Get a Grip!

Star-struck Hollywood hopefuls fight to make the scene in Phoenix's filmland fringe.

Brekan was born in DeKalb, Illinois, a college town on the outskirts of Chicago. He recalls that DeKalb's most famous native, über-model Cindy Crawford, baby-sat him a couple of times. He was 6 years old with a propensity for throwing off his clothes and running around the house. She was a 14-year-old beauty-contest hopeful looking to make a few extra bucks.

When he was 10, Brekan's parents bought a video camera and he began shooting home videos in his backyard with his two younger brothers, making low-budget horror movies with titles like Blood Bath, The Outcast and Pretty Girls Make Graves.

When Brekan was in high school, his family moved to Tempe. Brekan's uncle had moved to the Valley years before, and he encouraged Brekan's father, a real estate appraiser, to follow him here.

Arizona Film Commission director Linda Peterson Warren frets that Arizona is losing movie projects to Canada.
Paolo Vescia
Arizona Film Commission director Linda Peterson Warren frets that Arizona is losing movie projects to Canada.

After graduating from McClintock High, Brekan studied at SCC and took an eight-month course at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe. In 1993, he briefly moved to Los Angeles and befriended a key grip who helped get him on the crew of Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers and Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was the Case" video. Brekan loaded gear into trucks for the grips.

The work on Stone's film got Brekan on the set of a video for one of the soundtrack songs, "Natural Born Killaz," by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The grim, futuristic video was shot in a Starkist Tuna factory in Terminal Island, near L.A.

"Dr. Dre saved my ass one time on that set," Brekan recalls. "They had set up a big turntable that they had props on, made to look like a pile of bones.

"I was rigging this light, and I was standing on these two back-to-back chairs made to look like a throne. I slipped back, and Dre was right behind me, and he put his hand on my ass, and said, 'There you are, bro.' I would have tumbled down about 10 to 12 feet of wood and bones and metal."

The work opportunities were much greater in L.A. than in Phoenix, but Brekan, a provincial Catholic-school kid at heart, says he didn't feel comfortable with the fast-paced lifestyle of Hollywood.

So he returned to Phoenix and joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He took jobs that most people didn't want, mixing materials for set construction.

"It's a really hard job -- it's called 'hotty,'" Brekan says. "You're mixing things like plaster and stucco and concrete, that are colored. The dyes are volatile and permanent in your skin. You're dealing with gypsum and lye and a lot of real harsh chemicals."

Brekan's experience as a "hotty" helped win him a set-construction gig for Three Kings in the fall of 1998. For weeks prior to the production's arrival, he helped build a pseudo-Iraqi village on the site of the old Sacaton copper mine.

The mine provided a perfect backdrop for the movie, but it caused widespread health problems on the set. George Clooney had to take a few days off with laryngitis. Brekan himself had to be rushed to the hospital at one point with dehydration.

Sickness on the set actually proved fortuitous for Brekan's old SCC classmate Ross Corsair. He was hired when the film's camera assistant -- who, like most of the higher-level workers on the set, was brought in from L.A. -- took ill. As a result, Corsair got nearly a month of "first-unit work" -- the main film crew -- on the set.

By the end of the shoot, Brekan had also worked his way up to first-unit production. As one of the few locals with prolific experience in both video and audio, he got a gig running video playbacks, so director David O. Russell could see sequences that had just been shot. He says he earned about $1,500 a week on the set, for what usually amounted to 60- to 70-hour work weeks.

It was near the end of the demanding Three Kings shoot when Brekan says he saw the production's most tense moment: a brief punch-out between Clooney and Russell. Doug Brown also says he saw the brawl.

In the March 2 edition of the Evening News, from Edinburgh, Scotland, Clooney conceded that he and Russell had some testy verbal exchanges during the shoot, but said, "There was never a fist fight."

But Brekan says he saw Clooney punch Russell, after the director baited him by saying that his acting was too predictable.

"That triggered George and he said, 'You want unpredictable?' and he punched him in the nose, knocked him to the ground," Brekan says. "Grips and crew members had to restrain George."

After Three Kings wrapped, Brekan got a couple of days' work on the set of the extraterrestrial comedy What Planet Are You From?, filmed in Phoenix and Sedona. He was so eager to meet director Mike Nichols -- one of his longtime idols -- that he happily took a job in craft services: bringing food in, stocking the candy dishes and making espresso.

Most recently, Brekan spent four weeks on a made-for-TV film tentatively titled Looking for Lost Bird, starring Mercedes Ruehl. It's the story of a Jewish woman who discovers that her mother was Navajo, and goes to Arizona to reclaim her roots. The shoot, which he says was marred by unseasonable monsoon conditions, was done in Mesa, Phoenix and Superior.

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