Booming Atlanta movie business provides ample work for film drivers

By LOGAN PETERSEN

Drivers in the film industry are not simply committed to their job, more so they are consumed by it. They are the first ones to arrive and the last ones to leave, available on a moments notice during production. For weeks to months, they devote themselves to a typical fourteen-hour day, leaving little room for leisure.

Because of the booming film industry in Georgia, opportunities arise for local involvement and one Canton couple managed to succeed as drivers, despite a such a trepidatious job description.

On set, Jimmy Marston keeps his van running and waits for an actor to be finished with makeup in Atlanta on Oct. 10, 2014. Photo by Logan Petersen.
On set, Jimmy Marston keeps his van running and waits for an actor to be finished with makeup in Atlanta on Oct. 10, 2014. Photo by Logan Petersen.

Johnnie and Jimmy Marston are members of the Local 748 Union in Atlanta. Johnnie just finished working on the film set for “Insurgent” and Jimmy is working on the set for the television series, “The Red Band Society.” Johnnie began working as a driver October 2013, after her brother convinced her to join.

“Gene had been working as a equipment driver for a couple years and was always telling me that I should do it,” she said. “When my son left for college, I gave it a shot.”

This meant joining the union and obtaining a Class D license.

Work begins the night before when Johnnie receives the production schedule for the following day. She checks and rechecks the times, determines the location and how long it will take to get there, estimates her allotted time to get ready, checks, and rechecks the times again, all before setting her alarm. Finally, it is the execution of her meticulously calculated itinerary, usually before 4 a.m.

“I may have to go pick up an actor or an actress, go to the office to transport paperwork or go straight to the set,” Johnnie said.

So begins her day of shuttling.

The cutthroat mentality of show business is prominent, even for the drivers.

“If you are early, then you are on time, and if you are on time, then you are late,” Johnnie said. “These guys completely rely on being on time and being late one time can literally cost millions.”

To put it in perspective, if an actor is late for a shooting, then everyone involved stays later. Consequently, everyone is compensated for extra time. That means production for the next scene must be delayed, again extending pay for every actor, assistant and cook down to every costumer, hairstylist and makeup artist. They pay for extended rental spaces, electricity and meals. A fifteen-minute delay can quickly escalate.

Driving is tiresome; Johnnie often disappears from her social life and tennis community until there is a break between projects. Yet, Johnnie and Jimmy both find it rewarding.

In particular, Jimmy decided to leave his career as a professional golfer for driving.

“I left because driving pays way better and being unionized gives me benefits,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys, from all walks of life actually, who left their jobs for this gig.”

Johnnie was unsure of him leaving his job at first, but they made it work. They survive even with opposite schedules.

“We wave to each other when passing on the highway,” Jimmy said. “It’s funny, but true. I’m going home after working overnight and Johnnie is on her way to work.”

Only on the weekends do they spend time together. That is, if they are not called in to work. They still find time to maintain their relationship.

Separation has always been an element in their marriage; Jimmy worked at a country club in Massachusetts during most of the year, while Johnnie stayed in Georgia with their son during school.

This job is the first time in eight years they are continuously together.

“The people you meet when driving are also one of the perks,” Johnnie said. “I can’t get over how amazing the process of making a film or a television show. There really is magic in it.”

A Ride Along 

I met with Johnnie at the EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Atlanta last month to experience her role firsthand. “Insurgent” was in its finishing stages. The outpost filming was complete, leaving Johnnie with a light schedule.

“When we film at the studio, everything is close by,” she said. “The furthest I have to drive is to the actors back to their hotels, but most of the time I’m sitting waiting for my next order.”

It was during this free time when she drove me around her studio. While I was in the back seat, she served as my unofficial tour guide. She shared some inside knowledge and named all of the unmarked trailers lining the street. Some were for actors while others were offices for the staff. She described them as if they were more like white cocoons of unimaginable equipment and execution details.

Enclosed in these spaces were complete barbershops, professional kitchens and even tailor shops. Each team member proudly explained to me his or her role.

Lynne Duggins from the wardrobe department showed me what she called “The Bible”. In it was a detailed description of every character’s outfit, down to the color of the underwear; its organization essential for continuity.

She told me her story of getting involved in the film industry and exclaimed how much she loved working with Johnnie.

“We spend so much time together, we become family.” Duggins said. “We all know the crazy life we live, so we’re there to support each other.”

Back on the tour, Johnnie’s van felt comfy; the Mercedes-Benz appeared to have deluxe-carpeted seats. I was bewildered by the thought of sitting here and wondering who had sat here before me. I wondered what famous individual sat here and what were they thinking. How many times did an actor rehearse his lines here; did they have time to look out the window at the studio like I did? I was curious if there were any great epiphanies in this back seat. Or maybe after doing one action scene ten times over from every vantage point, someone made the backseat his or her temporary bed.

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