|Austin-Bergstrom International Airport|
by Marco Perella
I wince involuntarily when the airplane motors start up. The dragon-breath rush of wind through the propellers makes me flinch from blows as yet undealt. It's some other poor fool out there now, getting his famous self beat to shit. My turn is coming.
The source of my dread anticipation is the three swamp boats parked on trailers with airplane prop engines mounted on the backs, now revving to a frightful roar as they push wind at 70 miles per hour toward the back yard of the North Texas country club where we are making a film noir classic-to-be, as yet unnamed but multi-starred. Mary Tyler Moore is in this movie. She's nowhere near these wind machines though. They saved that part for us lesser, expendable lights. Except for James and Eric. But at least they get the big money. I've been lowballed into doing this epic for near scale. I thought January would be slow. It turned out to be cold. Especially at one in the morning when we are shooting these scenes. A week of cold, tired, killer special effect movie-glamour hell. All night every night until all the subsidiary characters are killed off and the hero walks alone into the post-tornado dawn, his prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend tucked protectively into his storm-tempered armpit. There's the 2nd A-D. I'm called to the set. I zip up my wet suit over the two pairs of long johns, put on my costume and down jacket and step out into the dark.
The King Bull Daddy Stunt Coordinator is effulgent. He's semi-directing these sequences because they're stunts, only not officially. Officially they're "action sequences" for which we actors are to expect no extra compensation. He hands me the gun and explains my responsibilities in this scene. I am to come stumbling out of my rich father's house into the teeth of the climactic and highly metaphorical tornado firing my gun and yelling obscenities at the pursued hero and his damsel. He suggests I stop and reload by the tree. "I hate it when they never reload, don't you?" I mention that in the previous scene I picked somebody else's gun up off the floor. Do I just happen to have extra ammo in my coat pocket? "Okay, never mind the reloading. As your reward for saving me from embarrassment why don't you fall down by the tree and kind of grovel around for a minute?" On action they turn on the swamp boats. At least the helicopter is on break. Sometimes they use the helicopter to kick up extra dust. (I can still hear them whining about budget restraints when my agent was negotiating my fee.)
I stagger out into a world of fun. I start off in the general direction of my offstage quarry, but it's right into the wind and I can't make much headway. I'm also blinded by the lights and the smoke they pump onto the set and I have my eyes slitted like a Gobi Mongol against the leaves and sticks and clods that the grips are throwing in front of the props to bombard me with, in a highly realistic, photogenic, and totally tornadic way. My first take ends with a stick to the head that stuns me. I lurch past the wind machines and collapse. As they're reloading my pistol with blanks I kind of casually mention to the grips that maybe they could, you know, like, GLEAN the leaf piles of extra sticks and clods so that maybe I won't be scarred for life? "Well, we did the same thing to Eric and he's the Star." I ask them what happens when they blind Eric and they can't finish the movie? They agree to minimal gleaning as long as nobody yells at them. (The constant cry for "MORE LEAVES!" has already become a catch phrase of the shoot.) Take Two.
I enter staggering once more. This time, for variety, I grab onto the tree early and cling there dramatically as I scream epithets at my retreating nemesis. I feel like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, screaming into the storm for his lost Cathy. No sticks upset my timing by slamming into my head at 70mph and I think this take may do it. No such luck. "Loved what you did with the tree but we didn't have it in frame. Do it again just like that. Let's have more leaves this take!" They rev up the engines again. They sound louder for some reason. I step around the corner and find out why. The wind is up to about 90. I make one stagger step toward the wind and then turn toward the tree. The wind immediately picks me up and slams me into the trunk where I kind of flutter for a few seconds like a wind sock. My arms and legs are off the ground until I slide down the trunk onto the ground. My back hurts and I've wrenched my leg. Nobody seems to be yelling cut, so I crawl toward the cameras. I'm having no problem mooding up for the obscenities. I fire my gun in what I hope is the stunt coordinator's direction. Leaves are hitting my face so hard that they just stick there. By the time I finally crawl out of camera range they have a name for the picture: THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER WIND SOCK MULCH MAN. Everyone is delighted. "Oh Baby! Oh Baby! That's in the picture man! That is IN the picture! Great job man! By the way, are you all right? Okay everybody, let's do it one more time for safety!"
The night wears on. My fellow thespians and I take turns getting blown to hell. There is a delay while Eric gets a leaf removed from his eye. He has some choice words for the leaf grips. We're at the scene where the scrappy girl Friday jumps on my back just as I'm about to assassinate our hero and claws at my eyes until the tables are turned. First we do the scene with a stuntwoman. Jump, claw, throw her over my shoulder, punch her and then kick her in the face. She rolls off down the hill in the wind. This is my second fight with a woman in this picture and I've won them both. No major damage except a hyper-extended elbow from throwing fake punches. After the tree episode I'm not complaining. Now the actual girl-Friday actress comes on set to do the close-ups. This is her first time in front of the wind machines. She's a Tony award-winning Broadway musical star named Randy. Welcome to Texas ma'am, how well do you take a punch? She catches a leaf her first take and forgets to claw my eyes or go for the gun or anything and just kind of clings to my back in shock as I rage around in circles pretending to be in deep distress. By the time we get to the face kick however, her years of theatrical training pay off and she hits the deck like the pro she is. The problem take is when she is supposed to karate the gun out of my hand in close-up. We can't get it to look real and the director is exasperated with us. Finally they just leave the wind machines on and pantomime various things to try as she hits my arm. Thirty karate blows later I have a very sore forearm and the side of Randy's hand is swollen and numb. It's finally time for my death scene. Thank God! I am so ready to die.
The agent of my demise is the heart-of-gold-prostitute, Joanna, who sticks a Bowie knife into my spinal column just before I plug Eric. I'm supposed to kind of express something with my eyes (the script describes it as a "nullity") then fall face forward into the camera which will reveal Joanna standing horrified but resolute behind me as the camera slowly pans down to show the knife quivering in my wretched evildoer's carcass. It's called a "forced reveal" in cinematic terms. It's definitely an art shot and our French cinematographer is excited. You can tell because his English starts to slip as he checks light meters and gives orders to his minions. "Non! Non! Geeve me 40K! 40K! Merde! Eeets raining! We are fooked! Fooked!" This is my martini shot. When it's over I'll get to go back to my trailer and get warm. Best of all, I'll be lying on the ground pretending to be dead while Eric and Joanna face the wrath of the tornado which is scripted to go "white out" in its intensity and blow them existentially apart. They get me into the knife-rigged shirt and I practice my nullities while they set the shot up. I decide on a variation of Oliver Hardy's famous series of takes when Lupe Valdez (the Mexican Spitfire) cracked a raw egg down the front of his pants. It's... there... then it moves to... There... then it oozes on down to... THERE! Thank God for the Method. They buy it. We only have to do 16 takes.
Since this is the climax of the film the brass is rabid. "More leaves! More smoke! More wind! More EVERYTHING! ACT DAMMIT! ACT!" After I nullify myself I just close my eyes and the holocaust doesn't bother me that much except that it's God-awful cold lying on the ground, even in a wet suit. But poor Joanna. They've got her in a little black vinyl mini combo that covers about ten per cent of her 90 pound starved movie starlet body. (Looks great on camera though, Baby!) A wet suit is not an option and she is freezing. She can barely stand up in the torrent of air. The leaf grips do their jobs well and soon she is crying from all the crud in her eyes. They shoot it again and again. Eric is a trooper and despite being nearly blinded earlier he lets himself get blown down the hill repeatedly. Stardom must be so gratifying.
Entertainment Tonight is doing a segment on us and after I wrap they come up and interview me. "You just spent all night getting the crap beat out of you! So how does it feel?!!?" My mouth is too cold to speak and my nose is running and my hair has been blown into a startled pompadour. The bloody rubber knife is still protruding from my back and I spit out leaves as I try to answer questions for all the fans out there in TV land. "Well," I say, "I guesthsh that's jutht Show Bizjshth!"
Tuesday. We wrapped at 7:30 this morning and now it's sundown and I'm back in the honey wagon preparing for another night of abuse. I barely made it home this morning. It took an hour and a half to blither through morning rush hour traffic heading into Dallas. I fell asleep twice when my lane clogged to a stop. Slept about four hours then woke up to drive back out to the set through afternoon rush hour. All the same I am keyed up. Tonight is the big car stunt. A few weeks ago one of the stunt guys asked me if I wanted to "stand near the window when the car drove through it." Sounded fairly interesting at the time what with a hinted-at "stunt bump" to augment my meager salary. Also I had just won my first fight with an actress in the movie and was feeling real macho. Anyway I kind of more or less said yes. Maybe I should have done some research.
They've built a mock up of the set where the patriarch, famous James, delivers his "seed grass" speech. Our hero Eric has penetrated the inner sanctum and denounced me, the spoiled rich kid scum sucking son, as the twisted murderer of women that I am. James looks out the window of his study onto the rolling lawns of his oil baron estate and gives a botany lesson about the perfect seed grass he has genetically cultivated and how the seed must be preserved from impurities and likewise I, his son, must also be preserved because of the genetic perfection I have inherited from him. All delivered in that remarkably sonorous bass voice that sells stuff on TV all the time. The upshot is that Daddy is going to off Eric instead of turning me into the cops. Just then Joanna's stunt double drives an Austin Healy through the floor-to-ceiling windows. And the Storm Rages.
Endless hours of preparation give me plenty of time to reflect upon the coming debacle. James and Eric are to be portrayed by stuntmen. Doran and I are standing in for ourselves. Doran plays the Tattooed Man, henchman and family retainer who is holding a gun to Eric's head just as the car hits. My job is to lean on a couch next to the window and jump out of the way as the car drives by. I ask where the car is going to go? They show me a line on the floor, about six inches under my foot. "If all goes well", they say, "the car should come through about here and end up about here, give or take a few feet." On the way through they want it to hit a desk and ask me if I would mind tipping a long oak table full of Indian pottery into the path of the oncoming missile to provide a little extra bang. "Just be sure you allow yourself time to jump over the couch." This provides some food for thought over the next several hours of prep time. I confer with Doran. Since he is standing downstage of me so to speak, if I tip the oak table just right the car should drive it into his neck as he leaps out of the way. We decide to ask somebody exactly HOW much that stunt bump actually IS. Meanwhile I examine the Indian pottery and discover that it is real. As in heavy. As in what goes up must come down probably on my head. The gaffers are rigging lights from the ceiling and other precarious places. The director has that Ben Hur look in his eye. You know, just before the chariot race that butchered several dozen stunt men? I mention to him that a lot of this stuff might get thrown around the room a little bit when the car crashes through the windows. He grins and says, "Yeah...I know! It's gonna be great!" Then to the grips: "Don't forget the leaves!"
Doran tells me that the stunt guy mentioned that we might get $750 for this caper. What do you mean ..."might"? I write out a little memo that someone can find on my body so that my widow can be compensated appropriately. I ask the stunt sub-coordinator to sign it and he is outraged. "We won't know how much the stunt is worth until after you do it!" What do you mean AFTER I DO IT? "When we decide how dangerous it really was, then we decide how much to give you." Like hell you say? You mean you macho sons of guns jump off a building before you even know how much you're going to get? "Sure. All the time. It's the stuntman's code!" Well, what's the price RANGE so to speak? "Anywhere from a hundred to a thousand dollars." Well forget it then, I ain't lettin a car come through a window at thirty miles an hour aimed precisely at my ass for no $100. Chaos on the set. Directors are consulted, producers are consulted, everybody is consulted as I stand defiantly on my couch by my death mark awaiting financial satisfaction. Finally the King Bull Daddy Stunt Coordinator approaches me. Famous industry wide. Worked with the Greats. Knows how to deal with recalcitrant co-stars. He's the one that wrapped me around the tree last night. He gently explains what a good job I did and how he's making sure I get an extra $300 to compensate me for wind sock duty and leaf burn. "And this is much more dangerous, so you'll be picking up a nice bonus. We'll figure out exactly how much after we shoot it. I'll take care of you, don't worry!" I say, okay, I trust you. We shake and they rev up the car.
Since the head stunt guy is the only one facing the window, we are supposed to cue on him for our respective leaps. "But don't depend on me, listen to that car hit the wooden ramp. When you hear that you'll have about point 2 seconds to get out of the way. Be sure to push the table over!" I have mapped out a soft place to land on the other side of the couch and consider placing a few pillows close at hand to put over my head when the debris starts falling from above. I remind Doran that the oak table has a date with his spinal column. He nods grimly. The French cinematographer is yelling last minute instructions. All eight producers are out there in the shadows watching their money being spent on this mayhem. The Entertainment Tonight boys are there with their video cameras and local newspaper reporters are doing sideline interviews. Out there in the dark about a hundred yards away the stuntwoman driver is warming the engine of the red Austin Healy convertible. They have attached the chain that is supposed to bring it to a sudden halt just before it hits the camera. As for me, I am philosophical. Calm even. Red badge of courage etc. etc. What a trooper. All the same, $750 bucks is seeming like not really a very significant amount of money. "Start the fans!"
Our old friends the swamp boats begin their plaintive whine and I realize that HEARING the car hit the wooden ramp will not be a factor. I yell over to the stunt guy. "How do we know when to..." Then I notice his eyes. They just got big. I am still relaxed on the couch, waiting for action. Suddenly I hear someone screaming over the noise of the fans...."Here it comes!!" I turn toward the window and see headlights. Crash! Oh Mama! I do a back somersault over the couch as the car passes under my leg. I lie on the floor in the fetal position as fake glass and real wood splinters fall around me. I wait for an Indian pot or a light standard to skull me. Somebody yells. Is somebody dead? Even if they are we are supposed to stay in our positions until the camera has recorded all. Stillness. Yahoo, I am not dead and I am a macho stunt stud to boot. "Cut!" Cheers! We all stand up and there is the car, a few feet short of the final mark and a few feet to the right of the line because in my consummate professionalism I have tipped the oak table at just the right time and the Austin Healy has hit it solid. As for the table, IT has hit Doran solid. Much as we predicted it was driven forward at an alarming rate into his hip. Luckily he was padded there but he still has a week's worth of sore ass to look forward to. The stuntwoman is a bit dazed but unhurt. I see the dent where the fender hit my table and realize that if I had tipped it a microsecond later it would have glanced off the hood and most assuredly penetrated the windshield and decapitated her. Pot shards are everywhere but nobody got hit. The chain didn't break. The car stayed on line mostly. They let us watch the playback and there I am, a total ignoramus dumbly looking around just in time to haul ass. I decide that this is the stupidest thing I've done since I ate those mushrooms with the red dots.
The next day the stunt guy comes to see me in my trailer. "We've decided to give you $500 bucks, the same as everybody else." Okay, if that's the deal. Plus the $300 for Monday, that's a nice boost..."No. We're giving you $500 for EVERYTHING. The stuff the other night was action sequences, not stunts." How about what King Bull Stunt Daddy said? "He's gone back to LA." I laugh. I wonder how much the stuntman who got crushed under the chariot making Ben Hur got?
I start climbing into my wet suit. Tonight James gets impaled on a backyard satellite dish. My part consists of continuing to be dead. The shoot is almost over for me. Everyone has been most complimentary about my "work". They especially like the way I kill women. Too bad I didn't get to murder Mary Tyler Moore. THAT would have been a feather in my cap. Maybe they'll use that line I ad-libbed to Eric about "having his guts on a plate". Just one magical moment like that can break you out of the pack and put you on the fast track for fame. I remember Ned Beatty squealing like a pig in Deliverance. He once told me that was his own idea. Creativity like that does not go unrewarded. Talent will out! I think on these things as I sit on the edge of my dressing room cot awaiting the call to the set.
I can't lie down because of this knife sticking out of my back.