National News

Nights at the Museum: When the Met Doubled as a Movie Studio

Posted June 10, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT
Updated June 10, 2018 8:24 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — For a couple of weeks last year, Rebecca Schear and Sandra Bullock worked nights together. They never met, but they played different parts in the making of the just-released movie “Ocean’s 8” — Bullock’s as the mastermind of a caper that required elaborate planning, Schear’s as a different kind of mastermind.

For those couple of weeks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a museum by day, as usual, and a movie studio by night. When the galleries closed, the film crew arrived, hauled in the gear, set it up, filmed a few scenes and finally, around dawn, knocked it all down and left by the museum’s 10 a.m. opening — only to go through the same routine the next night. Schear, the Met’s senior production manager, was responsible for keeping the movie machinery safely away from the art. Much as her bosses wanted the Met to be in the movie, they did not want to hear about statues that were knocked over or canvases that had holes poked in them by errant equipment.

So, as a parade of movie people filed in — camera loaders and electricians and lighting technicians — Schear, 33, became a sharp-eyed minder, worrying, she recalled, about potential problems like “the swing radius of a Technocrane.”

“A Technocrane is a like a fancy jib,” she explained. “You fly a camera on it for these beautiful sweeping shots. We want to make sure it swung in ways we were comfortable with. It never really got close to the ceiling and not to any of the artwork. We were like, ‘Here is the exact spot where you can put this piece of the equipment and here’s where it can swing’ — and we were standing there to make sure.”

And when it started its ascent, her pulse started to race. “That’s unavoidable,” she said. And so the Met joined Las Vegas casinos and wherever else the Rat Pack and its Clooney-era descendants have played out their scams in the “Ocean’s” movies. Not all the Met scenes were shot at the Met — the elaborate lineup of mannequins were lined up in an aircraft-factory-turned-soundstage on Long Island. But much of what looks like New York in the movie is New York. Cartier closed its store on Fifth Avenue for two days. Even The New York Times Building puts in a cameo appearance. (It’s a movie. It’s fantasy. Rihanna downstairs in the lobby, commandeering a custodian’s cart in the middle of the night? Please.)

The Met has labored to put some past financial turbulence behind it while adjusting to new admission fees for museumgoers who do not live in New York state — the Met’s long-standing “pay what you wish” policy ended in March, and the de Blasio administration has laid the groundwork to reduce the city’s contribution to the Met by up to $3 million a year, depending on how much the out-of-staters bring in.

So, for the Met, movies and television shows are an appealing source of additional revenue, though a small one for an institution with a budget of more than $300 million. Met officials say cameras have been allowed in for other movies, including “When Harry Met Sally” and “Maid in Manhattan,” and for small-screen series like “Gossip Girl.” Some movies did not pass the guards at the front door — in fact, the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” did not cross the threshold, although it showed Pierce Brosnan on the steps. The Met “respectfully declined” a request to film inside, according to the film’s production notes — the film showed Brosnan making off with a painting, which troubled Met officials at the time. The producers found backdrops at the New York Public Library that could be decorated like museum galleries.

Met officials will not say how much “Ocean’s 8” paid for the privilege of filming there. “It was appropriate for both sides,” the Met’s president and chief executive officer, Daniel H. Weiss, said in an interview, “but confidential.” The New York Post said last year that a $1 million donation had opened the Met’s doors after hours. (As for The New York Times building, a spokeswoman for The Times and a spokesman for Forest City Realty Trust, which together own it, said the movie paid for two nights of shooting. Like Weiss, neither would say how much, but both said the money was split between The Times and Forest City.)

Weiss said that he had doubts at first about working with Gary Ross, who directed “Ocean’s 8,” and with Olivia Milch, who is credited with the screenplay. Weiss said that Ross came across as over the top at their first meeting. “I thought he was putting me on, that I was getting a Hollywood job when he said how great the Met was and how great the building was,” Weiss said. “As the conversation unfolded, I realized that he is formidably smart, he knows our collection and he’s a serious intellectual with a love of art. I was persuaded he meant it.”

“After that,” Weiss said, “I was skeptical they would do everything they said. But they did do everything they said they would do.”

Or, as Weiss also said, “We always worry, because it’s our job to worry.” In the production notes for the film, Ross was quoted as saying, “I called ‘safety’ meetings for the art, as we would for a major stunt. I mean, literally, one false move and you’ve wrecked more than the budget of the movie. So we had to be very, very careful.” Weiss, who presides over a staff of more than 2,000, was intrigued by the behind-the-scenes show that unfolded, night after night. “I was fascinated to see how a director makes a major motion picture — how you keep a narrative thread when you’re commanding hundreds of people,” he said.

Ross, he said, was fascinated by something else: “He wanted to talk about art.” And the movie’s production notes quote Bullock as saying the cast took advantage of where they were: “In between shots, you could walk around and take in the museum in a way you’d never taken it in before — just stop and look at a piece of art, inspect it and observe the brush strokes. We had two weeks to just savor everything.”

But if they were savoring, Schear, the Met production manager, was working, and watching. “It’s fun and it’s glitzy,” Schear said, “but we’re not watching the cast, we’re watching the crew and the equipment. Most of what they shot, they used a camera on wheels. If they wanted to move the dolly this way or that way, they would say, ‘Is it OK?'”

She breathed easier the first night, when she noticed that one person on the crew was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Yield to the Art,'” she said. There are signs that say that in the basement of the Met, where art is often in transit — and where accidents could happen if people did not pay attention.

Weiss — who has a doctorate in Western medieval and byzantine art and an MBA from Yale, and was a college president before the Met hired him three years ago — said he had seen all of the “Ocean’s” movies. He said “Ocean’s 8” was his favorite.

Of course he would say that. At least he has seen the movie. Alan Rosen, the owner of the Brooklyn restaurant Junior’s, another backdrop in the movie, has not.

“I was not invited to the premiere,” Rosen said. “I wouldn’t think I would have been. That was not my expectation. I’ll pay and see it in a movie theater, but I won’t be able to freeze-frame it. When we were in the ‘Sex and the City’ movie, I had the same feeling.”