In this episode of Engineering Legends, we hear about the intersection of the Marvel Universe and the Southerly wastewater treatment plant in Cleveland, Ohio. Special guest Jean Smith from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District shares experiences and details about what happens behind the scenes when a movie like Captain America, the Winter Soldier is filmed at an operational wastewater treatment facility.
See photos from the filming of the movie discussed in this episode.
Tiffany Long: Welcome to Engineering Legends. I’m Tiffany Long here today with Kelly Rogers. We have a very exciting episode for you today.
Jean Smith: The production crew thought that it looked too clean and they asked if it was okay if they actually dirtied it up. A little bit of what we thought was kind of funny. And they came in, they dirtied up the walls and it turned into this fabulous dungeon scene, seeing the cave scene that you see in Captain America.
Tiffany Long: I don’t know about you, but during the pandemic, movies became a great escape from reality. What I didn’t realize until very recently, though, is that treatment facilities can serve as a great location for filming because of their industrial look and feel. For example, many things have been filmed at the Annacis Plant in Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is often used for filming movies.
I believe because of the diversity within the area, within an hour of Vancouver, you have a cityscape, mountains, dense forest, snow and beaches, which makes it ideal for movies and TV shows. The shows Arrow, Dark Angel, Fringe, Eureka and Legacies have all used Annacis as a filming site. The most recent Godzilla movie used Annacis for the nuclear power plant for several scenes.
New York City is another location for frequent filming, and their treatment facilities also get used. Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility has served as a backdrop for TV shows – the Americans, Blacklist and Person of Interest, as well as for the movie Salt, starring Angelina Jolie.
Kelly Rogers: Today, we’re going to talk to Jean Smith who is the Manager of Community and Media Relations for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. She’s going to share the behind the scenes of what happens when a movie gets filmed at a treatment facility. The Southerly facility operated by NEORSD served as a filming location for Captain America, the Winter Soldier.
My husband and I, I think we’ve seen every single Marvel movie, probably at least twice. So I am really excited for this interview today. And he and I staged a rewatch of the movie at our house last week so I could watch the scenes that were filmed at the Southerly facility. So, Jean, thanks so much for taking time to chat with us today.
This is a really fun topic and we appreciate the opportunity to get the behind the scenes scoop. First, though, let’s start with a little bit about who you are and your role with the district.
Jean Smith: First, thank you so much for having me on today. I manage our communications and our community relations team. We do a lot of communications at the Sewer District in Cleveland. So my job focuses on a lot of the community outreach that we do with different partners. We work a lot with scholastic groups and schools. We focus a lot on media relations as well.
So they’re both proactive and reactive. My team also handles a lot of the production, so a lot of the marketing materials that we put together, and we’re also responsible for our fabulous social media including Twitter. So we have a very comprehensive communications team that does a lot of outreach using a lot of different tactics.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, Tiff and I are huge fans of your social media.
Tiffany Long: Very much so.
Jean Smith: Everybody should be a huge fan of our social media.
Kelly Rogers: Tell us a little bit about NEORSD particularly. I think we’re going to spend some time today talking about the Southerly facility, so a little bit about that facility as well.
Jean Smith: So we have been in existence for almost 50 years. We’re celebrating our 50-year anniversary, and it came along at the same time as the Clean Water Act. And our creation was really the result of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. And I know a lot of people know about that, that river fire, but that was really the catalyst for the Clean Water Act.
And we really look at ourselves as really the birthplace of the environmental movement. So the Sewer District has three wastewater treatment plants, so we have about 350 miles of pipe that we manage. And so when you think about that in terms of, let’s say, driving distance, that would be the same amount of distance between Cleveland and Chicago.
And so we manage pipes. We have three treatment plants, and we have a pretty robust stormwater management program as well. Our southerly plant that you mentioned earlier is the largest wastewater treatment plant in the state of Ohio, and is the 11th largest plant in the nation. It has a huge footprint, well over 200 acres. And that’s where a lot of the magic happens in terms of treating wastewater so we have a pretty robust clean water agency in Greater Cleveland.
And again. But with Southerly being the largest of the three treatment plants.
Kelly Rogers: And so how did the movie come up with, I guess it’s Marvel. How did they find out about the potential filming site?
Jean Smith: So around the time that they were looking for a filming site. We were doing a lot of communication around our project called Project Lake. So I mentioned the fact that we have three wastewater treatment plants. We have a collection system, we have stormwater management, but we also construct a lot of new infrastructure. And at the time, again, we were beginning Project Clean Lake, and that is the program to reduce combined overflows with Project Clean Lake.
We’re constructing a lot of underground tunnels to contain the combined sewage. And those tunnels are about 200 feet underground give or take a few feet. And they’re pretty big. They’re about 25 feet in diameter. So imagine a Mack truck that you would see on the highway. You could actually drive one of those trucks through the tunnel. So when we initially received the request, I think there was a misunderstanding in terms of the capacity of the tunnels and where they were actually located.
Because the film production crew was looking for a tunnel for a very specific scene. So when they reached out to me, it was initially, Hey, do you think we could use one of the tunnels that you’re constructing? And obviously gave them a little bit of background about where the tunnels were located, and that it wouldn’t be likely that they could film there but we have some tunnels in our plants, including in our Southerly wastewater treatment plant.
And of course, the rest is history at that point.
Kelly Rogers: And I don’t think we’ve mentioned yet what movie was filmed there.
Jean Smith: So the movie that was filmed, it was Captain America Winter Soldier. I believe it came out in 2013 or 2014. But it was one of the Captain America franchise movies.
Tiffany Long: Nice. And so which scenes in the movie were filmed on your property?
Jean Smith: So the scene that was filmed on our property was the scene where it was found that Nick Fury was actually alive. So if you haven’t seen the movie, plug your ears. I think there’s a spoiler, but there was a scene where Nick Fury was, quote, killed and he was faking his death and he was hiding out in this cave.
And the cave actually happened to be the tunnel at our Southerly wastewater treatment plant. They also filmed the exterior of that cave at our Lakeview Cemetery Dam. And this dam is extremely impressive. It’s in the middle of a historic cemetery. But those were the two locations that they that they tapped into.
Tiffany Long: Nice. And so did you have to clean the tunnel wall?
Jean Smith: We have very meticulous folks that work at the sewer district. I’m very fortunate that I work with a great bunch of folks who take a lot of pride in their work. So when they heard that that Marvel was interested in filming in our tunnel, they had our crews go in and vigorously clean the walls in the tunnel. But keep in mind that this is a wastewater treatment plant that’s been around for a hot minute, been around for a while.
So when the film crews came in to scout and take a look at the tunnel to see if this is a place that they would actually want to do the filming, and again, our crews had spit shined it and cleaned it and the and the film crew, the production crew thought that it looked too clean and they asked if it was okay, if they actually dirtied it up a little bit, which we thought was kind of funny.
But we didn’t have to technically clean it. But our crews take great pride in the work, and they were really excited about this opportunity and they wanted to make the best impression and they certainly did.
Tiffany Long: So did you let them dirty up the walls?
Jean Smith: Of course we did. We let them pretty much do what they needed to do to film the scene. And they came in, they dirtied up the walls and it turned into this fabulous dungeon which became the cave scene that you see in Captain America.
Tiffany Long: What did they use?
Jean Smith: I honestly don’t know. They are our walls which were pretty grimy to begin with. I just assumed that they just took some dirt and kind of splattered it all over the wall. I’m not sure what they did to prep the tunnel, but it looked pretty dirty when we went through to take a look at the scene when they were filming.
Kelly Rogers: I did do a little homework last week, and I asked the hubby, I’m like, can we watch Winter Soldier? And he’s like, Of course, sure. And I did look at the walls and I’m like, yeah, they’re dirty.
Jean Smith: Did a great job.
Tiffany Long: So you mentioned the scenes that were filmed in the cemetery. Were there scenes that were filmed elsewhere in Cleveland?
Jean Smith: They did a lot of filming on the various highways. And I live on the west side of Cleveland, and I actually take what we call the Shore Way and into work, and they did a lot of filming on the Shore Way, and they also did a significant amount of filming on one of the primary arteries. And downtown Cleveland.
They filmed quite a bit of Captain America in Cleveland. They also filmed one of the other Avengers movie in Cleveland. And there’s been a reputation for Cleveland to be a really friendly place to come and film. And that’s one of the reasons why they came back to Cleveland to film the Captain America movie. But there are several scenes of Cleveland in Captain America.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, there were a ton of scenes I didn’t remember – like how many road chase scenes there were in that movie. There was a lot of that. And I wondered if they were filmed there.
Jean Smith: It totally was! There were a lot of scenes and, you know, it impacted traffic. But the fact that we had this really cool movie that was coming to Cleveland to film was something that people were pretty proud of and we were pretty patient and it was really, really neat to see it on screen.
Kelly Rogers: Oh, I bet. Like, how big of a crew did they bring?
Jean Smith: So it was a pretty significant crew. I mean, keep in mind that this is a Marvel movie. I can’t recall how many folks came in total, but they had a lot of different cameras. They had folks that were tending to the filming of each scene. Obviously, you had folks that were bringing in the stars and that were bringing in the crew.
So it was pretty robust. And we had to make some pretty significant accommodations to make sure that we could get the people in and out of our plant. But it was a pretty significant amount of folks that came in to make the magic happen.
Tiffany Long: And so how did everybody get to the site?
Jean Smith: So they bused a number of folks into the site and then the actual stars themselves were driven in in an unmarked car. And so we worked with our security very, very closely to ensure that we could get the crews in. We could get the stars in pretty seamlessly. And our security did a fabulous job of ensuring that when folks were on their way, they knew that they were on their way.
They let them in, let them out. We had a pretty seamless process for allowing that to happen.
Kelly Rogers: And what actors and actresses were involved?
Jean Smith: Actually all of the stars that you saw in Captain America. We saw Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow. All of those stars were part of both of the scenes in the movie. And then obviously Samuel Jackson, because he was alive and he was at our treatment plant at Southerly. So they were all here and, you know, witnessing and enjoying the work of the sewer district.
Tiffany Long: Nice So how much interaction did you have with the cast and the crew?
Jean Smith: So we didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with the cast personally, but because we worked so well and so closely with the production company, they allowed us to come in and watch the filming of the Nick Fury scene. And I remember standing with a couple of my colleagues who were really an important part of making this whole process happen.
And I said to them, I’m like, you know, I worked in radio back in the day so I’m not really starstruck when I when I see stars, you know, I’ve been there, done that, and we go down in this tunnel and we walk through and first came out Jackson, and I’m like, Oh, my goodness, there is Samuel L. Jackson.
So we ended up making our way to the other end of the tunnel, and we were able to watch the filming. And all of a sudden you see Scarlett Johansson pop into the screen and I start hitting my coworker on the arm. So, like, Oh, my God, oh, my God, my God, it’s Scarlett Johansson. And so then I walked out of the tunnel for a minute, and I called my CEO to say, Hey, you may want to come down and watch the filming.
And they were only here for about three days to do the filming of this particular scene, I said you may want to come down. All the stars here are there filming. And it typically takes about maybe 15, 20 minutes to get from our administrative offices to Southerly, the plant driving. And from the time that I called, until the time that I turned around and I saw our CEO walking – it took him about 7 minutes to get to where the plant is, he was like flying down the street to make sure he didn’t miss the filming but we had a lot of good opportunity to watch the filming.
They also invited us back to eat with the crew, and I don’t know if anybody has been part of eating with a movie crew. First of all, it’s this ginormous spread, like, it’s like this huge tent of people and they have food everywhere and it’s all kinds of food. And I learned that the crews have to eat very quickly because they’re on a time crunch to get the filming done.
So they load up their plate with all this food. They eat really quickly and then they head back out. It was amazing to watch this whole process, but at the end of the day the production company was so accommodating, allowing us to participate and in some type of way, I was really grateful for that experience. They were really open and willing to allow us to be part of it.
In some shape or form.
Kelly Rogers: Oh, that’s awesome. And I bet you they have to meet all the dietary restrictions of everybody.
Jean Smith: Oh, I can’t even imagine.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, it must be a nightmare. Wow.
Jean Smith: And like I said, they had food. I mean, there’s just all kinds of food all over the place. And so. Right. I think you’re right. They’re probably accommodating vegetarians, vegans, gluten free. And I will tell you that again, given the volume of food that they had, they easily accommodated everybody.
Kelly Rogers: So while all this was going on, did the plant continue to operate like normal?
Jean Smith: It did. So we actually let them film a portion of our plant that wasn’t in operation. So keep in mind that this plant, the footprint is about 200 acres. It’s a huge campus. And so we have some settling tanks that have been out of commission for quite a while. And so that’s where the crew had filmed.
And again, they were really out of the entire the process itself. So our crews would come in and quite frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction because they were off the beaten path a little bit. And plus that filming took place underground and in one of those tunnels. So it really didn’t impact our operation at all.
Aside from some minor accommodations we had to make with parking. Our process went and we treated wastewater and the crews got in and they filmed it and they went on their way. So it was very seamless in terms of what they were trying to accomplish. And obviously, the fact that we had to treat wastewater, you know, just kept on moving.
Kelly Rogers: Now, did they know that it was a wastewater plant or do you think they just knew they were going onsite somewhere?
Jean Smith: I honestly don’t know. You know, they were referring to it as a water reclamation plant. And so, you know, from the perspective of the stars, I don’t know if they put two and two together that it was a wastewater treatment plant. And, you know, we manage odors and whatnot very well at the plant. But I honestly don’t know that they connected the dots that we were treating wastewater and the facility that they were filming.
Tiffany Long: Did you have to take any special safety precautions, having them onsite like that?
Jean Smith: So we didn’t. We did have our safety crews walk through and talk with the crews. And, you know, they’re underground in this tunnel. Filming. And so it’s not like they’re in an area where there is significant work being done. You know, we just had some conversation with the crews. Our safety team had some conversation with the crews.
But they didn’t have to go through confined space training or anything like that. It was just ensuring that they understood that they were going to a wastewater treatment plant, you know, and honoring the fact that they ran the wastewater treatment plant. There’s a lot of work that’s going on in the wastewater treatment plant. But outside of those discussions, there wasn’t again, any significant training that was required.
Kelly Rogers: So was the filming done in secret? Did the people in the community know that this was going down or was this kind of a secret op?
Jean Smith: So it was a secret op. And when we talked with the production company about the filming, they were very clear that we were not to disclose what was happening. I had somebody on my team who came out to take pictures so that when the movie hit the theaters, we could actually use some of the pictures from the filming and they were very cautious about that as well.
Again, they just wanted to keep everything under wraps about the movie. And so they would use this code word, I think was called Freezer Burn. And so you would see all these signs all over the place with arrows with this name and you know, if you didn’t know anybody, you’re like, what the heck is that? But it was actually, you know, to signify, hey, if you’re working on the movie, this is where you go if you need to park for the movie, this is where you go.
So that’s how they kind of kept it on the down low. Now, there was one point where Samuel L Jackson was at our plant and he drove past this bar that had a really funny name. And I think it had a name like Redneck in it or something. And at any rate, he found it really funny. And so he took a picture of it.
And if you’re from Cleveland, you know exactly where he was. So it kind of showed his hand a little bit. But outside of that, we were just told to keep it on the down low. And they did a really good job of ensuring that, you know, folks didn’t know where they were filming.
Tiffany Long: So I’m surprised the local press didn’t catch wind of it. It sounds like they didn’t.
Jean Smith: And we had planned on that. I was really concerned that perhaps we would have people waiting outside of our plant trying to get a peek of the folks rolling in. But we didn’t. And I was really surprised by that. Again, I think it’s due to the fact that they did do such a great job of ensuring that they kept it all under wraps.
And we held up our end of the bargain as well. And we didn’t disclose where they were filming but I think to your point, I was really surprised by that as well.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, I know they film Homeland in downtown Charlotte. That’s near where I live. And literally, I you know, I would walk downtown and sometimes and they would just be filming on the street and they don’t let anybody know because they don’t want to kind of disrupt everything. And it’s always so exciting when you see the crews there because you’re like, oh, they’re filming.
Jean Smith: You know, I always wondered how scenes like that have been filmed. And I was thinking about that when we were watching Elf over Christmas because it seemed like they had a very similar scene where Will Ferrell was in New York and he was filming, and I wondered if folks knew what they were doing, but it sounds like they don’t do that on purpose.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, I think they have to get releases from people who end up like in the shot. But yeah, yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. In Elf where he’s going through the, the door and he’s picking gum.
Jean Smith: And there was an episode about the filming of Elf, and the gentleman that’s in that full red outfit is, is actually somebody who was literally just walking down the street. I thought that was hysterical. He was just out for a stroll that day. And here comes Will Ferrell dressed in this green outfit. So I’m sure that was a little bit scary for him.
But yeah, that’s kind of funny.
Kelly Rogers: So I understand that the actors who were there did leave a little something for the folks there to remember them by?
Jean Smith: They did! So as the stars were exiting on the final day of filming. And again, we had many of the stars and actually all of the stars at both of the sites. We asked them to sign our wall and they happily obliged and so we have the signatures of the folks that were filming at Southerly and we permanently affixed on the wall.
We stuck some plexiglass over it. So it won’t get ruined or marked up. But that was just a nice memory for all of us to have of, of this really awesome opportunity.
Tiffany Long: So if the opportunity arose again, would you allow for movie filming in the plant?
Jean Smith: Absolutely. 100%. It was a fantastic opportunity that we would certainly do again. And actually we are in the middle of filming another program this time that’s for a nationally syndicated show that I can’t disclose now. But I will when the time is right. But we’re in the middle of six weeks of filming for a very well-known channel.
And so once that information is able to be made public, we will certainly do that. But we have a lot of experience filming big programs like that. So I’m anticipating this will be successful and we’re really looking forward to that show’s release. But yes, we would definitely do another movie filming again.
Kelly Rogers: Okay. I’m so dying to know. That’s exciting.
Tiffany Long: Yeah, that’s very cool.
Jean Smith: It’s going to be! It’ll be so fabulous. I’m so excited and you should be hearing about it, I would say, in the next couple of months.
Tiffany Long: So for the movie, was there any compensation that was offered for using your site?
Jean Smith: So they asked us about compensation. And, you know, our philosophy was at the time that this is public infrastructure and to have a movie crew come into Cleveland was just a really cool thing. And so we wanted to make sure that we were working with them and being accommodating and not overly charging them to come and use facilities that are essentially owned by the public.
So we asked them to make a donation rather than pay us directly, which they did. They made a $15,000 donation to the Cleveland Food Bank at the conclusion of filming, which was just a very generous donation and then we were very grateful for that.
Tiffany Long: That’s fantastic.
Jean Smith: Yeah, it was fantastic.
Tiffany Long: I did think that I read that were the directors of the movie are they from Cleveland?
Jean Smith: They are. They are the Russo brothers, and I believe they grew up in Cleveland. And it was funny when they when they were scouting and they were at the Lakeview Cemetery. I was on the bus with them as they were touring, not realizing that I was sitting next to one of the Russo brothers, and this is my oh, my God, Jean, you’re an idiot moment.
And so I’m talking with them and I’m like, Oh, so I hear you’re from Cleveland. And of course, you know, he’s this, you know, big director. And I really didn’t know who he was at the time. And he’s probably thinking, oh, my gosh, you know? And I was like, oh, my gosh. After I realized who it was that I was sitting and chatting up.
But they were so nice. They were so gracious. But yes, in fact, they are from Cleveland. And we should be very proud that that we have some major Hollywood movie directors that came out of Cleveland that produced this fabulous film.
Tiffany Long: Very cool. That’s probably why they like coming back there, because it’s so unassuming.
Jean Smith: I would think so. And you know, they probably know this area very well as well. So and I’m sure that it was a thrill for them to come back and film in their hometown.
Kelly Rogers: Well, we appreciate you sharing the behind the scenes. I always wonder how things work behind the scenes. So that’s awesome.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. This is super interesting. We really appreciate your time.
Jean Smith: Well, no problem. No problem. And I’m happy to share this. I will tell you that being here for almost 16 years, I have been able to participate in a lot of really cool things. And this ranks right up. This is something that’s been pretty cool that I have been able to do while working with at the sewer district.
Kelly Rogers: Thank you, Jean. So much for spending time with us today. It was so great to hear what the district team did to make this a success. I feel like wastewater treatment facilities don’t ever get the credit they deserve. And again, they’re usually that unsung hero lurking in the background. I’m going to start watching movies a little closer from now on to try to spot those instances where treatment facilities were used as a backdrop.
Tiffany Long: We know that many of our listeners have their own engineering legend stories. We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your feedback, stories and ideas for future episodes. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kelly Rogers: This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving. Until next time.