At some point long ago, it became a goal of mine to be on a movie set that had at least one giant explosion. I had absolutely no idea how I was going make this happen, and for the most part it was filed away along with my other “wouldn’t it be cool” fantasies.
Fast forward a few years to late summer, 2009. I was living in Austin, underemployed, and trying to pick up every bar shift I could to make ends meet. I knew that there’d recently been a casting call for Robert Rodríguez’s Machete, so I asked a friend who worked for a local talent agency to put a feeler out for me. She made one phone call on my behalf, and just like that, I was on the call sheet as an extra for the rest of the week. I guess it really is “who you know.”
Shortly after getting the news that I had the gig, a production assistant called me and explained that the first day would be a big political rally, held outdoors. She gave me a standard wardrobe request: no patterns, no logos, no bright colors and at least two full changes of clothes. The next morning, I was outside a church in downtown Austin at 5:30 am, waiting in line to check-in. After a second check-in and some more waiting, they called all extras to the set.
We were led to the capital building, which meant that cops were on hand to re-route traffic throughout the day. I quickly realized the logistical nightmares productions like this can create.
The scene that day involved a speech by Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro) and ended in a botched assassination attempt. After waiting on the sidelines, I was given my spot in the crowd — close to the podium, where DeNiro’s body-double had been standing for the better part of an hour. “The most exciting day of your life is your first day on a movie set,” he enthusiastically called to us. “The most boring day of your life is your second day on a movie set.”
We shot a number of takes, with DeNiro’s double miming a speech while someone in the crew called out lines to get the various reactions they needed. Then, we had to cower and scramble for a few takes, as if someone had just opened fire on the rally. After that, there was a close-up shot of a squib going off on a stuntman’s leg, followed by a few more takes of the extras scurrying for cover.
Finally, DeNiro emerged — the Godfather himself. He stepped to the podium and gave his speech two-and-a-half times. Next, they shot a couple quick takes of him limping off stage (as if he’s just been shot in the leg) while escorted by Secret Service agents. In the movie, he speeds off in a limo. Given that it was DeNiro’s last scene to shoot, I’ve always wondered if that limo kept going all the way to Austin-Bergstrom International.
When everything was put together, along with some scenes from the original Grindhouse trailer, it ended up looking like this.
The rest of my time as an extra took place on the Troublemaker Studios lot up in North Austin, which had been dressed to look like the home base for what was they called “a redneck militia.” It wasn’t all rednecks though, Predators was filming at the same time, so part of the set had a much different look. Days would alternate between the milling around in the background (or foreground) of scenes, and huge set pieces with groups of extras pretending to fight.
These big battle scenes came with little direction. We were simply told to “pair up and fight.” We ended up throwing together some amateur fight choreography, though — after all, we were making a movie and everyone was damned excited to be a part of it.
There were a few explosions during the shoot, and they were all treated much more casually than I’d imagined. At random times, we’d be told things like “stay away from this barrel, we’re blowing it up in a few minutes.” On camera, we’d carry weapons made of rubber and plastic while the stunt coordinators would run around firing blanks. Off camera, they’d teach us how to fall like we’d been shot and how to land without getting hurt. This came in especially handy during this scene.
I do have to admit to feeling some disappointment when I asked about squibs and was told that all our blood was going to be added digitally in post-production.
One day, near the end of the shoot, we ended early (after an 8 hour day as opposed to the expected 12). As we gathered to get signed out, a PA pulled me aside and asked my exact height. Apparently I gave the answer she was looking for, and she urged me to stick around for another couple of shots.
Agreeing to stay, I reported to the wardrobe truck, which was literally a semi-trailer full of costumes. There I was dressed in a cowboy hat and suit and discovered that DeNiro’s body double was nowhere to be found. I was going to be subbing for him. A stand-in for a stand-in. Suddenly, I’d gone from being herded around to being called by my first name. It was a mini-taste of stardom.
The scene we’d be shooting had Senator McLaughlin (DeNiro) going on a “ride-along” to the US/Mexico border. In reality, it was some undeveloped land just south of the studio. DeNiro had shot his part of the scene weeks earlier — now they’d be filming the same scene with the cameras on Don Johnson, with yours truly playing McLaughlin from behind.
As we got ready to shoot, DeNiro’s real body double arrived and I was out of luck. Still, I was asked to stick around “just in case.” We were both sent back to wardrobe to for another costume change before shooting. By the time I finally got home, after an 18-hour day, I was able to catch the sunrise.
On the very last day, a handful of us were asked to stay a little longer once again, “just in case.” We were brought to an interior set, a refreshing change, before another PA came around and gave us Xeroxed photocopies of a thank you note from Danny Trejo, written on official Machete stationary (he really is the greatest guy ever).
Once we were cleared to go, they invited us to stay and watch them blow up a house, the final shot needed for the movie. I hung for awhile…but as more time passed, with no clear indication as to when they were going to blow up the house, I decided to duck out and head home. I’d been around enough explosions by that point.