production crew and a massive 53-foot food truck with a kitchen big enough to feed hundreds in short order.
Brian Rohlf, LaGuardia Airport’s manager of Landside Operations and Customer Service, worked most directly with producer Tim Moore and his Location Director to pull together the logistics and support needs for Eastwood, Hanks and many others. Rohlf was not a newcomer to the behind-the-scene requirements of film productions at LaGuardia, but they were nothing like Sully. “This one was incredible,” said Rohlf. “They brought in more than 300 extras and another 200-member production crew just to film this one-day shoot.”
There also was a supporting cast of Port Authority people, including Jim Munday, manager of Airport Operations, and airport staff, Port Authority police, and representatives of the Security, Operations and Maintenance departments, with support from the legal and risk management teams.
Most memorable was the filming of a scene that eventually required 20 takes. It took place on Concourse D in Terminal B as “Sully” is picking up a few things at the Hudson News stand before boarding the flight.
“Tom accidentally hit a candy display inside the store with his carry-on tote,” Rohlf recalled. “The candy flew all over the place. They had to pick it all up and start again. Tom laughed, right along with everyone else. During the 15th take, the Port Authority intercom system blurted out a loud recorded message that startled Hanks. At that point, he just stopped and enjoyed the moment with Clint, who was standing off to the side.”
According to Rohlf, the A-listers were generous with their time and chatted casually with real-time passengers, extras and LGA staff. But Munday had the unenviable job of negotiating some of the many logistical demands of the film. “Initially they wanted as many large trucks/tractor trailers airside as possible to facilitate the shoot. They had to settle for less than half of it, but it all worked and they still accomplished what they needed to do,” he said. At the end of the day-long filming session, Jim Munday presented Eastwood with an LGA Challenge Coin and hat as a thank you for his support of the LGA community.
At the end of the first ‘movie shoot’ at the departure gate, Munday and Rohlf arranged a meeting with Eastwood for a wounded ex-Army Gulf War vet, who was watching the filming with his service dog. “What ensued was amazing,” Rohlf recalled, “Clint came over and spent the next 15 minutes talking to him. Later the vet told us that he thanked Clint for the film American Sniper, which he had seen with his wife. She’d had difficulty understanding what her husband had been through in the Gulf, but after the film, finally she understood his strong feelings for his Army buddies he’d left behind.”
The making of a Hollywood blockbuster at an extremely busy airport is a challenge. But according to Rohlf, the job had its perks, including the opportunity to glimpse the off-camera personalities of both Hanks and Eastwood. “Tom and Clint were both great people. In spite of a very long day of filming at multiple airport locations, Clint was on his feet nonstop and engaged with the people. “He was a warrior in his role as director,” said Rohlf.