Interview with Tony Stephanos
Tony Stephanos is a Senior Mechanical Engineer with the Syska Henesy Group. Based in the greater Los Angeles Area, Stephanos also does consulting work on Hollywood movies—usually action or heist films—that feature scenes set in boiler rooms, air ducts, or other mechanical spaces.
P!: How’d you get involved in working on Hollywood movies?
T: It was really just a right place right time kinda situation. My wife and I had just moved out to Duarte [a suburb of Los Angeles], for the job at Syska. Right around that time, my brother-in-law—who’d always been trying to “make it” in the movie business, but, you know, was mostly waiting tables—he somehow got together a small bit of funding to get a movie made. A real clever little picture, a crime flick, about this jewelry store owner who hires a guy to do a burglary for the insurance money, only things get out of hand real quick. There was a big scene where a guy has to get from the basement up inside the storeroom through a supply duct, and my brother-in-law and I just sat around one day, going through a couple of beers, just puzzling the thing out, me talking, him storyboarding.
Anyway, the movie didn’t make a ton of money, but the studio, Republic, they liked him a lot, so he got a management job over there. It was a small studio, they did mostly exploitation flicks, but a lotta action movies too. Lot of prison escapes, bank robberies. Turns out there’s a fair amount of backscenes stuff in there—guys fighting in boiler rooms, climbing through vents and the like. So every time a movie came around with one of those scenes, my brother-in-law’d give me a call and I’d go in, talk to the director or whoever, pocket a small paycheck too ya know. But I actually really liked the work. I wouldn’t say I’m a creative type, but I like to dabble.
So from there, I just got a reputation. Hollywood’s a small town. And soon enough, I was doing some bigger movies. I’m still partner at my Syska, but I love this movie stuff. I’ll get back from a set and my co-workers will say, “What movie star you pal around with today?” They don’t get it, I mostly just talk with set designers, but once I did shake hands with Keanu Reeves during pre-production. That was pretty cool.
P!: That’s so interesting. It sounds like you have a fair amount of creative control. What are the collaborations like?
T: Oh it totally depends, it really runs the gamut. Sometimes they’re just doing their due diligence, bringing you on at the very end of the process just to make sure they’re not trying something so ridiculous that the audience would be taken out of it. But other times it’s much more of a creative endeavor. The best is when they bring me on before they’ve found the locations. Then I can really sit down with the screenwriter and talk out the scene. Sometimes what they’re thinking is ridiculous—like no way is a room of that size and occupancy gonna have a vent with that cross-section, this break-in scene is absolutely absurd—and the best people, the ones whose egos aren’t sky high yet, they’ll listen and we’ll really puzzle a set piece out. Usually it ends up being a better sequence. I have this theory that even just an average Joe can figure out when something’s not right. And the more believable it is, the more daring usually the action feats are that the star’s gotta accomplish to hide out from a bad guy, or break his friend out of prison, or what have you.
P!: So it’s usually you and the screenwriter talking it over? Or the director, or … ?
T: Well in the best situations, yeah. But most of the time, to be honest, I’ll work with the production designer. You know, that has its reward too, though. They’re pretty good people. Impressive lot, I’ve always been in awe of their work. It’s like they’ll take this character who only exists on the page—here’s this guy, a down-and-out criminal, trying to do one last job before he retires—and they’ll find his apartment, and oh man, they’ll find a room that gets the details just right, right down to the stains on the ceiling and the upholstery on his couch. Location scouts, though, they don’t know jack about how a building works [laughs]. Seriously, it’s like their brain short-circuits. They’re great at feel, but practicality, no so much. But they’ll listen to me. They realize that sometimes making it more realistic makes it play better. One time I was working on this picture Lockdown, a sorta Die Hard rip-off, and it called for the hero to sneak up on a guy in the boiler room. The scout wanted this tiny, grimy little room for this massive office tower. No way, I said, a building this classy would have all new fixtures, it wouldn’t be dark, there’d be fluorescent lights that all the maintenance guys hate. How about that, a scene where it’s hard to hide in a dark corner? Now that’s interesting.
P!: What’s been your best experience working on a movie?
T: Working with De Palma. Hands down. I was a consultant on the first Mission: Impossible, and oh man, planning the break-in scene, the one at Langley, that was really something. Now De Palma, he gets it right. He knew to get everyone on board at the same time: when they were re-working the script, he got me, the production designer and the stunt coordinator all together and we just rapped for a bit, trying to figure out how this thing would really go down. Now I’d done the renovation of the FBI building on Wilshire Boulevard, so I knew a bit of the security stuff, but De Palma and the stunt guy, they grilled me: would this duct work, how big is the air intake fan gonna be, are there really lasers, all that stuff. They wanted to get everything right. He’s very thorough. I swear by the end of the whole process De Palma coulda come and worked at my firm, he asked me so many questions. [laughs] But you know what, he got it right. You believe that scene.
P!: And your worst experience?
T: Oh gosh, well in the beginning I’d take whatever job came my way, just for the novelty of it. And cause I only got the Republic titles in the beginning … oof. I remember once consulting on this teen comedy, a guy trying to peep on the girl’s locker room gets stuck in the air duct … that was probably a low moment. But now, I only will take a gig I believe in, and ideally, like the Mission: Impossible, one where I get to look at the plans and really consult, like I’d do on my actual job, and talk to the stunt guy and the whole deal. Cause life’s too short, you know.
P!: How does it compare, your actual work as a mechanical consultant versus your work consulting for a film?
T: The movie stuff, it’s not too different from working on a building actually. Except all the priorities are reversed. When you’re doing a building, all the MEP stuff, it’s like a chore, or something they want to stick in the background, it has to be invisible. How big is the air handling unit? And do we need a direct exhaust to the outside? Where can we put that? Let’s hide it away, put it in the basement, by the fire stair, in the drop ceiling, wherever, just so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the architecture. But when you’re working on a heist movie, that stuff is all front and center: A guy’s trying to break into a place, he’ll know exactly that a 12 inch duct is gonna have a 12 inch elbow with a few inches and change till the vane, which means he’s looking at a 24 inch drop ceiling minimum, and he’ll know if it’s strong enough for him to crawl through, where he’ll hit a structural wall, if there’ll ever be a wet wall wide enough for him to shimmy up in, all that stuff.
I mean that stuff’s always there, you look around any building, you start to notice it. But most people, they don’t see it. It’s funny, sometimes when I’m doing my real job, I’m so in the background, it’s almost like I’m not real. It’s only when I do these movies—the heists, the prison breaks—that the rest of the world pays attention. Once it’s an imaginary action hero sneaking around a vent trying rob a bank, trying to catch Hans Gruber—once it’s all made up—suddenly all this mechanical stuff is real, front and center.