A. Colarusso & Son Plays Supporting Role in Spielberg Film

Wed April 06, 2005 - Northeast Edition
Liz Elvin

Usually when a contractor builds a road or a bridge part of the satisfaction comes from the permanence, being able to show it off to one’s kids and maybe grandkids.

However, in the case of one recent project, A. Colarusso & Son can boast that it took them less than a week to erect a bridge that, a mere two weeks later, the firm dismantled, leaving behind no trace that it ever existed.

No trace, that is, unless you count its supporting role in the new Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie version of H.G. Wells’ 1898 alien-invasion story, “War of the Worlds.”

Through some good luck and the sharp eye of a Paramount employee, the firm got the call to provide a temporary bridge in the Hudson River Town of Athens for a scene in the film.

According to Paul Colarusso, the art director lives in Dutchess County where he commuted through one of Colarusso’s work sites. The Paramount people called the firm, outlined what they needed, asked if Colarusso could do it and, if so, what would be the cost.

Once the terms were agreed upon, Colarusso’s Dave LaSpada was assigned the task of putting together the project.

Unlike most bridges, this one was not designed to cross a body of water; the film crew just needed it to jut into the water where it would ultimately connect to a 170-ft. car ferry.

He called Mabey Bridge & Shore Inc., which provided the temporary 60- by 18-ft. bridge. The bridge was shipped in and assembled on site in less than 10 hours on Nov. 17.

On Nov. 18, Colarusso’s bridge crew, headed by Superintendent Lou Pasquini, hooked up the structure to a 175-ton crane provided by Burt Crane & Rigging, of Green Island. The first use of his new crane operator’s license for Tom Scheib, son of William Scheib, owner, was to move the 70,000-lb. bridge forward a few dozen feet so that space could be made to unload the three-part steel beam that provided the pier for the water end of the bridge.

In what proved to be an all-day event, the bridge was then unhooked; some temporary weight was added to keep it stable until it could be set in place on the beam. The beam proved to be a bit of a challenge as the spit of land the crane had to work from was too soft to safely lift the whole beam.

Colarusso’s team unbolted the steel plate that connected the three sections of the beam. The now two-section beam was lifted off the truck, set in place on concrete before the remaining section of the beam was slid into place and the whole thing was re-bolted back together. Finally, the bridge was re-rigged to the crane and lifted forward into place on the beam.

In the days that followed, the temporary decking, railing and the ramp to the next barge were added before the actual movie people came in and added a ticket booth with posters of “missing people” and other props.

On the adjacent parkland, movie staff set up tents to house “medical” people and, before filming started, there were strollers, suitcases, wagons and other items in a large pile marked “Props. Do not touch.”

For those unfamiliar with the story, made most famous by Orson Welles’ 1938 live radio drama that caused a massive panic, the premise is that Martians invade, attacking New Jersey and New York. The Cruise-Spielberg version is set in the present day.

In the scene set in Athens, the townspeople are running from a spaceship. The locations crew chose Athens from among a number of possible sites that had a road running down a hill directly to the water. During the scene, approximately 1,000 extras race down Athens’ Second Street, across a newly erected railroad crossing, past the newly erected ferry ticket office, over the temporary bridge, down a ramp, across a barge, up a ramp, finally making it to the car ferry.

Local newspaper accounts said that stuntmen dove into the chilly December Hudson River waters, so apparently not everyone makes it to the ferry safely.

During the filming, Mike Whittam, purchasing manager of D.A. Collins Construction, spent four nights racing down Second Street as one of those terrified townspeople. Whittam is making a part-time, secondary career out of being a movie extra; it’s his third one in the past few years.

He said he didn’t mind working all night long (the scene is shot entirely at night) and got to see Spielberg himself as well as co-stars Dakota Fanning (Tom Cruise’s daughter in the movie) and Tim Robbins. Cruise also was on the set, as was Justin Chatwin, who plays his son.

Perched along Second Street was one of Burt Crane’s rigs with Tom Scheib the designated operator, again, this time to hoist a 4,000-lb. bank of lights that served as the “Martian” spaceship for the scene.

Art Director Doug Huszti, who was on site during the building of the Athens set, when asked the day before filming was due to start if he was pleased, said the set had been built smoothly and had turned out better than he envisioned it.

Spielberg told Huszti that the set was better than expected. Huszti’s a theatrical set designer who has done a number of movie sets and said he is always amazed to watch a set get built by engineers according to his drawings.

Dave LaSpada said he had the engineer’s drawings P.E. stamped, just like he would for any other temporary bridge; after all this bridge carried numerous cars, people, baggage, equipment, and Hollywood movie stars, even if it was only for four nights.

He called the pace of the project “accelerated” and “aggressive,” adding that it only took two weeks from the time he started talking to Paramount until his team was assembling the bridge. LaSpada said one of the reasons A. Colarusso was able to do the job was because, in a curious case of good luck, the needed steel beams were sitting in Colarusso’s yard when the movie people called.

“It just so happens that we took down a bridge earlier this year and when I looked at the beams, I thought we should hold onto them, even though with the price of scrap, we could have sold them.”

Of course, before shipping them off to Athens, the Colarusso people thought they should touch up the paint and make the beams pretty. However, that was not the look Huszti was after. The point was that the bridge should look like it had been in place for years, he said.

In a movie, “appearance is everything,” he added. One reason why the Athens site worked so well for the movie is that the bridge and ferry were situated at the site of what really was the slip for the Hudson-Athens Ferry.

The ferry, which operated from 1816 until 1947, closed after the opening of the nearby Rip Van Winkle Bridge; a 1935 waterfront fire also contributed to its demise, according to a walking tour pamphlet of Athens.

The site is now the Athens Riverfront Park and not that the movie ferry has returned to its home dock in Connecticut, there’s not a ferry in sight.

However, an Athens Waterfront Restoration Feasibility Study explored the possibility of developing dockage facilities for tour boats and enhancing the historic character of the waterfront. The plan called for dredging and constructing floating docks with access ramps.

According to Huszti, many of the locals asked if the changes Colarusso put in place for the movie could be kept permanently. Regardless, the movie proved lucrative for many Athens residents: people were paid to move out of their homes for the week; one local restaurant was paid to close down so it sparking lot could be used; the town’s 11 part-time police officers were paid overtime to guard the set; and another local restaurant served initially as the “commissary” where the film crew ate until a portable gourmet kitchen and dining facility capable of feeding more than 400 people was set up one block away in a municipal parking lot.

Even the famed Friar Tuck, the closest big lodging facility, cashed in as the hundreds of film crew were lodged there, some for up to three weeks.

One member of the light crew who had been staying at the Friar Tuck for a week already was asked by a newcomer in the shooting crew if it “has a bar.”

“If you could call it that,” came the reply.

It’s good to know some things never change.

(Liz Elvin is editor of “Low Bidder” magazine.)