A Conversation with Drew Petrotta: Hollywood's Property Master of the Year
We launch today a series of conversations with the recipients of this year's Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards, a ceremony produced by Movieline to recognize the too-often overlooked achievements of Hollywood's below-the-line craftsmen and crew members.
We begin with Drew Petrotta, a property master who was tasked with the formidable job of tracking down and inventorying every single object seen on screen during the organized chaos of the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen shoot. From Megan Fox's motorcycle chamois to the all-important (if confusing) AllSpark sliver, it was his responsibility to make sure every actor had what they needed by the time Michael Bay shouted, "Action!" through his lucky bullhorn. He talked to us from the Detroit set of the Red Dawn remake that's currently shooting there.
So please explain what it is you do, and how you got started?
I'm a third-generation prop master. My grandfather was a prop master, my uncle was a prop master, and my father was a prop master. I've been doing it for most of my adult life. We're responsible for everything actors handle on set. We do the detail work, is what we do -- everything from watches and rings on the actors to handling weapons.
Take me through how you approach the script and going about your job. Are you handed a script and you read it cold?
Actually that's exactly what happens. I'm handed a script and read it cold, and do what they call a breakdown for what I think props will be needed in the movie. After that I have a series of meetings with almost every department on the movie. I interface with them, and with the director for quite a bit of time, and the production designer. They both have a lot of input into what I do. I budget the script based on that, and make sure I have what props are needed on the day that we're shooting it.
When you first read the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen script, were you overwhelmed at all? What was your reaction to it?
On Transformers, I had several meetings with Michael Bay before I got the job or even saw the script, so I had a pretty good idea of what was going on and what was going to be expected of me. It wasn't as shocking as it may have seemed like it might have been, because I was very well warned.
And so what were some of the most crucial props from the film? I remember the sliver of AllSpark. That seemed to be an important prop.
The AllSpark was a very important prop from the film. It was designed by our art department, then I had it manufactured by an outside shop. Michael [Bay] had a lot of input on the finish of that prop, and when and where we used it. We made several of them -- there were metal versions to plastic versions to rubber versions, depending on what we were doing in that scene.
One of the other big things we did was working in conjunction with the costume designer, we came up with the costumes and gear for the main actors in the military portion of the movie. It was a very new type of camouflage and a very new type of equipment and gear, which now is really very common place.
When you say it's used commonly now, do you mean in the military?
It's not yet used in the military, though I think they're up for a military contract for that type of camouflage. But by a lot of sheriffs and police departments, and actually there's a few militaries other than ours in the world that use very similar camouflage to that. It's called MultiCam and it was at the time very, very new.
Was that Michael's idea?
It was actually something that I found through somebody else and brought to our costume designer's attention; we then brought it to Michael and Michael liked it a lot and wanted to go with it. He thought it was a great idea. It's something we do rather commonly, in movies, is that people come to us with an allowance to use their product for free to try to sell it, almost like a gigantic commercial. It's up to us whether we use it or not.
There was a lot of that in Transformers. They hired probably the best product placement man in the business -- his name is David Leener -- he's done a lot of movies with Michael Bay. His sole job is to try to find product placement items for the movie. So if I need computers, I talk to him about how many computers I need, and it's his job to find a computer company to give us the number of computers we need for the movie, and to possibly give money towards the movie to use in the movie. Which is something Michael is a big fan of -- we used quite a bit of product placement in the movie.
What are your feelings about that practice?
To me, if it's good for the movie, then I think it's fantastic -- if it can save the company some money while making the movie. Sometimes you get a product that you're required to use that really makes no sense and doesn't help the movie along at all.
Certain shots seemed very much focused on featuring the product, to the point where it was pretty glaringly obvious we were staring at an ad placement.
There were some that were definitely geared that way, and that's part of Michael Bay's business. He's not just a filmmaker, but a businessman as well. He's trying to get enough money to make the movie he wants to make, and if he can get $100,000 out of [a product placement] and that allows him that many more computer-generated shots or that much more time in filming, then it's worthwhile for him to do.
How do you interact with the actors? You're obviously the go-between between the actor and prop.
We interact with the actors very, very closely. One of the things we do every day, say with the actors from Transformers like Josh Duhamel and Tyrese, we bring the weapons to them every morning, we teach them how to use it, to some degree, though we have experts on set to help for that. We spend a lot of time one-on-one with them all day long, and wind up becoming pretty good friends with the actors. We do whatever we need to do to help them perform better. That's really what it's all about.
How were things turned upside down after Shia LaBeouf injured his hand, as far as his handling of the props and working around that?
I have to say that Shia is a very special human being and a very, very, very dexterous person. He was fantastic. He doesn't have -- [laughs] -- it wasn't an issue. Because of his dexterity and his acting ability, you couldn't tell. There were parts of the movie where his hand is hurting and you couldn't tell. He's a very, very amazing actor.
Do you want your kids to follow in your footsteps?
Hopefully they'll do a different job. I have two daughters and a son. Hopefully they'll be above the line and not below the line. It's a very difficult job, but very rewarding. It's not something you can just jump into having never done it before.
I would imagine not, particularly when you're doing it for Michael Bay.
Yeah, well, that's extremely difficult on its own. [Pause. Laughs.] Yeah. ♦