Extra, Extra, Read All About It

Clouds of dust and grit in waves of wind the size of nightmares blew in across the lake bed, where water had not been an option for at least 1.8 million years, while the sun moved in so close that human life was barely able to survive. And that is very close. In front of three tanks I stood, a pillar of sweat at parade rest in the olive-drab regulation-issue infantry uniform of the Army, M-14 made of vulcanized rubber pointed at God, eyes forward and feet caked with newborn boot blisters that screamed to be babied, as a fleet of helicopters decided it was time to stop idling on the ground and, on some magical cue, rose into the air as one with all the death grace of a Mahler crescendo.

To my left, a straining man with a red face and a shaved head bent down to heave aside a sand-block barrier, allowing half of his ass to peek from his Army pants as the helicopters circled around to my right, low enough to spit at. A Jeep drove by containing a general, I snapped to attention for the 15th time, the soldier directly in front of me farted and, through a bullhorn, Tim Burton yelled "Cut!!" and everything in this godforsaken place, save for the dust and grit and wind, came to a halt.

God may indeed have forsaken this place, but Hollywood has not. That is where director Tim Burton--the man who gave you Batmans I and II, Ed Wood, Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands--is from. And, for five days of filming at roughly $100,000 per day, he has brought with him huge tents, mammoth props, multiple caterers, miles of cable, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, lights, cameras, action, and hundreds of extras, one of whom is yours truly, in the clearly demanding role of "soldier."

The film is called Mars Attacks (Jack Nicholson is in there, too, but he apparently was not on call for this desert action), and the location is Red Lake, a Cenozoic hellhole 35 miles north of Kingman that looks to me like a really wonderful place to die an agonizing death, but is an ideal place for the Martians in this movie to land.

Now we can back up.

I had to be at Kingman's Mohave County Fairgrounds at 5:30 in the morning. I left the Silver Queen Motel cursing the wake-up call that had come at 5:02 instead of 5:00 sharp--what was wrong with these people? I had to make it to the set, fer Chrissakes.

I found the grounds, got in line with what I could only assume were a bunch of locals, people who didn't have anything better to do for the week.

Older guys, bleary and unshaven, retired couples with plaid thermoses, teenage girls, the kind you see at county fairs trying to clutch their boyfriends' tattooed arms and hold bouffants of cotton candy and cups of beer they're too young to drink, all at the same time. One devilish rogue swaggered in, obviously Kingman's answer to Mickey Rourke, hair slicked back, Hawaiian shirt halfway unbuttoned, unlighted cigarette dangling from his mouth. He made a noticeable point of theatrically sizing up the county fair girls, nodding and leering his approval. At least I noticed it.

I got my acting assignment and I got on the bus. Next to me sat a fellow extra, retired, friendly, blue-eyed Richard, last seen installing countertops in offices throughout the Pacific Northwest. Richard, a two-day shooting veteran, supplied me with valuable insider's knowledge:

"I'm a cameraman. They give me a big phony news camera, but some people get real ones. They've got a girl who's dressed up in a little Martian outfit, but there's no spaceship. It's a long day, but they feed you real good; we had chicken yesterday. It was a nice lunch. Nicholson's not here, but I think they've got Michael J. Fox. Some of the old-timers in town told me a spaceship actually did crash in Red Lake, right before Roswell. You know about Roswell?"

I imagined that most of us on that bus had a secret Hollywood dream or two; as we bumped down a dirt road with Sade crooning from the radio speakers, Richard revealed his.

"I've been working on a script for four years now; it's a superhero story. I've got about 60 pages finished, and it's about this woman who works as a deejay [some accident happened to her at this point in the narrative, but I can't remember what Richard told me. I think it was nuclear], and she turns into Sound Woman. That's because she's a deejay. It's going to be a musical, so I need to find an actress who can sing."

Outside my tinted window, the sun was rising through the haze. I looked at it for a while and then we were there.

The operation looked like some sort of nomadic village populated by nonglamorous, nervous, intense people who did a lot of shouting into walkie-talkies, and wore hats and tee shirts commemorating past movies they had worked on--The Flintstones, Mission: Impossible and others I didn't see.

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