Unusual niche market puts California contractor’s fencing and portable restroom services in the Hollywood limelight.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cal-State Site Services plays a role in television shows and feature films shot in Hollywood. Sure, it’s more behind-the-scenes than a lead part, but by providing fencing and portable restrooms for on-location filming, the Simi Valley, California-based company gets its proverbial 15 minutes of fame — over and over again.
While the Tinseltown jobs are a relatively small part of Cal-State’s overall business, they offer perks like celebrity sightings and the excitement of seeing its products appear in well-known television shows like NCIS, CSI and Sons of Anarchy, or films made by Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures, says Rick Modlin, the company’s president. “We have about 10 or 12 production managers that have us on speed dial,” he says. “We’re centrally located in the San Fernando Valley where a lot of filming goes on, so it’s easy for us to get those jobs done.”
Modlin established Cal-State in 1991, and the company has been providing location services to Hollywood clients since 1993, ranging from feature films to television shows and commercials. The company owns 1 million linear feet of temporary fencing (which includes both chain-link fencing and 6- by 10-foot fencing panels); roughly 2,200 barricades (all from Swan Fence Co.); restrooms from Five Peaks; and restroom trailers from NuConcepts.
For servicing restrooms, the company relies on a 2017 Hino with a 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from Tank World Corp.; three Freightliner trucks, each outfitted with 1,500-gallon waste/500-gallon freshwater aluminum tanks from Southwest Tank and Steel Inc.; six Ford F-550 trucks that carry 750-gallon waste/400-gallon freshwater stainless steel tanks from Satellite Industries; and a slide-in unit with a 750-gallon waste/250-gallon freshwater aluminum tank from KeeVac Industries. All the units are equipped with Masport pumps.
In a recent interview, Modlin explains the challenges of serving the niche Hollywood market, his favorite starstruck moment and his most embarrassing moment in film.
Pumper: How did your company’s Hollywood “career” come about?
Modlin: A production company called us in 1992 to build some fences and a gate for the Stargate movie, starring Kurt Russell and James Spader. They were closing down a large tunnel for a weekend and using it as a movie set. They asked us to build some massive gates that would swing open from each side of the road, with some chain-link fencing off to the side. They wanted it to look like you’re driving into a military encampment.
It actually was hard to do. This was in 1992, a year after I started my business, so I was still inexperienced. But I got pretty excited about the job when they called. They faxed over all the information, and we scratched our heads and promised them we could do it. We built the gates and transported them to the film site the day before and installed them.
Pumper: What kinds of productions do you work on?
Modlin: About 30 percent of our work is movies, another 10 to 20 percent is television commercials, and the rest is television shows — network programs and such. The biggest show we’ve been affiliated with is NCIS, which we work on twice a season. For the last 10 years or so, we’ve also worked on three or four CSI episodes a season. It runs the gamut from just building a gate or putting up some background fencing to using barricades and fencing to create a fake (Le Mans-style) racetrack in downtown Los Angeles.
Pumper: How long have you been supplying restrooms with fencing?
Modlin: Only for about the last five or six years. It took us a while to crack the shell and get them to change from the vendor they were using. For the most part, we supply a restroom trailer and individual restrooms.
Pumper: Do you get to see any actual filming?
Modlin: Not very often. We’ve been there during filming for a couple of the bigger movies, but generally we set up a day or two beforehand. Then the actors come in and do their blocking for a couple days, then film on the fourth and fifth days. Then we come back and tear everything down the day after that.
Pumper: Is it much different than a special event, like a festival or concert?
Modlin: Not really, except for the fact that it’s pretty high-profile. Halle Berry might be standing next to one of our fences, so we want it to look really good. There’s a little more pressure because they’re high-prestige jobs. But it’s exciting, too. We take great pride in doing the work and the production companies appreciate what we do. We provided service during all seven seasons of Sons of Anarchy, and after the last show, they gave special pins and T-shirts to all the vendors that had worked on it from the start.
Pumper: Do the production companies specify high-end restrooms for stars and standard units for everyone else? How about sinks and/or hand sanitizers?
Modlin: No, the stars and crews all use the same restrooms, our NuConcepts VIPs. Yes, they ask for both sinks and hand sanitizers.
Pumper: Does the work pose any unusual challenges?
Modlin: About 20 percent of the jobs we work on are filmed on a soundstage. Those jobs are pretty easy and straightforward. But movie and television shows are shot on location. For example, the filming might occur in an actual neighborhood or a warehouse or on a city street — it’s always something different. And there might be a lot of logistics to contend with that you’re not familiar with.
The biggest challenges are the time frames in which the studios want things done. Sometimes a production company calls in a panic and says, “We forgot that we need a giant gate built for a background shot and we need it by 5 p.m. today.” But we always get it done. And if you get it done, that’s what they remember … that’s what keeps them calling you back for the next one. And the next one.
Pumper: Have you ever met any celebrities?
Modlin: Kurt Russell. Generally speaking, I don’t have any contact with celebrities. But when they were filming Stargate, I went over to him and introduced myself because I’m a starstruck fan. He’s a very nice guy — very down to earth and humble.
Pumper: Has anything funny ever happened?
Modlin: Well, in the mid-1990s we helped out on a movie called Volcano, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Ann Heche. It’s about a volcano erupting in Los Angeles (from the Le Brea tar pits), with lava running through downtown streets, earthquakes, flying fireballs and so forth. And in one of those scenes where things are really rocking, our fence suddenly appears with a Cal-State 1-800 number on it. We actually got phone calls from other film-production companies that saw it. We were pretty shocked.
Pumper: Aren’t you asked to remove company stickers and signs that might show up on film?
Modlin: Yes, we’re supposed to remove company signage. But occasionally one slips through.
Pumper: Any embarrassing moments?
Modlin: The swinging gate we built for Stargate was about 12 feet tall and each half was probably 12 feet wide (for each gate). When we installed it, I didn’t take into account how heavy the gates would be. So when we clamped on the two sections of the gate, they sagged in the middle and the poles were leaning inward. We back-braced the top of the posts, but they still sagged a little bit.
That scene is in the first five or 10 minutes of the movie. A car drives up to the gate and two guards open the gate. You can see the guards actually lifting up the gates a little bit in order to open them. It was a little funny — and a little embarrassing, too. But we still get work from that production company. The second time they called us, they needed another gate. I was asked if the gate was going to drag on the ground again. I said, “No, I think we’ve now got that one down pat.”