Filming a Motorcycle Stunt

We at SiF are very grateful to former TATMR Unit Production Manager  - Keith W. Strandberg for his kind permission to reproduce an article he had written for the April 2000 issue of Motorcycle Tour & Cruiser magazine. We hope fans will find Keith's article very insightful about the filming of one of PT Boomer's lost scenes... 

Filming a Motorcycle Movie Stunt
By Keith W. Strandberg

No, not quite - it's actually professional stunt rider - Mike Jones
I was recently hired as the Unit Production Manager for the movie "Thomas and the Magic Railroad." Scheduled to release in July, this high-profile feature film was directed by Britt Allcroft and stars Peter Fonda, Alec Baldwin, Russell Means, and Mara Wilson. As UPM, I called all the local shots, while producer Phil Fehrle and the company made the major decisions for the picture.  After shooting on Britain's Isle of Man for six weeks, the production moved to Pennsylvania for three days of train filming.
It wasn't until after the location scout and about two weeks before we began shooting that I heard about the motorcycle stunt. "Motorcycle stunt?" I asked, my eyebrows shooting up. It was really more like a gag than a stunt, a simple matter of having a motorcycle cross in front of a speeding locomotive.  But when you put a Harley in front of a large locomotive that can take up to half a mile or more to stop, nothing is simple. 

Keith Strandberg, Phil Fehrle and stunt rider Mike

First, I had to find a qualified motorcycle stunt rider. I called my good friend Mike Jones to see if he was available. Mike had slid a Triumph Speed Triple under a speeding tractor-trailer for my movie "Bloodmoon." (He wound up being featured on "Hollywood's Greatest Stunts" for it.) He was available to work with me this time too, and my search for a stunt rider was complete.
The real challenge, however, was finding a black '97 Harley Super Glide to match the one that had already been filmed on the Isle of Man. Now, you might think that finding such a motorcycle wouldn't be too hard, and you'd be right - except for one thing. The owner of the motorcycle had to be willing to let us cut in front of a speeding locomotive with it. That reduced the prospective owners considerably. Sure, we had $3 million worth of liability insurance, but no one was jumping at the chance to sacrifice his or her pride and joy.

Finding the Motorcycle
A good producer never puts all his eggs in one basket, so when i started looking for a Super Glide, I asked just about everyone I knew. I asked Mike jones if he had a Harley or had access to one.  He owns a red Suzuki Intruder that looks relatively similar to a Harley.  My backup plan was to cover the tank, frame, and fenders with black electrical tape and hope no one could spot the difference.  I also called all the local dealers in central Pennsylvania, telling them what I was looking for. They started looking.
First, I found a black Harley Sportster for rent from Bill Ford at Mountain Thunder Motorcycle Tours of West Virginia.  I booked it as another backup. sure, it wasn't the exact motorcycle, but it was similar enough for our purposes.  Mike Jones was doubling for an actor who had worked on the Isle of Man.  Because we couldn;t shoot tight enough in so that you couldn't see that it wasn't the real actor, I figured we probably would be far enough away to forgive any differences between the Super Glide and the Sportster. I still kept looking though.

Boomer's motorcycle: Harley '98 Super Glide
Boomer's motorcycle: Harley '98 Super Glide

Only a few days before the shoot, my transportation coordinator Glenn Hopple found a black '98 Super glide. The owner Jim Winebrenner was willing to let us do the stunt, provided that we paid him up front and had a certificate of insurance to prove that we could replace the bike if we damaged it.  I told Glenn to book the bike and have it delivered the day before we shot the stunt. As soon as the motorcycle was in our custody (and the owner had left the set and couldn;t take his bike back), I canceled the rental agreements in West Virginia.  

The Shoot
The day of the motorcycle stunt dawned fine and clear. The sun was up, the wind was calm, and Mike Jones had come in from Ohio. I had asked him to arrive the day before, to make sure there wouldn't be any problems with traffic or arrangements. We were planning to shoot the stunt in the afternoon. I had Mike report to the set in the morning so I could take him to the site and explain what was going to happen.
Before I go any further, let me make clear that this stunt was performed by a professional stunt rider on a closed road with every safety precaution taken.  Do not try to recreate this stunt on a train track near you.  Too many things can go wrong, and trains cannot stop on a dime.

The stunt was to take place on a dirt road that runs alongside the tracks of the Strasburg Railroad, North America's oldest continuously operating railroad.  It was chosen for the movie filming due to its pristinely preserved steam locomotives and coaches and the backdrop of the beautiful Amish farmland of Lancaster County.
The dirt road parallels the tracks, then curves sharply. cuts across the dirt tracks, and continues on through a field.  This is where we wanted Mike to have a close encounter with the Strasburg Railroad's Locomotive #475.
One of the main problems with our plan was that the road surface was a combination of loose dust, stones, and hard-packed dirt - not exactly the Harley's home turf. If Mike got too much speed going and the back tire broke into a slide, he would wind up across the tracks. and there was no way the locomotive could stop in time.

Mike gets paid to do dangerous things, but he's no fool. It's his business to know what he can and can't do. He looked at the dirt road, the curve, and the train track, and said, "Okay, shouldn;t be a problem."
I, on the other hand, didn;t feel quite as comfortable.   I talked with the producer to see if there was another way to get the motorcycle and the train in the same shot, without putting Mike at so much risk.
Well, it turns out that the company never intended for the motorcycle and rider to ever be in danger.   Through a series of well-orchestrated shots, judicious cuts, and some movie magic, we were able to get exactly what we wanted.  And the train and the mototcycle were never closer than 50 feet from each other, although it appears to be a near miss.

Clear the Tracks! Why didn't we have a shot of the train's engineer Billy Twofeathers putting on the brakes when he saw the motorcycle? Well, because that's not what an engineer would do. "Engineers are trained to blow the whistle if they see something in their path," explained Linn Moedinger, vice-president of operations for the Strasburg Railroad. "If you slam on the brakes, you'll never stop in time anyway. so it's best to blow the whistle and hope whatever is there gets out of the way."

How Did We Do It?
First, we shot the train speeding across the tracks.  then, without moving the camera, we shot Mike on the motorcycle, careening around the corner.  Then, in the editing suite, we took half of the frame with the train in it and half of the frame with the motorcycle in it, amd married them together.  In the final film, it looks like the motorcycle just barely missed getting hit by the train. Cool, huh?
The Shots
The day was set up like this:
  • Shots of Mike Jones on the Super Glide racing down the dirt road, no turn.
  • Shots of Mike Jones powering across the tracks, no turn.
  • Shots of Mike Jones stopped on the other side of the track, no turn involved.
  • Shots of Russell Means as Billy Twofeathers in the cab of the train, reacting to seeing the motorcycle.
  • Shots of the train barreling across the tracks at several different speeds - all very impressive and dangerous looking.
  • Finally, we had to shoot the turn, and it was pretty dicey.  The dust and rocks made the turn slippery. Mike felt the back wheel break loose a couple of times.

Later, he told me, "I never lost control, but I could feel the back wheel moving.  I was glad there was no train coming,  because it took some of the pressure off.  I had enough pressure knowing that the producer would kill me if  I dropped the Harley."  He also had to watch out for all the people and the incredibly expensive camera equipment alongside the road.  One slip up, and both might be seriously damaged.
The good news is that Mike did a great job, we got the shot, and the movie got its stunt.  When "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" comes out this summer, check it out.  You'll already know how they did that amazing motorcycle stunt.
As for Mr. Winebrenner, he got his Harley back none the worse for wear.  And the Super Glide is now a movie star.  I wonder if it will come out of its star trailer.

Keith W. Strandberg

Keith W. Strandberg is a freelance writer and award-winning writer/producer of feature films. Living in Lancaster Sounty, Pennsylvania, he is an avid motorcylist and rides a '97 Suzuki Bandit 1200S. He is currently working on a screenplay for a motorcycle movie that's bound to become a classic. (April, 2000)
Update: In the coming years after authoring this article, Keith has moved on to contribute his skills and talents on many projects and interests. Since moving to Switzerland from the U.S.A in 2007, Keith is currently teaching Media Communications at Webster University in the scenic city of Geneva.  Keith's impressive line-up of achievements and interests can be seen on his website
Ryan and I would like to once again express our many thanks to Keith for sharing his article with SiF visitors, and wish him all the best with his current and future projects! =)
Keith also shares more recollections with us about the Pennsylvania filming in his SiF interview.
James Gratton, March  24, 2010