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‘Manly’ drama at L.A.'s port

Times Staff Writer

The Port of Los Angeles might not seem to fall into the same category as the frozen wilderness of Canada or the high seas off Alaska. But, according to producer Thom Beers, there’s just as much excitement, drama and “manly man stuff” in “America’s Port” as in his other reality-documentary series “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch.”

The eight-episode series premieres Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel before moving to a regular Monday night slot.

Beers, chief executive and executive producer of Burbank-based Original Productions, said he’s always seeking a “cool and unique microcosm, a place with its own rules, with good guys and bad guys. L.A. port had all of that.

“It’s a massive place, half the size of Manhattan, with everything from commerce and longshoremen to people living in little tiny sailboats, a restaurant, a railroad and a prison. It’s got everything, and it’s big.”

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The first two episodes cover round-the-clock action at the port. Port police, U.S. Coast Guard and customs officials are shown guarding against terrorist bombs, searching for bodies, weapons and drugs. Crane operators and longshoremen use the “big boy toys” -- heavy steel beams, buckles and claws -- to load and unload cargo, sometimes 140 feet in the air.

Beers, a former stage actor, also offers his own narration in a deep and measured voice that can make “No. 1 container port in the country” sound scary. An original score by Andrew Kubiszewski adds even more drama.

Unlike the seafaring and trucking worlds, however, the manly world of the Los Angeles port is run by a woman, Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, who appears in a few cameos.

And an integral part of this universe is politics. Beers said one of the scariest parts of production was a Harbor Commission meeting that he labored to make appear interesting.

The port allowed Beers’ crew to shoot 20 hours a day for more than two months to follow several story lines, including the controversial adoption of new environmental policies, the search for bodies and some employees’ home lives.

Port authorities allowed the production to partly promote their environmental agenda during the port’s centennial year, according to producer Molly Mayock. They also thought National Geographic was a “brand that would present an accurate reflection of the port.”

“America’s Port,” however, is not an investigative report and tends to veer toward the sunny side of issues, such as container inspections.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have been included on most lists of likely terrorist targets. In the series, one official tells the camera the port does not inspect 100% of incoming cargo because the estimated cost ($1 billion a day) would be prohibitive. No one mentions the actual inspection rate, which has been estimated at less than 10%.

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Beers said he was impressed with the sophistication and multiple layers of security at the port, some of which crews were not allowed to shoot. The producers coordinated with Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, the Coast Guard and the Port Police to ensure that their activities did not endanger operations.

In any case, Beers said, his job is not to find fault but to tell stories and “celebrate the working men and women of America,” whom he called the “backbone of the country.”

“These guys are heroes, and we show them with all their faults and peccadilloes. Nothing is more interesting to me than flawed heroes,” he said.

Beers’ company has 14 series airing on a variety of basic cable networks, including “Ice Road Truckers” for History, “Ocean Force” for TruTV and “Deadliest Catch,” which will return April 15 for its fourth season on the Discovery Channel.

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Beers said he’s also working on “Chopper Zombie,” a graphic novel and movie project, and another reality series in Los Angeles for National Geographic, “The Building,” which will follow the construction of a 24-story building downtown.

Though he loves shooting in far-flung places like Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, Beers said, the down side of that kind of adventure is that it’s far from home. “It’s great to find something as compelling and interesting right in your own backyard.”

Naturally, he’s hoping “America’s Port” will be picked up for more seasons. “The people are so unique and interesting. I could shoot there for 10 years and barely scratch the surface.”

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lynn.smith@latimes.com


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