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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.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap