Teamsters agent stands up to challenges
Jeanne Ishikawa started her career in television news in Boston, returned to Hawai'i to work at KHON news before switching to film and video production, and then shifted to a wide variety of behind-the-scenes jobs in movies and television.
Her latest job sometimes still takes her to movie sets, but not as a driver, producer or coordinator. Now she represents the drivers, focusing on their working conditions.
"Currently, I cover the movie industry and also the construction industry," she said. "The main thing of a business agent is to protect our contract and support our members."
Hawaii Local 996 has about 6,000 members statewide, including drivers for Ameron, Hawaiian Cement and B and C Trucking, as well as the movie industry. Ishikawa's resume also shows a wide range of roles on films shot in Hawai'i: "50 First Dates," "Planet of the Apes," "Jurassic Park" and "Jurassic Park II," "Godzilla" and "Picture Bride." She started as a driver but has worked a variety of production jobs.
She's still a Teamsters member herself, which began from the first time she worked as a driver on a movie set in 1992 on "Jurassic Park," an assignment that added a "mind-blowing experience" toward the end when Hurricane Iniki hit the island hard.
Members helped clean up and get most of the crew off the island to ease the burden on the lifelines.
And she served as production manager on a music video of Janet Jackson in concert from Hawai'i, "Aloha Jam '99," credited as the first live Internet feed from Hawai'i featuring Henry Kapono.
Ishikawa is still proud of her production team's work on a Guinness beer commercial that features the foam of breaking waves on the North Shore turning into horses galloping through the surf alongside the surfers. The ad won a 1999 Cannes Gold award.
While the Teamsters have a reputation of being able to handle the dirty work, Ishikawa was brought in to the union six and a half years ago to help make changes.
"My primary goal was to re-organize and stabilize the movie drivers division," she said.
Movie and TV productions have been good for Hawai'i, valued as a clean industry that spends a lot of money and promotes Hawai'i even if the scenes are supposed to be in Africa, Asia or Jurassic Park.
In 2002, the Hawai'i movie division was placed in trusteeship after some of the Hawai'i drivers in the industry developed a "troublesome" reputation that slowed the state's participation in the industry. Over the years, incidents of violence and intimidation included physical altercations on movie sets, the destruction of expensive equipment and even what appears to have been a 1994 contract killing.
Ishikawa sees that times have changed for the better, and that's reflected in a steady stream of new movie and TV productions coming to Hawai'i.
"I think we have shown a more professional side. People see it in our drivers. The studios see it. We need to work together and make it a stronger movie industry, which helps the state." she said.
And her union members appreciate her attitude of respect for them and her record for getting things done.
Robert Grilho, shop steward for B and C Trucking in Hālawa, makes 30 years this year as a driver. Over three decades, he's worked with various business agents through some volatile situations.
And he said Ishikawa stands out for staying calm, being accessible and having a track record for working through issues. "She always returns the call. She's always there to take care of our problems."
He's seen angry people back down when Ishikawa works with them. "No matter what the situation is, she can always calm things down. It gets kind of ugly."
Ishikawa appreciates the kind words and enjoys the challenges of her job, which routinely takes her to 6 a.m. starts at work sites, to the Legislature, and to meetings with producers that stretch into the evenings.
"It's totally interesting and challenging and a great examination of human nature," she said.
"I never have down time, it's early days and long nights," Ishikawa said. "It's like news. There's a lot of research and a lot of phone calls."
And she says the job is a good fit for a career news junkie.
"I think it parlayed quite nicely over to what I'm doing now. As a news reporter and producer you need to learn how to find the issue or find the story. You need to be able to make those phone calls and you need to be patient to get to the root of the story."
She's excited that more productions are headed for the Islands. "The great news is we do have another TV series coming to Hawai'i, 'Hawaii Five-0.' "
Ishikawa worked as a news producer, writer and weekend reporter for WBZ in Boston for five years. One of her most memorable stories included the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, whose crew included Christa McAuliffe, the first woman teacher, as well as Hawai'i's own Ellison Onizuka.
She remembers getting the news on her earpiece during a live broadcast. "It was beyond comprehension; I didn't know if I heard it right," she said.
"It was a moment of total sadness," made more shocking because the mood switched from excitement to tragedy in an instant.
She returned to Hawai'i to help produce the morning news at KHON and worked as early-assignment editor while reporting at KHVH News Radio 990.
Ishikawa planned to go back to Boston when KGMB called and wanted to create a 5 o'clock newscast. She then got asked to work in local commercial production, which evolved into documentaries, technical programs, exercise videos and more.
And then she moved into production coordination as line supervisor, assistant director or producer.
Ishikawa's not sure what will be her longest-playing career role, but she is still finding daily challenges and rewards in her current gig.
At 4 feet 10 inches, Ishikawa draws double-takes as a crowd of big burly drivers gather round her on a job site.
But she said her short stature never seemed an issue. For years, a little sign summed up her feelings on height: "I may be short but I project tall."