Get a Grip!
At long last, Ralph Brekan felt like he'd entered the world of professional film production. Granted, it was just a cheesy commercial for an oil company, but after years of making home movies in his backyard, this gig was the real deal.
Brekan, then an 18-year-old film student at Scottsdale Community College, had been hired as a grip for a Unocal 76 commercial being shot at the Mogollon Rim. His assignment positively reeked of glamour. Well, more accurately, it just reeked.
For a week and a half, his midsection was strapped into a harness while he hung off the side of a mountain. With one hand, he held a shiny board, designed to provide backlighting for the commercial's temperamental stars: two Russian brown bears. With his other hand, Brekan tried to coax one of the bears to put its arm around the other bear's shoulder.
If the Unocal gig was a rude introduction to the life of a professional grip, it was also a pretty accurate portent of what lay ahead for Brekan, now 26. In recent years, he's mixed dangerous chemicals on the Casa Grande set of the film Three Kings, been pelted with frozen pretzels by unruly alterna-kids while working on the stage crew at Woodstock '99, and has crawled across a 100-foot-long tunnel under the seats of Gammage Auditorium to install wiring for theatrical productions.
Most people who want to work in the movie industry follow the job opportunities to Hollywood. But Brekan is one of several local technicians and acting wanna-bes who prefer to let the work come to them.
Though he insists on living in Tempe, hardly the hub of film and theater production, Brekan's somehow managing to earn a living as a grip, relying solely on jobs that come to Arizona.
"It's extremely rare," says Durrie Parks, president of the Arizona Film Society -- a nonprofit organization that advocates for the local film community, and organizes the annual Saguaro Film Festival. "First of all, film crews tend to be gypsies. They go where the work is. And in this state it's particularly tough, because there is just not enough work."
For Doug Brown, a 32-year-old extra who wants to act, trying to make it in the movies from Phoenix means quitting his day job whenever a film opportunity pops up. He faithfully buys the Hollywood Reporter every week, even though he's behind on his rent and can't afford a car.
Shay Calinawan, a muscular 30-year-old club bouncer and ASU theater graduate, takes on dangerous stunt-man jobs, just to get his foot in the door as an actor.
For Arizona film workers, there are no guarantees, no security. A spate of good luck can be followed by a dry year of inactivity. They learn to jump at every crumb that Hollywood throws their direction.
"It's a very odd existence," says Ross Corsair, an independent filmmaker who worked nearly a month on Three Kings as a camera assistant. "You can never plan on that vacation in Tahiti. You never know when the next job's coming, and you end up sacrificing a lot doing that lifestyle."
Twenty-eight years ago, Arizona created a film commission, under the auspices of the state's commerce department, with the intention of aggressively marketing the state as an ideal site for filmmaking. While the effort has produced several high-profile successes, it's an erratic process, one that can be hugely affected by the whims of a single big-budget producer.
Additionally, Arizona has had to battle the trend of Hollywood's runaway productions to Canada, where the exchange rate and a host of business incentives make film work cheaper. Though Arizona continues to attract its share of feature films and commercials, television production has all but dried up here in recent years.
It's an unpredictable industry. In 1997, movie production pumped $130 million into the state's economy; that slumped to $43 million the following year, but rebounded to $99 million last year.
Still, last year's surge is linked almost entirely to the lengthy production of Three Kings in Casa Grande. A darkly comedic Gulf War saga that won critical raves, Three Kings was a watershed for Arizona because it was one of the few times in which a lavish set has been built on an Arizona location. That meant that Three Kings used Arizona for interior as well as exterior shots. So, unlike many films that come here simply for some quick shots of a desert backdrop, Three Kings based its entire shoot here.
Three Kings was also a breakthrough for locals like Brekan, Brown and Calinawan, who each spent at least three months on the movie's set -- a virtual eternity for an Arizona movie worker.
For such guppies in the film-industry food chain, every opportunity seems mammoth and every rejection seems devastating. When a film shoot comes to Arizona, they're willing to do anything that might make a positive impression.
"When the assistants are on the set explaining the scene and what they're in need of, I've found it good to volunteer for whatever," says Brown. "I may not know what I'm doing, but I raise my hand."
Linda Peterson Warren, director of the Arizona Film Commission, spent much of her adult life as an actress, but she doesn't particularly like being perceived as artsy.
Since taking over the commission in 1994, she's battled the assumption that her job amounts to schmoozing with Hollywood producers over mimosas at the Chateau Marmont. To her, film is serious business, a tough-as-nails industry where you have to be relentless to get what you want.
"A lot of people have the misperception that this office is about the arts," Warren says. "Well, it's not really. It is an art form, but we're addressing the business aspect of it, so we can expand our economic development in Arizona, in a very clean industry that essentially brings tons of money into our state, drops it, and then leaves."
Even the film commission's one recognition of artistic achievement -- a screenwriting competition with a $1,000 award to the winner -- is based around the stipulation that at least 85 percent of the script must be set in Arizona.
Although Arizona has many factors that are appealing to filmmakers -- such as desert locales, cheaper non-union labor, special sales-tax rebates, and proximity to California -- Warren says that the low cost of filming in Canada has lured much of Arizona's business away, particularly television production. The issue concerns her so much that she went to Washington, D.C., to discuss it with congressional leaders in September 1998.
"We have noticed in the last five years that made-for-television movies and episodic television has virtually vanished," Warren says. "I think it was in 1996 that we had 10 movies of the week. Those are important productions, not only because of the revenue, but because they tend to hire more locals than major motion pictures."
An estimated 160 film projects were shot in Arizona last year, but most of those were commercials, or very small-scale films. That's why Three Kings' five-month shoot had such an impact for Arizona film workers.
"It was a real coup," Warren says. "All the pieces of this gargantuan puzzle fit together in a very tidy way, and believe me, we pushed very hard to make sure they fit.
"Essentially, they were looking to duplicate Iraq. We have lots of mines in Arizona. Some didn't fit the bill. The one in Casa Grande did. It was close to an airport, close to a major geographic center, the look was fabulous, they had complete authority over that very vast parcel of land. Plus, they had these incredible vacant buildings that could be used for sound stages."
Warren, a native of Reading, Pennsylvania, worked for years as an actress, appearing on the daytime series All My Children and in such films as See How She Runs, with Joanne Woodward. She eventually settled in Massachusetts, and when that state's film commissioner post opened up in 1991, she actively lobbied for the job, believing that she had the right combination of business and entertainment acumen. Three years later, she was hired to take over Arizona's film commission.
She's worked to raise Arizona's profile in Hollywood, but she frets that there's little that the state can do to compete with Canadian incentives.
"Everything revolves around money, and the bottom-line costs are significantly reduced by taking a production to Canada," she says. "So you can't really blame a business that's interested in making a profit for taking its production to Canada. I'm not angry at Canada. I wish this wasn't happening, but, frankly, they've just built a better mousetrap."
Food is a major priority for Doug Brown. He worries every day that he's getting too bulky for plum movie parts, but, at the same time, he can't stop thinking about the stash of Dreyer's ice cream he's got in his freezer. Likewise, whenever he talks about his various experiences as a film extra, it doesn't take long for the subject to shift to cuisine.
For instance, Brown thought that the spread on the Jerry Maguire set was fine the first day he was there, but didn't cut it after that. He was particularly impressed by the buffets on the Three Kings set -- which tended to include stuff like chili or sea bass -- but complains that copper-mine dust would occasionally blow onto the food. He remembers that aside from playing cards and "yakking," eating was the best way to pass the long hours of boredom on the Three Kings set.
It's not just the culinary perks, though, that have Brown hooked on the moviemaking process. He's got stars in his eyes. He doesn't own a car, struggles to pay his modest rent and describes his finances as "rock bottom." But he buys the Hollywood Reporter every week, to keep up with any Tinseltown productions that might make their way to Arizona.
In 1996, when he got hired for three days of work on Jerry Maguire, he took sick days from his job at Motorola. By the time he started working on Three Kings, playing an Iraqi soldier, he had a tech-support job at Sears. When he realized that the film would require a substantial time commitment, he nonchalantly quit his job. Even Brown admits that movie work has severely crippled his bank account.
But, clearly, it wasn't money that motivated him. He says the gig as an extra on Jerry Maguire only paid between $7 and $8 an hour, while Three Kings provided him $100 a day, for days that generally required him on the set at 5:30 a.m., and didn't wrap until the early evening.
"I just wanted to give this a try," Brown explains. "This was the closest that I'd gotten to establishing a base with this kind of work. No, I don't want to make a lifelong commitment to being in the background. I want to have lines, and a featured role. But I thought I was getting closer."
One potential asset for Brown in seeking extra work is his striking appearance. He's a short, stocky, light-skinned African American with a shaved head and a thick, salt-and-pepper goatee. Put a golf cap on him and he'd bear a strong resemblance to Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker.
But the superficiality of the movie-casting process has made him paranoid about every aspect of his looks. He crash diets incessantly, though with little result so far. Three years ago, he went to a cattle call for the Kevin Costner dud The Postman, but was told that he was too dark for the part. He says he was depressed for at least two weeks.
These days, he grudgingly finds some humor in the rejection. "Lots of people would kill for this nice Saint-Tropez tan," he says with a grin.
Last year, he thought he'd scored a speaking part in Mike Nichols' extraterrestrial comedy What Planet Are You From?. This was the break he'd been waiting for. Three weeks later, he was told that they'd changed their minds. They'd decided he was too short for the part.
Brown was born and raised in Champaign, Illinois. In the mid-'80s, he moved to Los Angeles and briefly worked for the Department of Defense. He met some people who did defense-contract work for McDonnell Douglas, and they promised to help him get a job in Phoenix. So he rode into the Valley on his Kawasaki Ninja 600 sport motorcycle.
In March 1987, he took a higher-paying job with Motorola. He says he was fairly contented there for nine and a half years. But in 1996, the movie virus hit him.
"I came across information about Jerry Maguire being filmed at Sun Devil Stadium," he says. "I went to a cattle call in the grand ballroom at the Embassy Suites. There were hundreds of people there. I'd never seen so many people with their best attire on. There were people with their pets -- anything to get attention."
Brown wore an earth-toned sweater his parents had given him for Christmas, because he considered it the most hideous thing in his closet, and all the more likely to get attention.
Two days after the cattle call, he was in a dentist's chair getting a root canal when he got a call telling him he'd been hired.
He played a TV network sound technician, on the field during Cuba Gooding Jr.'s football action scenes. "My arms would get tired from take after take of holding this long pole with the microphone on it, and I kept banging the cheerleaders on the head with this pole.
"I was within elbow's length of Tom Cruise. I'd been watching him getting psyched up and rehearsed. He spent a lot of time in his trailer. When he came out, he was completely focused and very intense. I was sizing him up and down, trying to get a feel: Here's this $20 million man. What makes him a $20 million man?"
Brown didn't get an answer to his question, and he also didn't get much screen time in Jerry Maguire. He concedes that he's so far in the background that he tends to blur into the scenery.
Things only got more frustrating with his next film assignment, playing a waiter in The Ride, a Michael Biehn vehicle that was shot at the Arizona Boys Ranch. His contribution ended up on the cutting-room floor.
"I was really bummed about that one," he says.
Even his extended gig on Three Kings had its share of disappointments. Sure, he got to wear green military fatigues and, yes, he drove a Jaguar through the desert in one scene. And for the first time, he made it into several shots of a film. But he could have had more. He thought he had every extra's dream: a close-up.
"During a scene at the prison, there was a real nice close-up of me sitting on the steps with George Clooney and Ice Cube," he says. "People standing behind the monitor said, 'Wow, you've got a great close-up, if you make it past the editing floor.' But I didn't make it."
In his fedora hats and rolled-up pachuco black jeans, with his wisp of a sandy-brown goatee, Ralph Brekan gives off the aura of a self-conscious, apprentice bohemian. Yet he's happily domesticated -- with a wife, two kids (with a third on the way), and a comfortable east Tempe home whose backyard is a stone's throw from the Superstition Freeway.
He can be breathtakingly pretentious -- referring to himself in his bio as "one of the leading renaissance forces at the turn of this century" -- but he's not proud. If the lowliest imaginable grunt work puts him in proximity to creative people, he'll respond zealously. His old SCC classmate, L.A.-based filmmaker Karl Hirsch, affectionately remembers him as "a nut, who was very excitable and very ambitious. He wanted to be the next David Lynch."
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.
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.
In between movie gigs, Brekan does stage and sound work for live theater -- a gig that he describes as half as lucrative and twice as laborious as film work -- and the occasional trade show. He says he's learned to accept the unpredictable flow of movie work.
"There are no solid gigs in our business," he says. "It's a real feast-or-famine proposition. You might work 30 hours in one weekend and then have several days off."
When Doug Brown lost a part in The Postman for being "too dark," his buddy Shay Calinawan ended up getting the role. In Three Kings, Calinawan -- who played an Iraqi refugee who'd been shot -- again trumped Brown by scoring a much-coveted close-up of a grisly stomach wound.
"I had my mug in that movie about five or six times," Calinawan says. "I had to walk around with a big bloody bandage on for weeks."
Calinawan made his film debut in 1989, in an unreleased short by Stephen Furst (Flounder from National Lampoon's Animal House). At the time, he lived in Simi Valley, California, and worked as a weight trainer. He also waited tables at Universal Studios. He wanted to break into the movie business, but after a few years of futility with casting agents, he decided that he needed some training.
In 1993, he moved to Tempe to study theater at ASU, and graduated in 1997. During that time he got brief extra work on Dead Man, The Getaway and Tombstone.
When he was hired for The Postman, the film's casting agent got a look at his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame and asked if he could do stunt work. He had no experience as a stunt man, but as he says, "With Hollywood, when an opportunity opens, you either take it or you don't." So Calinawan was twice asked to jump off a 250-foot rope bridge and swim in white water with an 80-pound costume on, and no life preserver.
"You get your one shot, and you're either ready or you're not," he says. "I did it, and in retrospect I'm glad I did, 'cause it was a great experience. But I was terrified to do it at the time. I thought I was going to drown in that river."
Stunt work in The Postman turned out to be a mixed blessing for Calinawan. He started getting other job offers, but casting agents also started pigeonholing him as a stunt man, when he really wanted to be an actor.
Although he lives in Tempe, Calinawan also maintains a Burbank, California, post-office box. He doesn't want to be limited to Arizona film shoots, so he also keeps track of any work in New Mexico, Texas, California and Nevada. Between gigs, he works as a bouncer at Scottsdale retro club Polly Esther's. Soon, he'll also start waiting tables at Gordon Biersch Brewing Company.
He continues to do stunt work, most recently as a football player for the Dallas franchise (#54) in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday. His scenes were shot at Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. It was a gig he couldn't turn down, but he says he's trying to steer himself away from stunt work, fearing that it will slow his chance at an acting career. But he rigorously keeps himself in shape, knowing that he has to be ready if he's asked to do something that's physically demanding.
"I had a little bit of extreme sort of training from being in the Army for a little while, but it wasn't the same. I've had to do a lot of intense work. When you do stunt work, you always feel that you could be faster or stronger. I learned that I wasn't as good a swimmer as I'd thought."
Calinawan, like Brown and Brekan, knows that the waiting between gigs is always the hardest part. Brekan insists that the secret to sanity for any Arizona film worker is not to let the down time between jobs become a source of aggravation. So he uses his free time to work on his own multimedia art projects -- paintings, home-studio recordings and filmmaking -- confident that the wait won't be long.
"You try not to worry about it too much, because if you're good at what you do and you believe in what you do and you're soliciting yourself enough, the next job will come," he says. "And you've got to make what you earn stretch to the next deal."
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.