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.
At the wardrobe tent, a couple guys scrounged up an Army outfit for me, saying things like "You've been in the military, right?" and rolling their eyes when I said no. Hey, I was just some hick from Kingman. These low-level wardrobe schmucks, they had no idea how cool and important I really was--I didn't need their 120 bucks a day. I was a journalist, dammit, out to experience the experience that is the "extra."
Which is no meager job. Think what films would be like, other than My Dinner With Andre and anything by David Mamet, without extras. Movie stars portray real people who are actually so extraordinary as to be as unreal as the movie stars themselves.
Extras portray you.
And some of you wear uniforms and do things like stand in front of tanks in the sun waiting for orders, and, in this movie, that is me. Little did I know that as I stepped out of that wardrobe tent clad in full-on Army gear (they even shaved off my goatee--whaaa!), I was stepping into a parallel universe of irony that went way beyond even Hollywood magic. I was soon to find out that taking orders in movies--go here, go there, be uncomfortable, wait around, be bored--was darn close to an actual military experience. And being dressed like an Army grunt made it all the more real. Or fake.
In fact, virtually all of the couple hundred other soldier extras were active-duty Air Force men, bused in from the nearest base in Las Vegas. As the day progressed, we hiked through gales of sand with our rubber M-14s. We stood at attention while choppers kicked million-year-old dust up into our nostrils. We lay around in the shade under tents and slept with our helmets for pillows. We chowed down on lunch, yearning for beer. We joshed about how it all sucked, all of this hurry-up-and-wait bullshit.
And we did it together!
We were Army!
We were Hollywood!
They had two stands of bleachers set up facing each other, like on a football field, with banners above each bleacher that blared WELCOME TO EARTH. Between the stands was a red carpet with a small podium. This is where the Martian was to meet with the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the United States of America. The film, I was told, is a spoof.
By late morning, all of us soldiers were out there waiting, eating apples and oranges (which were served fabulously chilled, a nice Hollywood touch in the middle of the desert), and drinking gallons of water, which had a certain effect on this soldier; I had to pee a lot. That meant tramping the quarter mile from the set to the far end of the tents to the designated port-a-john sector of the colony, and that meant those size ten Army jungle boots chewed deeper into my pasty civilian ankles with every step.
I'd get out there on that ancient lake bed of death, dragging the fake rifle, equipment belt sagging, and even though I could see the set and the tents before and behind me, I felt absolutely alone. I could see mirages, but none in the form of bushes to pee behind.
After a couple trips, I decided to hold it, and I watched Burton direct the scene with the Martian and the Supreme Commander. Burton in action appeared to be just the sort of manic genius you might guess he is from his films. He was surrounded at all times by about 15 people to relay his orders, people who looked either much older or much younger than him--he was born in 1960, three years before me. Bastard. All of those people wore shorts, tee shirts, no shirts, bland stuff.
Here's what Tim Burton wore: baggy, metallic blue silk shirt, even baggier silk pants of blood red, and big black boots covered in dust with heels that brought him up to about six-feet-four, I'd guess. He had a habit of folding his arms above his head for periods of minutes while walking around, sizing things up. He has black hair that sticks out all over, and overall reminded me a little of Mick Jones, the one from the Clash, not Foreigner. Burton seemed utterly in charge, a gangly, eccentric fellow loping about in sultan's pajamas, making a movie out of what, to my virgin eyes, appeared to be a mixture of tedium and chaos.
Watching this scene for a few hours was dull, so here's something interesting. The Martian was short, the Martian was green, and, when the cameras stopped rolling and it took its skin off, the Martian turned out to be a short girl with a body that was out of this world. That's why they call it behind the scenes, friends.
"I need the hippies! Give me all the hippies, and the bystanders, too! Now!!" barked a man with obviously practiced bullhorn skills. We soldiers were not the only extras today, not by a long shot. Apparently, Mars attacked sometime in the late Sixties or early Seventies.
The hippies went on out to the set, a tribe of colorful freaks dragging themselves across the dust in little groups or all alone, and there were a couple nuns and monks in there, too (they paid the monk guys $200 to shave their heads), robes flowing in the wind. This was more bizarre than anything scripted that day; if Fellini had been there to film these back-and-forth processions, he could have made a movie out of that footage alone.
I stood there on the set behind Burton, watching the hippies do their extra thing, and one of my Army buddies nudged me.
"Hey, man, there's Michael J.!"
Well, all right. There he was, sitting in one of those Hollywood director chairs with the canvas back. Fox plays a CNN-like reporter in this movie and was dressed accordingly in the dark, conservative suit of the TV newsman.
My buddy nudged me again.
"I'm gonna go get my picture with Michael J.!"
And he did. Walked over, said something, Michael J. turned his celebrity head, complete with dark glasses covering his celebrity eyes, in the direction of my buddy. He put down his Marlboro Light. My buddy grabbed a technician, gave him the camera, and it was about to happen. My buddy--tall, bespectacled, tiny blond mustache, head wrapped in a red scarf--straightened up as Michael J. leaned, just barely, toward him in his director chair. My buddy looked at the camera and managed one of those nervous smiles that says, "I'm excited, but I don't want to look like I am, nor do I want to look like an idiot, even though I suddenly feel like one, even though I didn't when I walked over here."
The thin lips of Michael J. remained parallel with the surface of the Earth.
The picture was snapped, my buddy shook hands with Michael J., then walked back over to me.
"Well, you got it," I said.
"Yep," he said.
The day dragged on and on. I took a nap, I ate some saltines, I saw some stuff exploded, I did the Army scene I already told you about. I saw Sarah Jessica Parker from a long way away in a silver lame outfit that I'm sure looked quite sexy close up. I was tired, and I was filthy. (Later that night, when the water finally drained from the shower of room 246 in the Silver Queen Motel, the tub would be completely lined with the same prehistoric dust that lined the bottom of Red Lake when it finally drained.)
I sat in one of the big white tents, surrounded by hippies and bystanders asleep on their arms folded on tabletops. Then, after 14 hours, the man with the bullhorn ended my life as a soldier, ended my life as an extra.
"Soldiers are wrapped for the day!! Soldiers can go home!!" I left the forlorn hippies, made it to wardrobe, traded in my uniform for my civvies, got back on the bus, sat down.
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I turned, and there was Richard. What a perfect finish to my story this'll be, I thought, full circle.
"How'd it go for you, Richard?" I asked, hoping for an honest, human response that would sum up the entire experience in the simple/wise parlance of an aging Kingmanite. Retired Richard, creator of Sound Woman, grinned at me, spry and chipper.
"Oh, just fine," he said. Which is not a very exciting thing to say. But then again, this ain't Hollywood.