Roberta Altstadt is TriMet’s public information officer.
How do you transform the TriMet MAX system into a subway system? Well, it takes a lot of people and equipment, 80+ hours and special effects.
When a producer with the television show “Leverage” first approached me to do some filming on the MAX system, I had no idea what we were in for. The TNT show, which is filmed and set in Portland, was actually doing an episode where some of the characters were visiting Washington, D.C. (The episode is called “The Rundown Job.”) That meant the MAX system—which mainly runs above ground and is powered using overhead wires—needed to double as the underground, rail-powered subway system.
The only real underground stretch of the MAX system is the Robertson Tunnel. With MAX trains running through the tunnel 20 hours or more a day, we could only give the “Leverage” crew a four-hour window in the middle of the night. Either they would need to shoot overnight for several days or we needed a plan B. That ended up being a maintenance bay in TriMet’s Ruby Junction Rail Operations Center.
The week of filming began with setup—hours and hours, days and days of it. Crews descended on our Ruby Junction facility in Gresham beginning on Tuesday. Each crew had a specialty. There was the electrical crew, the lighting crew, the audio crew, the rigging crew and the camera crew. Wave after wave came into the light rail maintenance bay with all their equipment and rigging. Green screens went up on the walls and tarps over the skylights to turn this room into a faux tunnel. The setup took several days and about 30 hours.
Over in Southwest Portland, the crews started showing up at TriMet’s Washington Park MAX station across from the Oregon Zoo about 6 a.m. on Thursday. They had to prep the area up top for a few scenes and 260 feet down on the platform, they had to transform Portland into D.C. TriMet and Portland-area signs and maps were covered with D.C. subway signs and D.C.-area maps. At one point I went down to check on things and found a man with his young son and a furrowed brow analyzing a map with stops like Potomac Ave. and Anacostia on it. “Sorry sir, we’re in Portland and that’s a map of D.C.” I explained. “I thought things looked a little off,” he replied.
About 4 p.m., the filming up top began. Take after take of the same action. Then about 5 p.m. it was time to head back down to the platform. Some 75 crew members and actors were joined by about 200 extras. This posed some challenges since the MAX was still in service. I kept trying to divert riders to one section of the platform only to be told, “I’m an extra here for ‘Leverage.’” Wow, their extras really did look like TriMet commuters. The real riders passing through on the trains had to be surprised when they saw the packed platform and D.C. signs.
At midnight, the filming began on the platform and then the last train rolled through westbound about 12:40 a.m. and the action began in earnest. The production had rented two MAX trains—one for the eastbound side and one for the westbound. They needed the timing of one train arriving on one side of the platform while the train on the other side was pulling away. With all the rehearsal that was done, crews were able to get those shots pretty quick and then it was time to climb down on the tracks and walk into the tunnel for more filming. It’s cold and dirty in there. Setup had to be quick since there was no way to have equipment staged ahead of time while the MAX trains were still running. Still, things went relatively “fast”. The filming finished earlier than planned and we walked out of the tunnel back to the platform about 4:30 a.m., a half hour before the first train of the day rolled through. Remember though, some of us had been there since 6 a.m.
For me, it was home for a quick nap because by 3:30 p.m. I was at Ruby Junction in Gresham for the next night of filming. “Leverage” crews had been doing more setup for most of the day already. We moved the MAX train into the building. Many of us piled in along with cameras and monitors and the filming began. It was wild being inside at one end of the train with the action going on at the other end. Then came take after take. Actors talking with directors; producers talking with directors; actors talking with producers. Adjustments were made, coffee was drank, makeup reapplied and more filming. By 8 a.m., I was wondering out loud how much longer this could possibly go on. “That’s a wrap,” came about 8:45 a.m. Saturday morning.
“The Rundown Job” aired nearly three months later. I was interested to see how they pieced the different scenes shot at different locations together. In all, the footage that took some 80+ hours of setup and filming whittled down to about six minutes and 15 seconds of the episode. In the end, the MAX system made its debut as a subway, I learned a lot about Hollywood-style filming and I got a pretty cool souvenir: a “D.C. subway” system map in TriMet colors.
P.S. If you get a chance to watch the episode on rerun, take a hard look at the MAX train as it rolls into the tunnel. What’s missing? (Overhead wires)
The production company for “Leverage” reimbursed TriMet for all costs including staff time and use of TriMet facilities.