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Chuck Stewart


On a lark, property master Chuck Stewart took a few minutes from his labors on the currently filming Pirates of the Caribbean and decked himself out with as many of the 2,000 plus items in his charge — pistols, swords, bandoliers, a compass and the like — as he could support. One of his crew shot him looking like a 16th century Rambo in a baseball cap and the photo was prominently stuck on the wall of the props truck. It might have ended there — a sight gag for the crew to chortle over: the burly, slyly humorous master of properties in an imposing stance that seemed to say “beware ye who enter here.”
But the portrait quickly became a set legend, and when director Gore Verbinski came by for a look, he concluded that Stewart was definitely pirate material. He’s been told not to shave and to be ready to man the riggings when the Black Pearl sets sail in St. Vincent. He chuckles at the prospect, recalling being press-ganged into extra work on The Abyss, Escape from Alcatraz and his personal favorite, Armageddon, where he got to utter “astronauts” in a close-up. It’s a pleasant diversion but hardly cause to cede membership in IA Local 44 for the Screen Actors Guild.
The irony is that his training and early experience might indeed have put him in front of the camera had circumstance not set him on another path. A Theater Arts graduate of the University of Nebraska he led a gypsy’s life with early stints at the Santa Fe Opera and in the vibrant San Francisco fringe theater scene of the 1970s where he directed cutting edge fare like Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.
“What I learned early on was that if someone asked, ‘can you do that?’ you should always answer ‘yes,’” he recalls.
So, when he was visiting a friend in Utah, he wound up taking a temporary gig as a painter’s apprentice at Sunn Classics Pictures. The producers soon had him supervising departments and over the next several years he chalked up credits on such films as Hanger 18 and In Search of Historic Jesus.
“It didn’t matter to me what I was asked to do,” says Stewart. “I’m the kind of person who gravitates toward pressure situations and solving problems.”
He did greens work on Under Fire and gradually shifted toward the prop department in a series of non-union jobs on The Falcon and the Snowman and Iron Eagle. He was Taft-Hartley-ed into the union on La Bamba and officially joined for The Abyss. With such credits as Terminator 2, Heat, True Lies, Ali and Pearl Harbor on his resume, Stewart has developed a reputation as a “go-to” guy for complicated (and strenuous) productions.
Pirates ranks among the most grueling and challenging assignments of his career on several levels. As with any job, Stewart first reads the script, making notes on the page about items both indicated and implicit in each scene.
“In this job, it best to set the agenda,” he observes. “Michael Mann has very strong opinions going in, but even someone who’s making up his mind in pre-productions is asking questions and you’re trying to find a common wavelength. There’s always going to be something that hasn’t been considered — a major piece, multiples — or maybe something obvious like you better get really good Rolex knockoffs because the real ones are too expensive.” Prepared or otherwise, the director generally gets what he wants … even real Rolexes.
It’s a given, Stewart notes, that studios don’t allocate sufficient prep time (he wrangled 16 weeks though 12 had been budgeted on Pirates) or money. The industry rule of thumb is that his department receives one-half to three-quarter of 1 percent of the total budget which might translate into $650,000 on a $130 million movie. He just winces thinking about the money being spent on special effects.
Two decades of experience have conditioned Stewart to “tight” budgets. His prop needs fall into three categories: available for rent, purchase items, and to be manufactured. Cost generally determines, for instance, whether rapiers will be rented or made. But not always. Though many items can be found at a couple of dozen rental houses, his list runs to close to 100 outlets when he needs something truly arcane. And, he’s become a cheerleader for the Internet, his first and last stop for just about everything on his shopping list.
For Pirates of the Caribbean he returned to another old standby, the swap meet at the Rose Bowl. He and his crew went on a scavenger hunt one Sunday and returned with carved, silver angels, powder horns, buckets and several dozen other hard-to-find relics.
Though it’s not uncommon to be hired by a film’s production designer, Stewart prefers getting the call from a producer or director and has established on-going working relationships with James Cameron, Michael Mann and Jerry Bruckheimer. It affords him a degree of autonomy but he also understands that everyone has to be in sync about style, color palette and all that goes into the look of a picture.
“Chuck is the consummate professional,” says Bruckheimer. “He’s the ideal combination of creativity and organization. I don’t know how he does it, but I see the results.”
Bruckheimer admits to being in awe of Stewart’s ability to anticipate. On the current production he says director Verbinski asked him to provide four special items, assuming he’d have them in a day or two. Fifteen minutes later they were on the set.
Back at the props truck one can see why. Boxed items line its walls alphabetically labeled from Axes to Writing desks, arranged by props crew member Selma Kora, who happens to be Stewart’s wife.
Stewart barely smiles when the Bruckheimer story is related back. He says there are basically just two kinds of jobs: easy and hard. Rudy is an example of the first. Notre Dame, where the story took place, rolled out the red carpet, providing everything from school insignias on footballs to copies of the real life title character’s transcripts.
It’s rarely that simple. He still bristles over a situation that occurred on Wonder Boys. At the end of a shooting day, director Curtis Hanson informed him that he wanted all the page numbers removed on the 2,000+ page manuscript that Michael Douglas’ character is writing. Stewart could not convince him that it was unnecessary as no more than a few pages would ever be seen, and worked through the night recopying and aging it. The next day, he says, Hanson looked at it, put two-thirds of it in a filing cabinet and scattered the rest on the floor. Again, the director prevailed.
“I’m lucky, I found work that I enjoy and engages me,” he says. “But I always think of something I read in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and think of films as ‘little deaths.’ There’s no job security and you’re constantly preparing for the unknown — the next job.”

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