Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Transformers -- My First Film

One day, I was an Air Force Lieutenant stationed at Holloman AFB. I was a flight commander for a transportation flight at BEAR base. BEAR is the Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resources capability of the Air Force. Basically, BEAR is all the tents, equipment, generators and vehicles needed to take any location in the world with an existing runway and a source of drinkable water and generate aircraft sorties (take off and landing) within 72 hours. Within 21 days we could have 2000 people eating soft serve ice cream at the chow hall. I was basically happy with life. I was doing important work and had a wonderful wife and daughter.

However, on this one day in question, CMSgt McNichols announced at our morning staff meeting that a film crew was coming through the base to talk about a little film called "Prime Directive". They were scouting OUR site as a potential location for the movie. The Chief and I had butted heads on a few things recently and were starting to communicate better so I went up to her after the meeting. I told her that I had done theater in college and would love to come along.

She and I leaped into a golf cart and met the film crew at the front gate to our compound (BEAR is a base within a base). To our surprise, the crew was lead by Michael Bay! We escorted him around the base showing him what we could offer. We had aircraft hangars, HMMWVs, tents of all sizes and, of course personnel. The main thing I kept repeating is that he could use any of it as long as he didn't blow it up.

Our salesmanship must have worked, because, "Prime Directive" came to Holloman with a vengeance. In January of 2006, the art department (the talented Beat Frutiger) and locations folks (Michael Burmeister, Kate Chase and Emre Somnez) were everywhere and I was one of 4 people on the base responsible for coordinating their efforts. Mike, Kate, Emre and I quickly decided that what we did (them for film and me for the Air Force) was basically the same stuff. We had a blast together. I also quickly figured out, through the use of imdb, that "Prime Directive" was code for "Transformers".

I did so much behind the scenes, all in an attempt to support what the Air Force termed the biggest PR event of the year for the service. My mission was maximum support with zero liability to our mission and zero financial impact to the taxpayer. Fortunately, our civil engineers needed practice setting up tents and AM2 matting (think of lego style runway). Our vehicles all needed to be exercised every month (driven for 30 minutes...War Reserve Materiel is saved for emergencies and thus isn't driven much stateside). Any work that needed to be done that we couldn't pull of during duty hours or write off as much needed training had to be done AFTER hours on the film crews dime. Also, any work that involved our vehicles and stuff had to be done by our people.

I coordinated all the labor scheduling, payroll paperwork, hiring and employment of the military crew that was working for art and special effects to make things happen. I got a shop space we weren't effectively using cleared out so the FX guys could have a place to work. Joey DiGeatano and Steve Galich were fantastic to work with. Here I was hanging out with two guys responsible for effects on films like "Blade Runner" and "Beastmaster". When you work with Bay, your resume is liable to be impressive as hell. Their imdb resumes read like a hot list of every badass film ever made. Great guys too.

Where I ended up getting on to the big screen was helping with locations casting. Our compound was secure so we wanted military people as extras (all the guys shooting at Blackout and then running for their lives). Also, anyone driving the vehicles had to be our kids. That basically put me in the casting department. One day, the lovely Sally Jackson and I ran into each other at lunch. She was in charge of locations casting. She told me they had a role they wanted to place a military guy in and they had read 30+ people with no success. I told her I had done theater in college and she asked "Why haven't I had you into read yet?". "I don't know, why haven't you?" was my rapid response.

The next afternoon I was doing my first audition for a film. Sally was worried aboout me being nervous. She gave me the sides and told me to prep as much as I needed. I worked them for a couple of minutes and then was ready to rock. We went behind closed doors. She was more nervous for me than I was. She told me we could do as many tries as I wanted. After the first one, she jumped straight on the phone and I heard her say, "We have an actor."

After that, the ball was rolling. My first acting gig was to get suited up as a potential stand-in for one of the spec ops team that follows Duhamel around the film. I got to suit up in Crye Multicam when it was in it's infancy of coolness and all the other gear, jump on a private plane with a bunch of REAL former operators and fly to Farmington NM and Shiprock for the FIRST day of shooting. Tyrese Gibson couldn't make it due to some exhaustion from shooting a music video (WTF?). Of course, that's not who I was going to stand in for. As a matter of fact, when we got there, the other guy got picked. I did get to be there for the first day of shooting, play with the gear and even learned how to REALLY hold a handgun (non-Weaver) for the first time. I learned that I couldn't pop the top of a beer bottle like a badass special ops guy...that a badass Navy SEAL could choke you out with your own collar in seconds and that when you're a big name actor it's okay to be an absolute pansy.

Next up, was a night shoot where a bunch of Army guys are running through a tank graveyard (in the movie they are supposed to be working models) as stuff explodes all around them. It's the scene in the movie where Skorpinok shows up. We discovered a problem that first night. Apparently, the AF safety morons had taken a regulation about explosives and applied it to the movie explosives (which are designed NOT to hurt people). No military personnel were allowed within 75 METERS of the explosions. Michael was pissed. He had to find the non-military folks to get up close to do the badass stuff.

The next day, I found our Vice Wing Commander and told him our safety guys were making us look like a bunch of pussies. He went back, chewed some ass and the next night we were right up on the bang bangs. I'm one of the dudes, running in the background in that scene from burning flying tanks.

So, after a failed attempt at a stand-in and a rocking couple of nights as an extra (they forgot 5 of us one night and went to lunch without walk), my call came. From what I gather, Sally stood in front of Bay and told him, without tape of me or proof that I could do anything that I was the one they needed for the role in the SOCCENT HQ. He was skeptical, but when he found out I was the one that got the safety rule overturned, he hired me on the spot. Here I was going into my first film role ever...being directed by Michael Bay!

First day of filming was great. I got to meet Glenn Morshower. At this point, I had never seen 24, and Glenn is one of those guys you recognize from everything, but isn't uber-famous (though more talented than most that are). Charlie Bodin (the other speaking actor in the scene), Glenn and I had a couple adventures.

The first day, Glenn took the opportunity to mentor both Charlie and me on the joys of acting. This was one of the most important moments (for better or worse) in setting me on the crazy road I am on. Glenn put on a DVD of his spoken word tour "The Extra Mile" and would stop it for us to elaborate and answer questions. The next day, I picked Charlie and Glenn up in my beater Ford Aspire and we drove up to Inn of the Mountain Gods in Ruidoso, where I learned that Glenn talking craps was like listening to a foreign language. Charlie was a bit manlier than I was when it came to gambling and could hang with poker. I...played the slots. High roller.

On set that first day was amazing. They had built the whole building we were in from the ground up. I found out later, that facebook pall Matt Orsman and his crew designed all the badass video screens we were looking at. It was great.

The first crazy thing that happened was that I noticed Charlies stripes were for a SrA and not a Staff Sergeant. Wardrobe fixed it (go military advisor). Next up, Mr. Bay through my sides out and gave me all new lines that I wrote on a post-it. My line "A friend of mine was on that chopper" was all Bay. Then, Mike wanted me to tell someone at the other end of the room to "go check the mainframe". I asked him "Who?" and he said "That lady". My response, "I can't do that Mike". Got a great WTF look from that. "Why not?". The person he pointed to was a Major and I was a Petty Officer First Class. There was a rank issue with me being directive. He then told me to go check the mainframe. Not all of my lines made the film, but the good stuff did. It was enough.

The next day (after gambling) was the stunt stuff. They had rigged up a 10000lb weight pulley system to literally rip the sheet metal roof off the building. Huge fans and smoke machines would add to the badassery of the moment.

The first craziness of the day was when Mike ordered that Charlie and I be put into make-up as if we had been blasted by the glass from the control tower that we were never in. We protested...mildly, but got the pro make-up treatment...which rocked. When we got to set, Bay took one look at us and then had us taken out of the make-up. Good times.

Second, when we got to set, Michael tole me to go back to my desk. I reminded him that I had been down by the mainframe (where the action was) and he put me back down there. Mind you, that the whole group of people beside Glenn, Charlie and me was totally different...marking Bay's statement "Continuity is for sissies". He's right, by the way. I can't even notice it in the film.

Standing down by the mainframe, the first AD comes out to brief us about what is going to happen. Turns out, my whole side of the room had been replaced by stunt folks. The AD asked me to move forward (away from the coolness). However, the camera guy and I had worked out our pacing so I wouldn't kill him. When the AD was distracted, I eased back even further than I had been before. The stunt guys were snickering about my madness.

The effects/stunt folks then explained the gag and said we should "act natural". Let me tell you, when they dropped that weight, the roof ripped off, papers blew everywhere, strobes went off, smoke everywhere and the stunt guys yelling with lights swinging everywhere...there was nothing TO ACT BUT NATURAL! Holy crap! I nearly killed the camera guy. It was amazing.

After that...I was wrapped. All my buddies who had been on the film were all excited, but hearing the words "wrapped" were like being stabbed in the chest with a knife. I was lost. My wife had taken my daughter to visit her parents (I was working 18 hour days for 2 weeks) and I was all alone struggling with depression. This couldn't be it. I snuck back onto the set at 3AM and smoked a cheap cigar while I contemplated my fate. Finally, I came to the conclusion that nothing said I had to quit doing this. I decided that night that I was going to be an actor.

There are a few stories I am forgetting. We had a blast in the desert heat, building the AM2 basketball court for Tyrese to play ball on. Josh Duhamel was a class act coming up and sitting with the troops/extras and striking up conversations. Zack Ward and I shared stories about growing up in bowling alleys while we were at the cast/crew bowling party on base. I got an Air Force Achievement Medal for all the work I did on the film. I made the mistake of turning down a chance to be a locations manager on huge films because I wanted to be able to act more. I'm sure I'll remember more as soon as I publish this.

What I want to leave this section with is a few things I learned:

1.) "Transformers" didn't make me as an actor. I thought, at the time, that it was a silver bullet. I thought I was going to be able to do 100s of films because of it. It was a weird way to start a film career and I had unrealistic expectations.

2.) I badgered some important folks until they probably never want to hear from me again. In particular I had a brief email trail going with Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Being an idiot and totally self-absorbed in my own success I think I asked for or expected things, instead of just dropping a line and having a conversation. I wasn't rude...I was probably needy. People like Lorenzo have EVERYONE bugging them for a role or a chance. Don't be that guy. Be creative. Be you. Don't be a beggar and realize that EVERYONE bugs these guys for a chance at success.

3.) Glenn Morshower is an incredible human being and teacher. If you can make it to his "Extra Mile" even, GO!

4.) Working behind the scenes can lead to things in front of the screen. Don't be afraid to put in as a PA or to do stuff like extra work. Getting close can give you opportunities that not being there at all will never get you.

5.) My special skill of being in the military got my film career going. Had nothing to do with my college time as an actor (though that prepped me and was a conversation starter). The key thing that got me in the door on all of this was that I had joined the military.

For cool Transformers pics, friend me on facebook and find the album here:

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