Local production company revs up the green movement
Big Bertha is sexy. She’s got voluptuous curves, smooth skin, and trust me, the guys gawk when she takes to the streets. And that’s the point. Big Bertha and her “son,” the Green Machine (also interchangeably called the Green Monster) aren’t what you’d expect—literally. Bertha is a purple hot rod made from a fire engine. Her creative offspring is a hot rod created from a 1952 Peterbilt semi-truck tractor. The two vehicles were created from and run on green materials, making them not only leaders in the green industry, but just plain titillating to look at and drive around in.
The Green Monster is at the heart of a new reality television show, Green Machines, which was produced in Santa Cruz by Impact Productions, who hope to take the pilot episode to a national television network and see the show find a green and vibrant life.
Recently, the Green Monster was out of the area, getting its nuts and bolts tweaked, so Impact Productions and the producers of the show invited me to the garage of Michael Leeds, the man who created it.
I pull up in my green Volkswagen Jetta, which, while green on the outside, it’s certainly not a hybrid (although it does get good gas mileage). Outside of Leeds’ work studio is a beast of a car, which I quickly learn is Big Bertha. Hovering around her are Leeds, the mad (and kind) scientist who somehow creates these enormous cars; Toby Thiermann, a co-producer of Green Machines, and Purea Knight-Koenig, production manager for the documentary style television show.
Big Bertha is 22 feet long by eight feet wide, and she looks like something from a futuristic cartoon. From bumper to bumper, she’s splashy and cool. We’re about to take a drive around town that’s going to cause some rubber necking. But first, I look inside master automaker Leeds’ Frankenstein-like lair. Throughout his workspace are numerous car parts. Bertha, I learn, was the progenitor model for the Green Monster, the backbone for the this television show.
Leeds, with his scruffy white beard, a cap covering his hair, and his head tilted just so to the side, tells us how more than 30 years ago he drove an old fire truck (the precursor to Big Bertha) from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz, and from there, he spent more than three decades working on her, perfecting her into what she is today—something made from old car parts, running on biodiesel fuel. Little did he know that after all these years his baby, Big Bertha, would give birth to the Green Monster and to a television show.
“I’ve been friends with Toby’s dad (Eric Thiermann, owner of Impact Productions) for pretty much forever,” Leeds says. “He provoked some dialogue (about the TV show) and I happened to have this other project, the Peterbilt truck, so I threw it out there. We could do this thing and make the baddest ass hotrod the world has ever seen and run it on biodiesel.”
The idea had been germinating in the minds of Toby and Bryan Rawles (CEO of Impact and Toby’s co-founder of the company Green Feature.) “We felt the way the green movement was being marketed was not necessarily the most effective way to reach the people it needed to reach,” Rawles says. “We thought up a show to reach the Nascar crowd [and beyond]. We felt that in some ways, to really get everyone on board we had to show a different approach.”
They did that by putting a hot rod truck at the center of the show’s concept, and bringing on a host that many people are familiar with—former Survivor contestant and local celebrity Lex van den Berghe. From there, they assembled their team and began rolling the cameras, with Eric Thiermann as the director and at the helm of cinematography. For months, they shot footage and Leeds and his cohorts took apart the old semi truck and rebuilt it using what Toby calls a “dust to dust” principle. This principle incorporates the idea of taking something old and making it into something new, as was the case with the Peterbilt truck. Whereas buying a new hybrid involves creating new products, this idea takes “going green” even further by not buying, or building anything new. In fact, when the Green Machine was finally ready to roll, it already had 1 million miles under its belt.
“We thought, we need something to get people’s attention,” Toby says. “Michael Leeds is the man to make that happen. He had the vehicle in mind and was thinking about doing something, and we put it all together.”
These conversations started swirling around about two years ago. After the hot rod was built and van den Berghe was brought on, the Green Monster hit the road, with a sole mission in mind: “To increase awareness (about green issues and green innovators) and target a demographic of our society that might not be on board with the green movement,” Toby says.
“We’re focusing on innovation and people being successful with sustainability,” Toby adds. “Lex is our host and our guide; the Green Monster is literally the vehicle that will take Lex from location to location to find out what’s really happening, and what people around the U.S. are truly doing, and the fact that it’s so much more than driving a Prius.”
Leeds adds: “My car will inspire them to do something groovy.”
And Toby says it straight to the point: “It’s about trying to get people to pay attention when the Green Machine drives down the street.”
The Monster Roars
When that truck rolls up, it’s louder than God; it’s so bad ass,” says van den Berghe. “We spent a few days in San Francisco and anybody knows that there are people there that are very difficult to impress. These are city people who’ve seen it all. We were driving the Green Monster up and down their streets and everyone’s heads were on swivels. We had a massive crowd. It was like putting bait out and a colony of ants, people swarming around the truck, taking pictures. These were not tourists. It [the green movement] has a really important message to share. You can go outside and cup your hands and shout your message out, or climb to the top of the highest hill and grab a megaphone and shout your message. The Green Monster is that big ass megaphone.”
For van den Berghe, coming on board with the project was a no-brainer, “low hanging fruit” as he calls it. Already a guy who participates in recycling and composting, he didn’t need to be wooed. Of course, he did, however, need to know that the project was legitimate.
Following his two stints on Survivor in 2001 and 2004 (All Stars version), van den Berghe admits that he’s been hit up by probably 100 different projects that have tried to get him to work for them. Over the years, since Survivor, he’s learned to navigate the difference between a good project and a bad one. He met up with the Impact Productions team and heard their spiel—an organized, on the ball, high quality pitch. He signed up.
In October of last year, van den Berghe and the production team spent a solid week driving up and down the coast of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas where van den Berghe interviewed a slew of people doing innovative work in the green movement.
The half-hour show finds van den Berghe as he introduces the concept of Green Machines, then hops in the Green Monster and hot rods away. His mission? “To put this planet back on track,” he says, with the verve of someone who believes in what he’s doing, and with the enthusiasm of an expert host.
Green Machines is broken up into snippets, approximately five minute long segments focused on a green hero of some sort. van den Berghe starts by introducing Leeds and his automobile, the Green Monster. Someone on the show says, “It (the Green Monster) looks like it will destroy the world, but we’ll save the world.”
And from there, van den Berghe heads south to Chartwell School in Seaside, a leader in the academic setting for creating an environment for children that is thoroughly eco-friendly. Here, van den Berghe greets students and takes a tour of the facilities, where he finds children pumped about their green school. At Chartwell School, they’ve got high-tech waterless urinals, dual flush toilets, cabinetry made from wheat, carpets made from recycled materials, a rain catcher and more. Here, van den Berghe calls the idea of this green school a “win/win equation.” And that’s exactly what the team at Impact Productions is going for.
“We wanted to find win/win situations,” says Rawles. “This show is about wins, finding them. For a long time the environmental movement was selling the idea of sacrifice and that just doesn’t resonate with the American consumer.”
Next stop—Pacific Biofuel, where van den Berghe has a conversation there to get the scoop on the fuel that keeps this Green Machine running. From there, he takes a drive to Sunridge Farms in Watsonville, a sustainable company that’s not only making a profit, but also making a difference in the world by having their trucks run on biodiesel, and installing solar cells to power their warehouse.
van den Berghe takes a quick stop to learn about alternative lubricants for a car, and then heads up to San Francisco for a series of introductions, including meeting renowned green expert Van Jones, and taking a look at the Orchard Garden Hotel, a leader in green hotels. Here, van den Berghe finds low flow sink fixtures, bedspreads made of recycled materials, and a no drip watering system for an elaborate outdoor garden oasis—right in the middle of the city.
He also stops in at the New Resource Bank in San Francisco to study up on ‘green banking’ and later drives up to the lush area of Inverness where he meets Sim Van Der Ryn, who’s promoting green architecture.
As van den Berghe brings the Green Monster to a halt, he simply says: “I’ve just scratched the surface of forward thinking people who are doing something to turn the tide of our environmental crisis. I’m not gonna slow down until I’ve seen it all … as I uncover green America.”
For van den Berghe, filming Green Machines was most definitely a monumental experience in his life, and one that perhaps he’ll continue to be involved in if the show gets picked up by a network.
“[Green Machines] will show everybody that you don’t have to compromise anything … there are other ways to be green. You don’t have to … live off the grid. There are a lot of things that everybody in this country can do to make one small change in their lifestyle. Just one. We can make an impact and speak to the people that haven’t been reached yet by having a guy driving around the country in a 1952 Peterbilt hotrod making a difference, speaking to them in their language.”
The pilot episode of Green Machines will play at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Admission is free. To learn more about the show, visit greenfeature.com .