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The cars in the high castle​: Behind the scenes with a picture car co-ordinator

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The cars in the high castle

The search for old vehicles for TV period productions can be particularly challenging

Volkswagens are, of course, a mainstay of the German-occupied areas portrayed in the Amazon production The Man In The High Castle. This VW Type 2 was carefully hand-hammered back into shape, but not fully restored, for a film-friendly weathered look.

British Columbia's film industry is expected to spend a record $2.6-billion in the province this year. The demand for technicians and artists is at an all-time high; if a studio is going to be competitive, it's going to need top-notch set designers, makeup artists, riggers, camera crew and special-effects specialists. You're also going to need a car guy.

On a production lot in Burnaby, picture car co-ordinator Jovan Vujatovic leads me past a table of lunching ladies from the costume department, up a set of stairs and opens a warehouse door. Inside are more than a dozen wheeled character actors, ready for their close-up.

The Man In The High Castle is a piece of speculative fiction, posing the question, "What if the Allies had lost the Second World War?" In the Emmy Award-winning Amazon series, now in production of its third season, characters struggle for survival in an 1960s-era America divided between occupying Japanese and German forces. There is sabotage, intrigue, resistance and flawed, sympathetic characters on both sides. There's also a 1965 Nissan Cedric, a 1961 Toyopet Crown, two Unimogs, several Russian armoured vehicles and a Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman that used to belong to the king of Libya.

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"We're always looking for cars," says Vujatovic, who has been in the car-wrangling business for a little over a decade. "We can never have enough. Finding 1960s Japanese cars is particularly difficult."

One piece of trickery making things easier for picture car co-ordinator Jovan Vujatovic to match a car to a scene or character on The Man In the High Castle is a specially formulated paint that can be sprayed on and peeled off – such as this pickup truck, which appears patinated with rust but is in fact a perfect restoration underneath.

A fan of The Dukes of Hazzard, Vujatovic grew up dreaming of soaring orange muscle cars. He cut his teeth drag-racing in high school and still owns the 1970 Chevelle SS he's had since he was 16. He took the name of his company, 396 Moviecars, from his Chevelle's 396-cubic-inch V-8.

Starting out in local productions, Vujatovic got to realize his boyhood dream while working on the shot-in-Langley television series Smallville. Series regular John Schneider was reunited with Tom Wopat for an episode, and where else could the former Duke boys have a heart-to-heart than in a 1968 Dodge Charger?

Such is the life of a picture car co-ordinator, a mix between hunter, casting director and mechanic. Not only does Vujatovic have to find cars to be suitable and accurate backdrops, he also often has to match them to the nuances of characters. High Castle is created with a particular eye to design and, frequently, efforts are made to make a car more than just a vehicle for a performance.

For one scene, in which conflicted agent Joe Blake (played by Luke Kleintank) meets the mysterious Nicole Becker (Bella Heathcote) at a party, it wouldn't do for a femme fatale to burble off in an old VW Beetle. Instead, the blonde Becker drives away into the night behind the wheel of a cream-coloured 1954 Kaiser Darrin convertible.

On loan from the LeMay museum in Tacoma, Wash., the Darrin looks seductive and otherwordly, glimmering in the twilight. Other Nazi officials leave in massive Mercedes-Benz limousines, gleaming, officious, massive presences. Could the ethereal Darrin – an American-made rarity – turn out to be an escape for our hero?

The mighty presence of a Mercedes-Benz 300 ‘Adenauer’ stands in stark contrast to the tiny white Datsun on the left. Both these cars will be used to represent Japan-occupied San Francisco, one a machine built for dignitaries, the other a humble runabout for the common people.

Matching a car to a scene or character is more than just picking out the car. Vujatovic also has a bit of movie car magic up his sleeve, thanks to a proprietary peel-paint formula concocted by a local body shop. Cars can have their colour changed in an instant, either to fit the palette of a particular scene or to fool the audience into thinking they haven't seen a car before. A gleaming classic can become a beat-up truck from the lawless Neutral Zone. Once the camera crew has the shot, the paint simply peels off.

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Given the rarity of 1960s Japanese machines, it's a tool Vujatovic often needs to use. However, he's had a couple of lucky breaks, owing in no small part to the staff at the Toyota USA Automobile Museum in Torrance, Calif.

Cold-calling Toyota after finding their museum through a simple Google search, Vujatovic was delighted to find a curator eager to help. Susan Sanborn, director of the Toyota USA museum, agreed to loan the High Castle production team five vehicles, including a couple of trucks. Further, the museum didn't charge for the loan, being happy to see Toyota's heritage fleet get some much-deserved recognition on-screen.

With the success of the first two seasons, other manufacturers are starting to get in the game. Nissan, through the Lane Motor Museum in Tennessee, recently shipped up a couple of Datsuns, including a rare Datsun Sports roadster from the early 1960s.

Even with support from museums and manufacturers, privately owned collector vehicles are still an important part of the High Castle fleet. The 1965 Cedric belongs to a B.C.-based Datsun enthusiast, who painstakingly restored it several years ago. The Mercedes-Benz 600s used as dignitary cars belong to another private collector.

The rest of the fleet of more than 100 cars is a mix between vehicles owned by the production and Vujatovic's own machines. Among other cars, he has a Mercedes Ponton set up as a German-occupied New York taxicab and an early VW Beetle. Many of the military vehicles are Russian in origin, but most were out filming when I visited. One left behind in the warehouse is a rare Volvo L3304, sometimes called a PV Jeep. It's unrecognizable enough to play either German or Japanese vehicles.

A Volvo L 3304, sometimes called the PV-Jeep.

With production currently under way, there are a few cars that have to be kept under wraps, as they're tied to major character arcs. The Man In The High Castle is already looking to source cars for future seasons and there's a constant hunger for new vehicles. If you have something that might be a good fit, Vujatovic welcomes e-mails at HighCastleCars@gmail.com.

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Shutting up the third of his three warehouses full of machines, Vujatovic is happy to shoot the breeze about one of his other boyhood loves, old police cars. He pulls out his phone and shows off a restored cop car he brought out to the anniversary celebrations of First Blood, which was filmed in nearby Hope.

That first Rambo movie was pretty much the start of B.C.'s reputation as Hollywood North. Thirty-five years later, with business booming, the industry is still all about who you know. And you're going to want to know a good car guy.

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