TAMPA — On a day when nothing could go wrong, something major went sideways when the movie “The Plus One” filmed an important and star-studded scene inside St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in 2022.
“Anything that slows you down is bad,” said Virginia Bryant, the film’s unit production manager who ran behind-the-scenes logistics. “You cannot go long. Then, the airport cut our time in half.”
The director frantically rewrote the script so that much of the scene could be filmed inside a limousine bus.
He then turned to Bryant.
She rented a bus, rearranged the schedules for actors Jonathan Bennett, Ashanti and Cedric the Entertainer, and moved the set’s production camp to the new location.
“She is always composed,” said the film’s producer, David Yates.
Managing an independent film’s logistics is not going to rattle Bryant, considering her prior work experience. She helped with logistics during Black Hawk Down — the real battle, not the Hollywood film.
It was 30 years ago this summer that, as a unit supply specialist for the U.S. Army, Bryant was part of the base logistics team during the battle that claimed the lives of 18 Americans in a successful attempt to capture the allies of a Somali warlord.
Bryant was not involved in the firefight. She primarily supplied the troops with munitions during the 18-hour firefight.
“It was truck after truck after truck coming in and out for ammo,” she said. “It was crazy.”
During her four months and eight days in Somalia, Bryant was involved in firsthand action that led to a diagnosis of being 70% disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bryant, 47, said she has continued to work because film sets bring her a level of mental peace. She splits time between Michigan and Tampa Bay, where she has managed 13 movie sets over the last two years.
“Since the military, I’ve been in different industries, but film is the closest I have gotten to my military experience,” Bryant said. “There is a lot of structure and it’s a team of people working together toward a shared goal. No matter what goes wrong, you have to push ahead and find a solution. ... On set, I can be myself and do a job that I am good at.”
In August 1993, she was only 17 when she was sent to Somalia as part of the advance party charged with preparing bases for the special forces who would hunt for a warlord responsible for the deaths of American personnel serving in the African nation.
“My mother signed for me so I could join early,” Bryant said. “I turned 18 in Somalia within a week or 10 days of getting there.”
Once the troops were there, she was among those planning movements between bases, which were 5 miles apart and typically a 15-minute drive.
Those convoys were usually attacked, Bryant said, sometimes with gunfire, sometimes with rocks. “There are shirts that say, ‘I was stoned in Somalia,’ and that’s why.” She estimates that she survived a dozen such fights.
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On one occasion, Bryant thought she was dead after a mortar attack on a chapel on base.
“I was on the ground saying that I am in heaven,” she said. “A friend grabbed me and told me that I was alive. ... I’m telling you, if people don’t believe in God, this is where your opinion should change because the mortar rounds did not take down the building.”
Once out of the military, she returned to her home state of Michigan, where she worked in human resources and as an executive secretary before happening into film.
“It was 17 years ago,” Bryant said. “I was in Troy, Michigan, and a production company needed a Latin woman for a sexual assault reenactment for an educational video. There weren’t many Latin women in Troy, so I was asked.”
Bryant stuck with acting and has been cast in nearly 40 independent films since then, but she said her true calling is behind-the-scenes as a unit production manager.
“I take care of payroll, flying in cast and crew, getting their hotels, making sure cast gets to set, making sure all the equipment is there, setting up a base camp with trailers or in offices for the production,” she said. “It’s logistics, like in the military.”
And that work turned her into a part-time resident of Tampa Bay, which has become a hub for independent and made-for-television movies.
“Once I had her on one movie, I wanted her on all the movies,” said Yates, who has hired Bryant for eight productions here. “Everybody loves her. They respect her background. She creates a real brotherhood and sisterhood with everyone. And, no matter what goes wrong, she is always smiling and calm. That matters. When the leader is calm, everyone stays calm.”
There is a good reason for that, Bryant said. While her work in film is like her military job, there is one major difference. “No one is shooting at me. No matter what happens, I remind people, we will survive the movie.”
Correction: Filming was cut short at St. Pete Clearwater International Airport. A previous version of this story noted another airport due to information from sources.