Incongruous amid the cotton fields of Avondale, just off Interstate 10, there rises a huge, imposing structure that seems simultaneously futuristic, retro and decrepit. It's the ruin of an abandoned horse-racing grandstand, glowering down on a track long since overgrown. A real estate white elephant, it's nonetheless an atmospheric spot. It's a natural for a movie location.
That's currently how it's being employed. The place has been cast in the role of "EXT.--ABANDONED RACETRACK--DAY" in the action movie titled, at the moment, No Code of Conduct, now shooting around the Valley. For the first time in who knows how many years, the Avondale track is alive with people--film people, talking on cell phones, shouting orders, laughing with elaborate jocularity. A gloomy-eyed Australian sheepdog keeps quiet watch between trailers full of camera equipment, of makeup and hair stylists, of catered food.
The film stars Charlie Sheen and his father, Martin Sheen, as a son-and-father team of cops battling drug dealers. I'm visiting the location to chat with Bret Michaels, director of the modestly budgeted project, while the modestly sized crew sets up for a shot of our heroes escaping an explosion.
Fans of what a friend of mine calls "'80s Hair Metal" will remember Michaels as the lead singer of the popular group Poison. Those in the diabetes community may also know him as an unusual success story in overcoming juvenile diabetes, from which he has suffered since he was 6 (he's now 34). Even readers of Playgirl may remember that the publication once named him Sexiest Man Alive.
But today, Michaels, shorn of much of his MTV-glory-days hair, is just an enthusiastic, unpretentious young man trying to finish his second feature on a tight, 27-day schedule. He wears a cowboy hat and a leather jacket; a scorpion, imprisoned in acrylic on one of his rings, is the only touch which might indicate a head-banging past.
Michaels wrote, directed and starred in his first feature, a low-budget psychothriller/prison picture called A Letter From Death Row, tentatively scheduled for a March release by Millennium. No Code of Conduct is the first project from NuImage, the production company Michaels formed in partnership with Charlie Sheen (the two friends co-wrote the script, with Shane Stanley).
"Mostly I'm a dreamer, but I'm also a realist," says Michaels. "So I know at William Morris Agency, you go in there with a script and they go, 'Oh, we love you, you're great,' and then they throw it in the pile with all the others after you're gone. Because I've been sitting there when they've done it to other people. So instead of doin' that, I just put up my own money for A Letter From Death Row." Financing the film himself made for a more efficient shoot: "Because it was my money, you better believe it."
He gained his first filmmaking experience, and his first experience of the film world's financial wastefulness, while working on the production end of Poison's videos.
"I used to do the story-boarding. But a video's not nearly so complex, and if you have a bad moment, you just cut back to the band singing. And you talk about a waste of money, if you're not careful. They always make it seem like it's not your money, but you're inevitably paying for it. So there'll be a deli tray for, like, a thousand, meanwhile there's 12 people on the shoot."
Two crew members are tossing a football back and forth behind us. A wild throw sends it hurtling straight toward the director. He ducks, then continues talking. A few minutes later, the ball takes the same trajectory, and he has to duck again. Either because he wants to make a good impression or because he's a truly mild-mannered guy, Michaels ignores it again, and holds forth on his approach to action pictures.
"The reason I liked a movie like the first Lethal Weapon was that I felt for Mel Gibson, and how much he loved his wife. If you don't have character development, it becomes a shoot-'em-up, and I might as well get a bunch of guys in blue outfits with Uzis, and kill 'em all, and you never know 'em.
"I also develop something that a lot of people don't in action dramas, and that's the bad guys. Like, with bad guys--are they just born bad? Are they just killing machines? I wanted to make them have a soul."
It's nearing time to shoot, so he excuses himself, but invites me to look over his shoulder at the video monitor. The Sheens, pere and fils, have appeared, both dressed all in black, joking with the crew. The shot is rehearsed twice--the Sheens, actress Meredith Salenger and another actor are fleeing the grandstand as a blast goes off behind them. It's somehow deeply funny to watch them running in slow motion--Martin carrying a comically large machine gun--and sheepishly feigning terror when a woman behind the camera yells, "Bang!" It's like watching kids at play.
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Among the crew, an ordinary-looking young man is shooting the rehearsals with a camcorder. A crew member approaches this guy warily and asks who he is. He tells her he's an "asbestos coordinator" for Maricopa County. Presumably he's required to be there if the moviemakers plan to set off explosions in a structure built before the days of asbestos non grata.
At last, all is ready. Michaels yells, "Action!" The actors run. There's a sharp, pigeon-scattering BOOM, and a huge fireball billows out from under the grandstand. Michaels yells, "Cut!"
"Cool," I say in my best Butt-head chuckle.
"Fuck!" exclaims Salenger, wide-eyed. She wasn't expecting an explosion of such magnitude. Michaels is delighted with the shot. "See how we compress the image?" he says enthusiastically to me. "It looks like the fire's gonna burn her ass." Evidently, it looked that way to her, too.
I thank Michaels for his hospitality and wish him luck with the film. I'm led back to my car, past the grandstand--right through the evil asbestos cloud.