VOX POPULI: Driving for J. Edgar

VOX POPULI BY WILLIAM SIMS

Last spring when Paramount Pictures and Clint Eastwood prepared shooting in the DC area for a major motion picture about the life of J. Edgar Hoover, your author was solicited to provide his period car for background. But before it was over he would end up acting in a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer.

It began with an e-mail from Larry Stelling, transportation coordinator for Malpaso Productions out of Burbank, asking for cars dating to the 1930’s. I volunteered my 1931 Model A Town Sedan, which you might have seen in the car show in Old Takoma or in the Independence Day parade.

Model A

Star of the big screen: Sims’ 1931 Model A.

My Model A, painted black, would be used as an FBI car. Leaving nothing to chance, I walked down to Roland’s Barbershop and had him give me a haircut fit for the FBI.

The first day of shooting, in and around the Justice Department downtown, involved mostly parking my car in the underground garage, one drive-by scene, and gawking at Eastwood and DiCaprio. It was interesting seeing how they set up a scene and placed the lighting and the cameras.

When Clint first showed up and walked around to check out the location, the place was electric. I stood in a corner in a crowd of 20 drivers and hangers on, and we were just mesmerized. Then DiCaprio and Hammer emerged from shooting a scene upstairs in Hoover’s original office.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t watch the scene being filmed in the parking garage because there was no way a crowd that size could avoid being in the scene. So we were all shooed up into an outside courtyard while they filmed DiCaprio and Hammer getting into the car and being driven out of the parking garage.

My sedan wasn’t used in this scene except as background. Since it had whitewalls, rather than take the time to spray them black, they used the other black sedan, which came with blackwalls.

The blackwall driver was dressed to the hilt in full chauffeur livery, but he had never driven a Model A before. After hearing the grinding of gears, I was glad it was someone else’s car put through the paces.

Following the filming we dined on prime rib at a table the length of the exhibition hall at the Folger Library. I glanced to my right and four seats down was Clint! It turned out he always took his evening meal with the crew.

The next day’s filming was in Warrenton, Virginia. It was sunny, but really cold. Ice spread in the corners of the steps of the old courthouse never melted all day. Since the scenes were supposed to be in February, that worked out fine.

I was told to report to Wardrobe, and I emerged dressed in a black fedora, bow tie, warm overcoat, and tight leather gloves. Now I was a cast member and attracted much attention from passersby.

G-man Sims with his Model A

Living it up as a Depression-era A-lister.

At 12:30, Clint arrived to cheers from the waiting crowd. The cameras began rolling. After half a dozen takes, somebody realized that beyond the crowd the street was empty. So I was picked to move my car downhill, and a guy came over and shoveled ice against the curb to make it look like snow. They took three more shots of the crowd cheering, with me in the background, and then the shoot was done.

To avoid the long drive to Takoma Park and back again, I spent the night with a friend who lives outside Warrenton. The next day’s shoot was at Belvoir Mansion. It was appropriately huge, with a large lawn surrounded by a stone wall. After I parked by the mess tent I was told to grab some breakfast and then go to Wardrobe — I was going to be Hoover’s driver. This news hit me like a shot. Leo DiCaprio was going to be in the back seat of my car. I was going to be “in” the movie.

The transforming quality inherent in donning a period suit is amazing. I was no longer me. I was now an FBI agent. Not only that, I was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agent. Dressing the part put me into this make-believe world, and my mind instantly accepted it. It didn’t necessarily make me want to launch an acting career, but the feeling was intoxicating.

30s wardrobe

Ready for Hollywood? Sims waits with another extra.

I drove to the front of the house. A guy sprayed my whitewalls with black water-based hairspray. After an hour, a Chevy Suburban cruised by with Clint in his FBI ballcap. Time to go to work.

Two stand-ins got in, and I backed down the driveway to the front gate. They gave me a walkie-talkie to tell me when to start. After two practice runs, we were ready. The subs got out and a minute later, here came DiCaprio and Hammer. Armie (all six-foot-five of him) got in first, and Leo got in after him and sat directly behind me. We introduced ourselves.

Armie asked some questions about the car. Leo never spoke again after telling me who he was. I drove up the driveway. Leo bounded from the car through the suicide door and with great flair flipped his overcoat out like a huge cape (Hoover, larger than life) and barged up the hill toward the house with Armie scooting behind him.

Leonardo diCaprio's chair

The author was not able to get any photos of his co-stars, but he did snap a shot of Leo's chair.

I remained in the car while they did half a dozen more takes. At one point Leo started horsing around and mincing his walk up the hill, which cracked up Armie. Armie also cut up a lot between shots, juggling and flipping things hand to hand. Finally I got the word to cut the engine. Sadly, my day was done.

Or so I thought. I went to the snack table for muffins and coffee but then got a call on my walkie-talkie to report back. I kept my coffee since I was sure they just wanted me to move the car, but the assistant director told me they needed me to stand outside the car and to open the door for Hoover, after which I’m to slam the door, open the driver’s door, get in, start the car and drive out of the scene.

Meanwhile, some guy came out and trimmed my sideburns. Then Clint came over to make sure I knew what to do and when. We did a practice run. I noticed a dead magnolia leaf on the ground about 10 feet from the car and used that as my mark. When we got to the leaf, I turned and opened the door. It turned out to be the perfect distance.

All went well except that closing the door for Leo took too much time. He could close his own door.

Now the sound man came over and asked that I not slam the door with so much “vigor” because it was drowning out the dialogue. Armie immediately announced there will be no more vigor on the set. Everyone laughed.

Now we were set to do it for real. They approached; I opened; they ducked in; I followed suit, turned the key, pressed the starter with my foot, and the engine cranked but refused to turn over. Cut! Okay, Clint was having none of this. He ordered a rope tied to the front bumper.

“Action!” Once again I hopped in and closed the door with minimal vigor, pretended to start the car and put it in gear, and eight or nine guys grabbed the rope and pulled the car out of the scene. The sound of the car would be dubbed in later. We did at least two more takes before Clint announced a wrap.

And just like that, my career in movies was done.

But not my day. By chance I spotted Clint coming my way. He was reviewing notes on possible dialogue changes. I waited until he finished and got a friend to snap a couple of photos of us together. Then he got into his Suburban and was off.

Clint and Bill talking

Clint Eastwood and Sims at work on the scene.

I figured I’d just go back to Wardrobe, change and head home. I was halfway through when someone asked me who had “wrapped” me — that is, told me I could go. Well, actually, no one.

So I put my FBI outfit back on and went to find someone. But when the right guy was contacted, he refused to let me go. Maybe it had to do with union rules and minimum hours. I don’t know. It did provide me with another meal with Clint in the mess tent and another hour or two watching Clint direct

DiCaprio in a shot at the garage. Finally I was free to go.

As a friend of mine pointed out, making a movie is like being in the Army. There’s a lot of standing around for a few minutes of action. But you can’t beat the experience.