In Hollywood, all trains lead to Fillmore
Dave Wilkinson steered his pickup truck along a bumpy dirt road before making a sharp turn across a train track and parking in front of three big-top tents that rise above fields of beets and garbanzo beans.
Wilkinson lowered his window to talk to a set decorator as they waited for a locomotive to reposition 14 wooden railway cars to be featured in the Fox film “Water for Elephants,” based on a book about a traveling circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression.
“The train has become a rolling prop,’’ said Wilkinson on a recent sweltering weekday afternoon. “Last week we had tigers, an elephant and everything else on the train.”
Producers were close to wrapping a 50-day shoot, most of it along 30 miles of railway track owned by the Ventura County Transportation Commission but operated by Wilkinson’s company, Fillmore & Western Railway Co. Known to locals and tourists for its dinner trains, Thomas the Tank Engine events and pumpkin-patch rides, Fillmore & Western has developed a niche business leasing its trains to Hollywood.
The company, which owns 50 freight, passenger and commuter cars and 10 locomotives dating back to the 1880s, calls itself Home of the Movie Trains -- with some justification, if not a little Hollywood hype. Fillmore & Western’s trains, along with its bridges, trestles and stations, have been featured in more than 300 films and TV and commercial productions over the last two decades, making it the largest so-called short-run railway of its kind in Southern California, if not the country.
Projects filmed along the railway include movies such as “Seabiscuit,” “Race to Witch Mountain” and the recently released “Inception," which filmed a dream sequence involving a train suicide scene in Fillmore. "Atlas Shrugged," based on the novel by Ayn Rand that centers on a powerful railway executive, also recently spent two days filming along the railway, which has attracted several TV series such as “Criminal Minds” and “CSI.” Some projects film for a day; others, like “Water for Elephants,” stay for weeks.
Filming train wrecks and collisions is something of a specialty. One train is equipped with a giant metal rod that can “spear” an oncoming car and hold it on the track long enough for filmmakers to capture a collision scene. The rod was used to dramatic effect to film a fiery train collision with an SUV in the 2008 film “Get Smart.” The TV series “Numb3rs” filmed a train collision in 2008 shortly before the Chatsworth Metrolink crash, prompting CBS to delay the airing of the episode.
“We couldn’t survive without the movie industry,’’ said the 61-year-old Wilkinson, who, with his cheeky jowls and bushy white mustache, could easily play the part of a railway conductor. His office is cluttered with vintage switchman signal lamps, steam gauges and a plaque on his desk that identifies him as “rail baron.”
The family-run company, which employs 35 people including Wilkinson’s wife, Tresa -- a co-owner -- and a son and sister-in-law, generates about $3 million a year in revenue, about half of it from film-related leases. A big movie like “Water for Elephants” for example, will generate about $450,000 in revenue, but about 90% of that be eaten up by costs of operating trains, replacing parts and paying for fuel and oil, Wilkinson says.
“It costs a lot to run a railway,’’ he says.”These aren’t cheap machines.”
Despite the low profit margin, the business is a perfect marriage of Wilkinson’s twin passions: movies and trains. For most of his career, the Ojai resident worked as film projection technician for Mann Theatres in Ventura County. When he wasn’t fixing projectors, Wilkinson found himself helping out the owners of Short Line Enterprises, which bought and sold trains used in the film industry. Wilkinson left his day job at Mann and in 1996 bought the company, operating under the Fillmore & Western name, and soon establishing it as a go-to location for filming.
Aside from attending a few trade shows, Wilkinson relied mostly on word-of-mouth referrals to expand the business and expand its fleet of trains, which include fully operational 1920s Pullman passenger trains and an 1891 Porter steam engine that was once used to haul lumber in Oregon.
Kevin Halloran, executive producer for “Water for Elephants,” had no doubt where he would shoot most of the film, which depicts a period when circuses traveled the country by train. He knew the site from his days as a location manager on the 1993 Nicolas Cage thriller “Red Rock West,” which also used the private railway.
“There really is only one place in Southern California where you could film this,’’ Halloran said. “If we didn’t have this here, we wouldn’t be shooting the movie in California.”
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Dave Wilkinson, co-owner of Fillmore & Western Railway, which leases railroad cars to the film industry, stands near a railroad car being lifted by crane for transport to a studio for filming of "Water for Elephants." Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times
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