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Paul Flinton, 59, is an award-winning location sound manager for NFL Films who now lives in Philadelphia. But in 1987, he was a 23-year-old film student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, looking for a new project. He was fascinated by bridges, especially the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“I always loved driving across that bridge, because it was very, it was like a skeleton of a bridge, you know, tinkertoy kind of cool,” Flinton said. “And I always was like, ‘I’m going to photograph this thing somehow.’”

Flinton was a fan of short human-interest documentaries, so he decided to interview the bridge’s tollbooth workers. After getting the OK, he put up a flyer at the tollbooth facility and ended up interviewing a handful of toll operators.

That audio makes up the film’s soundtrack — the women’s heavy Baltimore accents describing the highlights and lowlights of their job, including drivers passing through their booths naked (“I think they’re sick,” one says) and even a series of cars driven by clowns in full makeup (“Must’ve been a party,” the operator says, laughing).

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The six-minute documentary, “One Dollar” (named after the cost of the toll for cars at the time) was shot on 16 mm film in one long, continuous take as Flinton drove across the bridge in his green convertible Volkswagen Rabbit. He let some air out of the tires to make the ride smoother, and his friend Matt Craven sat on the Rabbit’s roll bar with the top down and held the Bolex camera steady for the duration of the drive.

“I drove the car and timed it. … We could only do it twice because it was 16 mm and film, so it costs money.” After two trips, he edited the audio interviews into the film, literally cutting and splicing with an X-Acto knife.

The film is meditative in its stark simplicity — just a car driving over a bridge in a single take as the faceless toll workers tell their stories. “I wanted the visuals to be kind of calm and serene,” Flinton said. “So that after you start watching it, you start to forget you’re watching it, right?”

The audio begins without any introduction of the toll workers, Flinton said, “So you’re not even sure who you’re listening to. The pieces start falling into place as you’re crossing the bridge.”

Flinton won an award from the Maryland State Arts Council after he screened the film. But over the years, he largely forgot about it.

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Until Tuesday, March 26, when a cargo ship leaving the Port of Baltimore crashed into the bridge and caused it to collapse, killing six people and forever altering the Baltimore skyline.

Flinton was on his way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when he got a text from a friend. “I was like, what? The bridge collapsed?” He pulled up a video of the bridge collapse on his phone. “I couldn’t believe it.”

A few days later, he remembered “One Dollar.”

“I started to think about like, hey, wait a second. I had this. This film … a little history about the film was sitting on my shelf for 25 years.”

A few days later, a friend reached out asking if “One Dollar” was available online anywhere. “I watched it on my computer and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ Right? It took me right back there.”

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Flinton posted the video on YouTube and shared it on Facebook, where it immediately generated comments and conversations.

“It hit a nerve,” Flinton said. “It’s sort of a treasure. … This captures something that in a lot of ways, you know, can’t really happen again.”

Flinton is especially grateful that he got to document the bridge’s toll workers, whose jobs were eliminated when the bridge changed to cashless toll collection in 2019.

“The whole institution of toll operators is almost gone. Now, there’s a whole world of people there who, who literally had a job for dozens of years who don’t work there. That job almost doesn’t exist.”

Toll workers did much more than just take money, Flinton said, and often gave directions to people who were lost. “In the days before the Google, you know before the mapping technology I mean, those people were the only people you’d see on the side of the highway.

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“The tollbooth operator was kind of an institution and, nationwide, is also gone. An institution that’s kind of gone as much as the bridge physically is gone.”

Flinton feels a deep sense of melancholy now when he watches his film.

“There is a timelessness to somebody who would have driven across the bridge. ... It would have been the exact same drive as it was literally 30 years ago. Right?

“But that experience would have been the same. So the cool light, as you’re going under in the shadows, and light and shadows and light and shadows and light, would have been the same.”

“It’s a period piece. I feel like that makes it also very special. I feel like if that thing would have been made two weeks ago, it wouldn’t be — it wouldn’t be the thing that it is.

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“I got really lucky capturing that,” he said.

Watch “One Dollar” on YouTube.

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