‘Just Adapt and Roll with It’
Lt. Col. Amy Goetz approaches the locations crew to check on preparation of the next set as professional wranglers place the horses and carriages for the scene of cadets leaving Lexington to march to New Market. –VMI Photo John Robertson IV.
Physical Plant and Marketing Director Assist as 'Field of Lost Shoes' Film Crew Transports the VMI Post Back to the 19th Century
LEXINGTON, Va., June 18, 2013 – For Lt. Col. Amy Goetz, time stood still in early June for more than two weeks.
On June 14, the calendar in Goetz’s office was still displaying the month of May. Such oversight is not typical of Goetz, who is VMI’s director of marketing, but after nearly a week straight of working 14-hour days, it’s understandable.
Goetz, along with several physical plant employees, found themselves working from dawn to long after nightfall during the filming of a movie about the VMI cadets who fought at the battle of New Market in May 1864. The film, tentatively titled Field of Lost Shoes and scheduled for release later this year, was filmed at VMI June 1-7.
“It’s a living, breathing thing,” said Larry Camper, VMI chief of maintenance and operations, about the making of the film. “You just adapt and roll with it.”
Camper had had some experience working with movie crews before, as he was working in the electrical shop during the 2001 filming of the movie Gods and Generals. He’s also supervised the filming of two commercials in the barracks.
At first, said Goetz, the film crew wasn’t planning on shooting much at VMI at all. They were coming to film the New Market Parade, held annually each May 15 in commemoration of the cadets who fought and died at New Market, but the director, Sean McNamara, changed his mind after coming to Lexington and seeing the post.
Word went out shortly after graduation that filming of several key scenes would take place at VMI. To assist the production crew, Camper and his staff were charged with removing or masking the trappings of modern life, such as electric lights, fire hydrants, and sprinkler systems, to restore parts of the post to their 1860s appearance. Signs along Letcher Avenue had to come down, as did the concrete ballasts around the four Civil War-era cannons in front of Old Barracks.
Even mowing the grass on the Parade Ground, a thrice-weekly fixture of life at VMI during the summer, had to stop, as 19th century grass never had a neatly manicured look. “That was a total culture shock,” Camper noted. “That was very hard for our group to do.” To let the grass get raggedy, mowing had to stop two weeks before the start of filming.
Afterward, of course, the grass needed a major shearing. Camper explained that even getting the mowing back on track took some doing, because a sudden cutting of several inches at once would kill the grass. He had to come up with a schedule for mowing for the next two weeks.
Another challenge arose when the film crew requested lights out along Letcher Avenue at night. While it might seem simple to pull the plug, Camper explained that if the power to all of the academic buildings were suddenly cut off, backup generators would come on, and the film crew didn’t want the noise of generators. What’s more, summer school students needed the power on in Preston Library as long as possible in the evenings.
In the end, Camper and his staff had to go through each building individually, cutting off lights, and put black trash bags over emergency lighting. It was a process that took one and a half to two hours before filming could even begin – which meant starting at 8 p.m. for a 10 p.m. shoot.
Yet another interesting challenge arose when the film crew needed to create a rainy evening inside the barracks, to film a scene in which the young cadets of 1864 were preparing to march off for New Market. Both Camper and Mike Jennings, safety officer, knew that making it “rain” would involve a phalanx of people and the assistance of the Lexington Volunteer Fire Departmen.t What they didn’t know was that a water line leading to the barracks sprinkler system that was supposed to be dry had accidentally gotten water in it over the winter.
The fire department came and turned on water to the line, but soon there was a lot more water in the barracks courtyard than anyone would have expected. To make matters worse, the movie producers had put a tarp over the drains, and mulch on top of the tarp.
“I don’t think they thought how much water those fire hoses would put out,” said Josh Jones, a VMI maintenance supervisor who assisted with the “rain” scene.
Jennings added that the saturated ground from recent rains made the problem worse. Jennings and others had suggested that the film crew take advantage of the natural rain which fell heavily on June 6, but the director told them he needed the rain in each scene to look exactly the same.
Jones said that cleanup after the rain scene took from 2 to 6 a.m.
“This [movie] involved everybody in this whole entire building,” said Camper, who has 80 employees working under him. Camper said that he’s still compiling how many hours of overtime his employees worked, but he himself put in about 84 hours of overtime during the filming. All labor hours associated with the film production will be invoiced to the production company.
To keep things rolling smoothly, Camper relied on three key players: Jones, John Camper, and Sam Kessinger. Most nights, all of them, including Camper, were on post until at least 1 a.m.
“Those three did an excellent job,” said Camper. “I couldn’t have asked for any better.”
Goetz, meanwhile, served as an on-site liaison between VMI and the film crew, and in this role, held the ultimate authority as to whether a certain activity or change would be permitted.
“My job was to protect VMI’s assets while operating under a charge to fully cooperate,” said Goetz. Quickly, Goetz found a strategy that worked: “We tried to say ‘yes’ whenever we could, so ‘no’ meant ‘no,’” she explained.
In one instance, the film crew wanted to repaint the trim in the Maury House, residence of Col. and Mrs. Bill Wanovich, and Goetz had to turn down that request because that house had recently undergone a painstaking renovation.
Most times, though, she found herself in a position to accommodate whatever change was being requested. For example, she gave permission for the film crew to put up oscillating lights in Jackson Memorial Hall, because that type of light mimics the flickering of a 19th century oil lamp.
Goetz also accompanied the film crew to the chaplain’s house, where outside filming took place, and to the superintendent’s house, residence of Gen. and Mrs. J.H. Binford Peay III. The first floor of the 19th-century house, which was one of the few structures at VMI not damaged during the Civil War, was used for interior filming, with a production crew of 30 people constantly in and out.
At the superintendent’s house, Goetz watched as the set decorators took down endless stacks of books from the superintendent’s library, and replaced them with period pieces. The very next day, they were able to put the books back on the shelves in exactly the same order they’d been in, because the set decorators had taken photos of each shelf before removing the books.
“Gen. and Mrs. Peay couldn’t have been more gracious and accommodating,” said Goetz. “They were remarkably unstressed.”
Goetz also had high praise for the film crew. “The entire crew was incredibly polite and workable,” she said. “They were very respectful of VMI and they really felt so privileged to be allowed the access they were allowed.”
Filming at VMI wrapped up on June 7. Afterward, everything that had been taken down, such as electric lights, had to be put back up. Camper said that putting everything back in order took about a week. “We’ll scramble and make it up,” said Camper of the time lost from regular summer maintenance chores.
“It was exciting but it was really draining, too,” Camper continued.
Goetz, too, found the excitement of filming so exhilarating that she frequently forgot she was operating on only a few hours of sleep. Frequently, she’d watch the video monitors, and be blown away by what she saw.
“What we could see with our naked eyes the cameras could make so much richer,” she noted. “For me it would have been so disappointing if they didn’t come here to film. …This is going to be a great film showing an important piece of history for VMI.”
– Mary Price