Bridgewater native is top props man for movies – The Times
Maybe you heard about the movie “Harriet” during last Sunday’s Academy Awards.
John Bert worked on that.
Or you’ve probably heard about “Wonder Woman 1984,” certain to be one of this year’s blockbusters.
Bert worked on that movie, too.
From the Emmy Award-winning “Veep,” to the Oscar-nominated “Lincoln,” Bert, a 53-year-old Bridgewater native, has carved out a career behind the camera, most recently working as a top props man for movies and TV shows.
“I love it. And I never went to school for it,” Bert said.
And he credits a Beaver Area High School teacher for lighting the fire that eventually led to a fascinating career.
Bert developed an interest in film-making in high school, through teacher Charles Townsend’s mass media class.
“He taught you to observe things and watch for symbolism,” said Bert, a 1984 graduate.
For a project, Townsend encouraged students to compile a slide show, write lyrics for a song or make a short film.
Bert made a film and took a liking to the craft.
“Mr. Townsend really lit that spark, not just for me, but everyone in that class,” Bert said. “He really let your creativity flow.”
A year out of high school, Bert made sure to be a bystander watching Ron Howard directing scenes in Beaver for the comedy-drama “Gung Ho,” starring a budding actor from Robinson Township named Michael Keaton.
“But growing up in the Pittsburgh area at the time, they weren’t making many movies here, so I just gave up on that as a career,” Bert said.
Instead, he took a job as a cook at a Howard Johnson’s on the turnpike, followed by jobs at the Sheetz in Rochester, Pappan’s in Chippewa Township, Tuma Lawn Service and as a pharmacy tech in Warrendale.
For fun, he pursued his interests in historic preservation by becoming a Civil War re-enactor.
Fate intervened in the late 1980s, when Bert caught wind of an epic Civil War-era movie filming in South Dakota that needed hundreds of authentic extras.
That sounded interesting enough for Bert to drive 1,200 miles to appear in what would be the 1990 Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves,” starring Kevin Costner.
“I found myself not caring about Kevin, but I was talking with Dean Semler, director of photography, and asking how does the camera work? And why do you do this? And I was talking to the sound mixer. That’s when I knew I never, ever had a desire to be in front of the camera. I wanted to be behind the camera.”
He became an extra on another early-1990s Civil War era film, “Gettysburg,” but continued living in Beaver County and working outside the film industry.
It would be almost a decade later before his Civil War expertise, and a bit of impudence, put him directly on his career path.
Fate intervenes again
Through his background in Civil War re-enactments, he had been hired to round up extras and be one himself for a 2003 movie “Gods and Generals” about Confederacy war hero Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
“They were in Virginia. I was living in Rochester. And the very first day of filming, not knowing anything about set etiquette whatsoever, they’re doing rehearsal and it’s real quiet and the actors start marching on the set,” Bert recalled. “I ran right out there and said, ’You’re marching out of step, and you should hold the gun this way!’
“They were like, ’Whoa, whoa. Who the hell are you?’” Bert said. “This guy comes up to me and said, ’What’s your name?’
“My name is John Bert.”
“What do you do here?”
“ I got these re-enactors.”
“He said, ’My name is Ron Maxwell, and I’m the director of this film. From now, on I don’t want you more than 20 feet away from me.’”
Maxwell hired Bert on the spot to be a consultant.
Six months later, Bert was doing similar work for “Cold Mountain,” a Civil War-set film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellwegger. Bert spent months on the set in Romania.
When he returned home, he decided he needed to be more proactive in finding movie gigs.
“So I just up and moved to Virginia. They were doing a lot of filming there,” Bert said.
He was hired for several History Channel projects there, including “Battlefield Detectives” and “Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.”
More regular work started rolling in, including an African-American documentary, “For Love of Liberty,“ and an ad campaign for the U.S. Border Patrol.
Bert got one of his biggest breaks hired as the military coordinator for HBO’s acclaimed “John Adams“ miniseries.
While historical pieces became a niche, he took other behind-the-scenes projects, too.
“If I showed up at a commercial, like when I was an assistant director, people would automatically say, ’Oh, are we shooting old-timey again? Should we be wearing tri-corn hats?’ That’s how I got started, but I have done a different variety of projects and genres.”
For three years, starting in 2009, Bert helped a friend launch a snacks catering company for films in Georgia, which put him on the set for “Anchorman 2” and “The Walking Dead.”
Though history projects always appealed the most to him, such as 2012’s “Lincoln,” where he was part of the props department for a film starring Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by the renowned Steven Spielberg.
“That was a highlight for me,” Bert said. “I saw ’Star Wars’ as a kid, and that made me want to do science fiction and escapism. But when I saw ’Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ that made me want to do movies. Spielberg did that film.
“I was a props assistant on ’Lincoln,’ and I remember being in the balcony when they were doing all the scenes about the arguments to the amendment to the Constitution. And I’m just staring at Spielberg, and he’s in this little folding chair with a little captain’s wheel on the back of it, and it was like I literally was being paid to get an education on how to make a film. I loved watching him work. He was very decisive.”
Bert has risen to the occupation of props master and now lives in the foothills of the Virginia mountains, near such film projects as a recently completed Showtime miniseries, “The Good Lord Bird,” set in the mid-1800s with Ethan Hawke portraying abolitionist John Brown.
Bert got along well with Hawke, who shared on Instagram a photo Bert took of him on set.
Historical figure Brown used very specific weapons, which became a challenge for Bert and his props team to replicate. They got their break when discovering a website by a man in Nepal who possessed 20 of the type of guns used by Brown and his men, famed for their October 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now West Virginia), in an attempt to liberate slaves.
Bert and his props team bought 13 of those original guns, which took three weeks to restore. Finding a specific sword put Bert on another three-month quest that ended successfully just hours before filming was scheduled.
“I try to be as authentic as possible, but you got to realize you’re not a documentary; you’re a drama,” Bert said. “At some point, you have to surrender and say, ’This is the kind of bag you’re going to have, because the actor wants that kind of bag.’ Though Ethan was great, because he would basically leave it up to us.”
Especially in the age of the internet, there are know-it-alls ready to pounce on a film if it uses a prop that’s historically inaccurate. Bert knows of a website devoted entirely to critiquing the accuracy of guns in movies.
The History Channel is working on a George Washington show, “and all my history friends are like, ’Oh, this is garbage. … The costumes are wrong, and the swords are wrong,’” Bert said. “I say, ’You know what: If your kids watch this and then go read a book, or even Google Wikipedia about Washington, then (the TV show has) done its job. It’s done more than its job, because its job is to entertain. But if it entertains and educates? That’s a win-win situation.”
Bert can’t give details about working on “Wonder Woman 1984” because studios notoriously are tight-lipped about their superhero films. As a 1984 high school graduate, Bert, let’s assume, was in his wheelhouse picking props for a film set in that same year.
As props master, he helped assure authenticity to “Harriet,” the 2019 film about Harriet Tubman, who helped free hundreds of slaves as a leader of the Underground Railroad. The film earned an Oscar nomination for lead actress Cynthia Erivo.
Bert worked three seasons on “Veep,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The challenge there came when the creative actors regularly improvised during rehearsals, so Bert needed to scramble to find a rather specific items, like the time he needed to track down caraway seeds.
Even with the occasional brief interaction with a film star, movie crew jobs are not glamorous, said Bert, who often spends 16 hours a day on his feet.
“If you are looking for glory — whether you are a grip or an electrician or props assistant or in hair or makeup — you are in the wrong business. But it’s pretty awesome. It isn’t what I thought it would be when I saw them filming ’Gung Ho.’”
Pittsburgh’s film industry has been busy in recent years, spilling over to Netflix shows including “Mindhunter,” “I’m Not Okay With This” and “Sweet Girl” shooting scenes in Beaver County. Bert hasn’t worked on any films in western Pennsylvania.
“I would love to. That would be a bucket list thing,” Bert said.
He got an offer to work on the Kristen Stewart film “Happiest Season,” which filmed in Pittsburgh last month, but couldn’t squeeze it into his schedule.
“Any other person who wants to do movies, tell them they don’t have to live in Hollywood or Los Angeles,” Bert said. “They are making projects in Pennsylvania. They are making projects in Pittsburgh. They are making projects in Beaver County. It’s now closer than ever.”
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