Stars on a slow road
Emilia Clarke looked at me with those big green eyes, touched my arm, and said, “I would not be here if it weren’t for you.”
I recounted this encounter to my daughter, Caroline, in an email. “The Mother of Dragons said that to you?” she replied. “Dad, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard about you!”
Actually, none of the 150 or so actors and crew assembled in the remote coal-mine town of Harlan, Kentucky (population 1,800) would have had reason to be here if I hadn’t written a true-crime book, Above Suspicion, that Simon & Schuster published 23 years ago. The story was finally in production as a major motion picture, which will be released in 2017.
The movie stars Clarke, famous for playing Daenerys Targaryen, aka Mother of Dragons, in the HBO series Game of Thrones, and Jack Huston, best known for his lead role in last summer’s remake of the sweeping biblical epic Ben-Hur. Also featured in the Above Suspicion cast are Austin Hebert, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, and Sophie Lowe, all of them busy young Hollywood actors who—along with Clarke and Huston and the director Phillip Noyce and a big crew—somehow had to find their way to and from Harlan for the two-month location shoot.
As a consultant on the movie, I got to hang on the set over the summer and share my book research while director and actors basically rewrote a weak screenplay to find characters’ voices. On location, I tried to get my head around the idea that all these people had to find a way to travel back and forth from Harlan. Stars, crew, producers, fleets of trucks, and lights and cameras all needed to be gathered in an isolated place before the director could shout, “Action!”
Surely, I thought, if any location argued for using business-jet alternatives, at least for part of the trip, Harlan, Kentucky, would be that place. It is hours of hard driving over twisty mountain roads from the nearest even mid-sized commercial airport.
“Did anyone fly private?” I asked during one location shot at tiny Tucker-Guthrie Memorial Airport, in the hills outside Harlan. (Airnav.com says that airport has a 3,460-foot runway with “basic, in poor condition” markings.)
Private? People looked at me blankly. Everyone seemed to be proud of the hard traveling they had done. If anyone was flying privately, they weren’t talking about it.
“You have to understand,” one of the crew people confided to me about the top stars. “These people all have contracts, and if one gets private [air travel] the others will also demand it. There’s a limited budget.”
I was told later that Emilia Clarke (who will reportedly make $500,000 an episode for the next season of Game of Thrones and who obviously has her own resources) did fly private on one leg, from L.A. to Lexington, Kentucky, but then was driven the three hours to the set. Otherwise, it was airliners for her, coupled with driving, even though Above Suspicion began production in the spring, when she was also going back and forth making network TV and other promotional appearances for Me Before You, another movie she starred in.
How arduous was the travel? Well, consider my experience. To get to Harlan in July, I flew American Airlines from Tucson to Phoenix, with a connection to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I boarded an American Eagle Dash 8 propeller plane (which sat on the apron for over an hour waiting for a fuel truck) to fly to the tiny airport in Huntington, West Virginia. Then I drove a rented car for three hours on winding mountain roads to Harlan, where I arrived after 3 a.m. at the only motel in town.
Incidentally, in mid July, Emilia had to suddenly leave the movie set and fly to London, where her father was gravely ill. In the middle of the night, she was driven to Lexington, where she took an airliner to Atlanta and made a connection to London. The trip took nearly 24 hours, and her father died while she was en route. Unfortunately, a private option was not readily available under those kinds of emergency circumstances.
But were any private alternatives available for the cast and crew under non-emergency circumstances? Well, of course.
Those headed for the New York area could have taken a charter flight from Harlan to Teterboro, New Jersey, which would have consumed a little over two hours and cost $6,000. Those bound for L.A. could have taken a 30-minute, $3,000 charter flight from Harlan to Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee, then hopped a midsized Hawker 800/800XP for a flight of a little more than four hours that costs about $30,000. Harlan to London would have required the aforementioned $6,000 flight to Teterboro followed by a large-cabin-jet transatlantic charter that would have cost nearly $80,000 but could have accommodated more than a dozen passengers.
So it can be done, at a price. And yes, time is money on a movie set—but I can still see a producer glowering over a growing location budget and yelling, “Cut!”
Joe Sharkey (email@example.com), the author of six books and a longtime BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business travel column for the New York Times for 16 years.