Cars as Stars: Inside the World of Auto Roles in Movies, Commercials, Videos

Cars in movies have been around since, well, since there were movies and cars. Whether it was a damsel in distress in a Model T stuck on the tracks in front of an oncoming iron horse or James Bond in an armed Aston Martin, the two seem to have been inseparable. The coming of television only added additional relationships. And then there are commercials -“ and music videos.

Sometimes the car is the star and its human plays a secondary role; usually, though, it’s the other way around. Either way, those cars have to find their way into movies and television programs, commercials and music videos with a little help from people like Gino Lucci of Picture Cars East.

Lucci is in New York, where his company started back in 1974. It’s also where he provided the five flaming cars in Lady Gaga’s latest music video “Marry the Night” [caution: if you’ve not seen this video on YouTube be aware that it is ‘out there’]. “We actually burned -“ and in all the years I’ve done this I’ve never done anything quite like it -“ five cars that burned so long that at the end of the night you could not tell they were cars. Everything that could possibly burn, burned,” Lucci exclaims.

Lady Gaga’s latest music video “Marry the Night” also stars five flaming cars supplied by Gino Lucci’s Picture Cars East.

In his 37 years, Lucci has been involved with “close to 1,600 major films. And probably in excess of 10,000 commercials. We need to work in order to keep 20 families going.” Those 20 families belong to his mixed bag of employees who do everything involved with modifying motor vehicles for use in production scenes, from making cars larger -“ or smaller -“ to making them safe for stunt drivers to providing accurate law enforcement graphics.

It started for Lucci when he was running a small auto repair shop while attending college. Then Hollywood called -“ or at least the East Coast version. “I had a 1940 Ford convertible that had maybe five different colors of paint on it. Someone came by and asked if I would use it in a movie. It was called ‘Bell Jar’ and my car supposedly belonged to a college student who couldn’t afford anything better than it.” Lucci drove his car to the set but, “they didn’t shoot it until the fourth day. So while I was hanging around I struck up a relationship with the stunt coordinator. I was really interested in what he did.”

A while later Lucci got a call from his new friend. “He asked if I would be interested in preparing some cars for a movie. He said they were going to crash these cars and needed to install the NASCAR-type roll cages inside to protect the occupants. I said sure, I’ve done that before [by then Lucci had become involved in racing] and about six months went by and I did get a call. We had a meeting in Manhattan and they gave me the order to go out and purchase the vehicles.”

The “movie” turned out to be an in-house production for AT&T executives about the dangers of drinking and driving. “They did a vignette about the cars -“ the husband arguing with his wife in one, the three executives feeling really good in another and so on -“ and they all meet at this intersection and they crash. Pretty violently. Cars going over upside down, head-on, sideways -“ we basically destroyed the four cars. The job went really well.”

Gino Lucci in his Picture Cars East office from the 2006 Speed TV series Show Cars.

A few months later Lucci got another phone call. This time it was from a stranger. “He said ‘I heard you did that job and I wonder if you’d do a job for me’ and I said sure. And then another call, and another call. Within two years I couldn’t do repair work anymore because this new venture was taking all my time.”

By 2006 Lucci and his company had their own reality show on television. Called “Shooting Cars,” it aired on the Speed cable channel for about six months. “There was no script, we just came in in the morning with the crew -“ a couple of cameras and sound -“ and we went through our normal day and I thought it was pretty interesting.” You can see clips of the program and examples of Lucci’s “normal” day -“ prepping cars to blow up, that kind of thing -“ on the producer’s website and click on the “reality shows” image.

Unlike his first experience with his own ’40 Ford becoming a car star, most of Lucci’s cars are bought by the production companies. Sometimes four or more identical cars are required for a production. There’s the “hero” car, which remains pretty much intact, and then the hero can have its own stunt doubles. Lucci explains that he’ll often buy the hero car from the production company after the shoot “at a reduced rate, and it goes into stock.” He figures his stock is down now to around 300 vehicles from a high of “well over 500.”

In his stock Lucci has “a fleet of 15-16 police cars, about 25 taxi cabs, news vans, ambulances, FBI and surveillance cars. Then we have nondescript cars that are stunt-ready: four-door Chevrolets in blue and grey and silver. They have all been modified and we would never sell a car like that. They have been modified to protect the driver and when we have a high-speed chase or something like that the airbag system is sometimes disconnected or removed, the ABS braking system is removed. We remove the gas tank and install fuel cells. The only time we get rid of a car is when we wreck it.

“We’re like a supermarket for specialty cars. I got a call yesterday and the guy says he’s looking for a state trooper car for a lottery commercial. I have a couple of different ones and I show him the styles and he says he’s really thinking of a Dodge Charger. I tell him I have one but I’ll have to make it up. We’ll have to put graphics on it, and lights and it’ll be ready for the shot next week.”

Lucci says that his business is self-contained. “We do all the mechanicals, the body work, the paint, graphics, even interiors. We depend on no one. The one word that describes the film business is control. If you don’t have 100 percent control you stand to repeat Murphy’s Law -“ what can go wrong will go wrong. When I go to a meeting and the director asks me to do this and this and this to a vehicle and I say yes I will, that’s an order.”

Technicians move stunt car into place on the set prior to blowing it up.

Some of the “this and this and this” involves making places for cameras and microphones inside a vehicle where they have never gone before. “Have you ever seen ‘Cash Cab’?” Lucci asks, mentioning the multiple Emmy Award-winning show where an unsuspecting cab rider hails what looks like an ordinary cab that is really a rolling quiz show that becomes “the only cab that pays you.” “We helped them out on getting the vehicle done. There are ‘lipstick cameras’ [high-resolution video cameras the size of a lipstick container] all over the place and it’s an ongoing shoot. There are four or five different angles and the editor picks the best ones for the program.”

While that quality might be acceptable for a reality show, general release motion pictures require a greater level of quality -“ and skill on the part of the actors. “We might mount the camera on a ‘hostess tray’ [Think: Sonic Drive-In tray] on the driver’s side of the vehicle where it’s aimed at the passenger. The actors go through all the dialog, then we do a reverse and put the camera on the passenger door, looking at the driver. The actors’ ability to deliver the same lines the exact same way is very critical.

“Cars will depict a character,” Lucci explains. “Say, a guy is driving a red TransAm. When you see that red TransAm parked outside a building then you know the character is inside and we didn’t have to say anything, did we.”

He says that often a director will have a meeting with him “and he’ll describe a character and ask me what I think they should be driving. I just finished working on a picture with Mark Wahlberg. He plays a cop who was fired for something. They were trying to find a car for him. Someone said it should be a Lexus and the director said how could he afford a Lexus because he’s out of work and looking for a job. We decided he should drive an old undercover cop car -“ the kind that he could’ve bought at a police auction. So, we had five of them. We wrecked two of them in New York and we shipped three of them to New Orleans from New York because that’s where they were finishing the film.”

Then, says Lucci, there’s the product placement side of filmmaking. “Many manufacturers love to have their cars in movies. It essentially gives them a million-dollar commercial for free. “Mercedes gave us two black cars and we cut one in half. It was for a movie called ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ The director says he has to be able to ‘get in there’ because there are three-and-a-half pages of dialog with Meryl Streep -“ that’s a long conversation, about five minutes of screen. The director says he wants the car cut in half to be able to film the back seat. So we call Mercedes and they say ‘not a problem, cut it.'”

Lucci cut the car in half. “Again, that’s the importance of being in control and not depending on any outsider. All the controls had to work. The lights, the windows had to work.” All the computers that normally control those items are in the front of the car, under the hood, which was not the half of the Mercedes they were shooting. “We had to build computers in the trunk to match the wiring harnesses so the electric seat, the cigarette lighter and all that would work. We did it, it went really well.”

What happened next was an example of true Hollywood -“ or New York City -“ movie magic. Lucci says, “I was quoting on a job that George Clooney was going to be in. He plays an attorney and they try to kill him. And he’s driving a black Mercedes. Of course we welded the car back together, but it wouldn’t run because we had cut all those wires. We had one good running car and this one welded back together. It was the ‘double’ that we used to blow up in the movie. So Mercedes got a lot of exposure for the car in two good movies with two big stars. That ‘commercial’ would have cost Mercedes a couple of million dollars per movie.”

Lucci returns to his character lesson and says that most car companies don’t want their cars identified with “bad guys” so he takes great pains to camouflage the cars that they drive. “If it’s a ‘low-life’ character who has to drive a new car we’ll go out and buy it and then remove the signs from it. We know it’s a BMW, you know it’s a BMW, but it doesn’t say ‘BMW’ anymore.”

Lucci says that the film business is very profitable to the area in which it operates. Tax rebates are an important factor influencing a production company’s decision to shoot in a particular location. “In New York, it’s 30 percent. We just did a movie called ‘Men in Black 3’ last year. The budget was approximately $250 million. It wasn’t all in New York but I guarantee you they spent $100 million. New York gave them back $30 million. That’s a big chunk of money. I always ask the Mayor’s Office ‘how does this work out?’ Based on their formulas, for every dollar spent in New York it trickles down to between two and three tax dollars for that 30 percent expenditure. So for that $100 million spent, New York gets between $200 and $300 million tax dollars. They can prove it. It’s definitely keeping 20 families in my organization alive. I don’t think any of my guys have ever seen the inside of an unemployment office.” Lucci explains that most of his workers have been with him for 20-plus years, with the “new guy” approaching eight years on the job.

Lucci says that he often gets asked if he ever gets tired of the things he does to make cars stars. “Every day is a new challenge here. It’s a new job; it’s a new idea. That’s what keeps us going.”