The Suburbanite
  • Local man keeps ‘Unstoppable’ from going off the rails

  • Steve Stertzbach never imagined he would be a crucial player in a $100 million Hollywood action film. But when “Unstoppable,” a runaway-train thriller starring Denzel Washington, hits screens nationwide today, Stertzbach’s name will appear prominently in the credits.

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  • Steve Stertzbach certainly never imagined he would be a crucial player in a $100 million Hollywood action film.
    But when “Unstoppable,” a runaway-train thriller from 20th Century Fox starring Denzel Washington, hits screens nationwide today, Stertzbach’s name will appear prominently in the credits.
    “I’m operating between 95 and 97 percent of all the trains you see moving in the movie,” says Stertzbach, a Tuscarawas Township resident and road foreman for the Brewster-based Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad.
    His behind-the-scenes yet pivotal role in “Unstoppable” began in July 2009, when he was contacted by a woman from the film’s production team asking Stertzbach to help scout railroad-related locations in and around Brewster.
    “We would drive wherever (‘Unstoppable’ director) Tony Scott requested,” Stertzbach says. “Being as I’m from the railroad, I could make it happen.”
    Apparently, Stertzbach’s assistance was appreciated by Scott, the British director of “Unstoppable” and such other films as “Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide” and “True Romance.”
    “Tony told all the departments, ‘If you need anything, you call Steve Stertzbach.’ Suddenly I’m getting calls from everybody and their brother,” Stertzbach, 58, recalls.
    The “Unstoppable” team, which spent two weeks shooting in the Brewster area, “put a lot of money into making everything just so. They completely rehabbed our abandoned yard office.” (This office is the one inhabited by actress Rosario Dawson, who plays the yard master in the film.)
    Filming in Brewster, where the movie’s early railroad scenes take place — including the runaway train’s accidental departure — lasted two weeks. Actors Washington, Dawson and Chris Pine were discreetly housed at the McKinley Grand Hotel in downtown Canton.
    Impressed with Stertzbach’s expertise in Brewster, “Tony (Scott) said, ‘I want Steve with me for the rest of this movie. I don’t care what it takes. Make it happen,’ ” Stertzbach says. “I talked it over with my family. My wife (Debra) was a little apprehensive, but my grandson Brent (Rasmussen, who lives with the couple) said, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have to do it.’ ”
    Stertzbach obtained permission from his boss, Wheeling & Lake Erie CEO Larry Parsons, to hit the road with the “Unstoppable” crew for the film’s entire five-month shoot. Parsons told Stertzbach, “Go ahead, kid, have a ball.” The lengthy shoot included locations in Ohio (Bellaire, Mingo Junction), Pennsylvania and New York. “We were in so many little Podunk places, I can’t remember the names of them all,” Stertzbach says.
    While he doesn’t imagine he’ll be seen onscreen in “Unstoppable,” Stertzbach played a key role in the film, in which railroad workers try to stop an unmanned train carrying a load of explosive chemicals. In scenes featuring Washington and Pine in the locomotive of another train, Stertzbach is offscreen in the nose, operating the train via remote control. “I’d tell Denzel and Chris which levers they could touch without creating a problem,” he says.
    Page 2 of 2 - Due to the high-speed nature of the storyline, “Tony wanted the trains to go as fast as they could possibly go,” Stertzbach says. “Because I’ve operated trains for over 40 years, I have a feel for the railroad. I pushed the edge whenever I could. Tony liked that.”
    One day, during a delay in shooting, Stertzbach had the opportunity to chat with Oscar-winner Washington for about 45 minutes. “I was telling him about some of the crash scenes we’d filmed, and he told me about some of the crazy things Tony has had him do over the years.” Scott previously directed Washington in the films “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” “Crimson Tide,” “Déjà Vu” and “Man On Fire.”
    After shooting the scene, Washington approached Stertzbach, shook his hand and said, “Man, I want to thank you. You really made me look good in these shots,” Stertzbach relates. “Denzel is kind of a private person, but when you’re working with him, he’s a great guy, a friendly guy. And Chris Pine is the friendliest, most outgoing person you’d ever want to meet.”
    Director Scott “is an ornery character and a fantastic guy,” he says. When Stertzbach’s wife and grandson came to visit the “Unstoppable” set in Bellaire, Scott took Debra under his wing for the entire day, and cast Brent, a senior at Tuslaw High School, in the film as both a fireman and a railroad worker. “Brent got to be in the transport van with Denzel and Chris,” he says.
    During the five months of shooting, Stertzbach received his regular railroad salary plus overtime — he worked five or six days a week, and often 13-hour shifts — plus $60 per day for expenses, even though his hotel and on-set meals were provided, plus the use of a 2010 Chevy Equinox for the duration of filming.
    An unexpected bonus for Stertzbach arrived via special delivery just before Christmas last year: A copy of the “Unstoppable” script, lavishly leather-bound and inscribed by Tony Scott.
    Stertzbach, his wife and grandson were scheduled to attend a private screening of “Unstoppable” on Thursday night in Pennsylvania for area cast and crew members. He is featured in a making-of-“Unstoppable” documentary airing on HBO, “which means I should be on the DVD,” he says.

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