Need a double-decker bus? Brian Denny can get one for you.
How about an ice cream truck? A DeLorean? Old-fashioned high wheel bicycle? A hippie van? He’s got those, too.
In fact, Denny has dozens of scrupulously maintained cars and motorcycles stored in a massive garage. Still, he has one favorite: a rare maroon-over-silver 1981 GMC Caballero.
“It’s been in three movies, a TV show and a couple of commercials,” said Denny.
It’s also one of the 54 cars and trucks that Denny is delivering to the set of “Downtown Owl,” a feature film starring Ed Harris, which recently finished shooting in the Twin Cities.
For 30 years, Denny’s Props on Wheels has held a niche in Minnesota’s film and commercial industry. A self-described vehicle wrangler, Denny finds and delivers hundreds of “picture cars” that producers and directors need to make their work authentic.
“Vehicles can put you in a situation or an era and set the scene,” said Denny, 64. “You put the old cars on the set and it all fits.”
While Props on Wheels has supplied everything from a double-decker bus to an Italian scooter, Denny gets the most requests for ambulances and police cars, which can be vinyl-wrapped or painted and then decked out with light bars and customized with whatever local squad the script calls for.
In addition to the vehicles he owns, Denny has cultivated relationships with auto dealers, car clubs and collectors across the country so he can track down the rarest of vehicles.
“For one commercial, I got a list of what the director needed: a yellow bicycle built-for-two, a red convertible and a stagecoach. I was like, “Really? A stagecoach?’ ” said St. Paul based commercial producer Diane Buttshaw. “Brian did it. He found me a stagecoach and trailered it in. Made me look really smart.”
Denny’s resourcefulness extends beyond wheeled vehicles to other kinds of transportation needed for a scene.
“I worked on a commercial on Lake Waconia with a giant figure of Paul Bunyan waterskiing and then crashing,” Buttshaw recalled. “Brian got the boat, the sailboats and Jet Skis in the background and the pontoons for the camera and lights and the crews.”
For “A Serious Man,” the 2009 dark comedy directed by the Coen brothers and shot in the Twin Cities, Denny sourced 150 vehicles to establish the film’s 1967 setting. That included finding four identical Dodge Coronets for the before and after shots of the vehicle, which the lead character crashes in a pivotal scene.
Blessed with an easy-going temperament, Denny has forged long and loyal relationships with other behind-the-scenes professionals who have come to rely on him.
“Viewers don’t realize every single thing in a shot has been brought to set,” said Charlotte Ariss, who owns a Minneapolis company that scouts and secures locations for commercials and films. “That cool sports car a director wants is a valuable asset that belongs to someone,” she said. “Brian has to be super-responsible, responsive and resourceful and be able to talk to anyone from a farmer with a tractor to a collector with a classic car.”
As a Teamster and Screen Actors Guild stunt and precision driver, Denny sometimes gets behind the wheel, as well. For a shot in a music video for the Canadian pop group the New Pornographers, he drove a motorcycle while wearing a suit that burst into flames.
A business is born
Denny, whose father owned an automotive business in St. Paul, grew up tinkering with “anything with a motor.” As a young husband and father, he was installing custom woodwork in new homes when he stumbled into show business 31 years ago.
Denny’s wife’s cousin, a commercial production assistant, called to borrow his 1952 Harley-Davidson for a photo shoot for a brochure.
“They put a Willie Nelson wig on me and dressed me in leather chaps and jacket and sat me on my motorcycle,” he recalled. “They paid me a crazy sum and I thought, ‘Hmmm, how do I do more of this?’ “
Denny’s wife came up with the Props on Wheels name and he spent $44 to advertise a business — that didn’t quite exist — with the Minnesota Film and TV board. Within a week, he had lined up his first job and quit his previous one.
The 0-to-60 transition made his head spin.
“I had to get vehicles for a Third Eye Blind music video. Charlize Theron was dating the lead singer and I hung out on the set with her,” he said. “Two weeks earlier I was building houses.”
Terri Gold, a veteran Twin Cities production designer, set decorator and art director, hired Denny for that inaugural gig.
“There’d been a guy in the Twin Cities who found vehicles for us and he’d just retired,” she recalled. “Brian showed up with a couple $20,000 Ducati motorcycles and I thought, ‘Thank goodness, we need someone like that.’ “
Since then, Gold has relied on Props on Wheels to deliver everything from a tipped-over semitruck to a vintage wooden kayak.
“We are not Hollywood,” said Gold. “Having worked out there quite a bit, there isn’t anything you can’t get. Here, there aren’t any professional prop houses. We have to source items we can beg, borrow and steal.”
Staying behind the scenes
Unlike Denny, his daughter Maddie grew up around cars and stars. Since she was a little girl, she has tagged along with her dad on his jobs.
“I learned so much from hanging out on set and observing,” she said. “I got to know everyone in our film community and people in town for shoots. I met Matt Dillon when I was 13.”
As soon as she got her driver’s license, Maddie began delivering picture cars to shoots. After graduating from Stillwater High School, she became a full-time employee of Props on Wheels, joining her dad in the detective work of tracking down vehicles.
“I’m still proving myself, but he’s passing the torch,” said Maddie, now 29. “Learning from my dad has given me a lot of confidence. There are times when we are on set and it’s a high-intensity situation. I know what he’s thinking and that’s a big plus.”
Earlier this year, Maddie assumed a co-owner role with Props on Wheels. It’s a transition that film community peers are primed for.
“Maddie is a go-getter,” said art director Brian Simpson. “The Dennys have the right personalities to work out the deals to find what we need. They’re steady, with the gift of gab, and they don’t take no for an answer.”
The trials of hunting down hard-to-find vehicles on deadline for show business led one producer to approach the Dennys about being on the other side of the camera. But a reality show based on Props on Wheels never even made it to the pitch stage.
“We’re hardworking middle-class people having fun making a living in a family business,” said Brian. “They wanted drama. That’s just not who we are.”
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