Antelope leapt in the wind, hovering like hooved angels; we parked the car and were shuttled to set. A newly constructed city unfolded down in the hole– big trucks, fresh roads, lights more intense than small suns and battle stations of the future. Dotting the dry ground were mannequins more genuine than some of the Hollywood heads scurrying about; clipboards in one hand, walkie-talkies crackling in the other. These people wore cowboy hats just because they were in Wyoming, but their hats were bent and shaped more Brett Michaels than Chris Ledoux. The dummies bled in various states of dismemberment. Some had legs blown off, some didn’t have heads, some had latex guts falling from their abdomens like sad faces, and others had their eyes gouged out.
A few weeks prior I answered an ad in the Cheyenne newspaper calling for extras in a sci-fi movie. Filming would occur at a place called Hell’s Half Acre, near the center of Wyoming. You couldn’t see it from the road, but it was there. Miles of scrub brush, yucca and sage suddenly drop into a hole agape by Jurassic formations a half mile wide. Down there rock resembled the surface of distant planets, Afghanistan or hell, hence the name. Caves pock-marked the stone walls; bats, rattlesnakes and other evil creatures thrived in the shadows. Above, the sky stretched forever and then rolled into itself.
Richard, my good friend, had also been hired on as an extra. Back in those days we did everything together including getting the same jobs. The producers didn’t supply shelter so we found a relative of my step dad to take us in while we were there. Extras don’t get paid well, so a hotel for an unknown amount of time was out of the question, besides, they were all full of real actors, assistants and grips. The lady we stayed with was part of the late nineties new age hippy movement. She had mental problems dancing under the flowers in her hair. The crystals in the window may have split the sun into primary colors but they obviously didn’t make one sane. She had but one rule– no drugs allowed in her house. I could live with that, I was good at hiding my drugs, usually in the blue of my blood stream.
Hungover, with less than two hours of sleep, and having just finished a four hour drive we rambled to orientation with no clue of what we were getting into. This was the same soil we were born and raised but also worlds apart. Neither of us had any acting experience except for the grainy videos we shot of ourselves on Richard’s parents VHS camera, lip-synching to the Sex Pistols or reenacting Johnny Carson monologues.
Inside a massive revival tent, Paul Verhoeven, the film’s silver-haired director, laid out his best plans in a thick Dutch accent. His films were known for sex and violence: Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Total Recall and Robo Cop. Next on the soap-box was Captain Dale Dye, a forty year Marine vet who now trained actors on how to portray realistic military operations in movies like: Platoon, Born On The Fourth of July, and later, Saving Private Ryan. He was also an actor. He looked and spoke like that asshole Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket—a granite jaw that tightened when he talked, tan skin, gray hair buzzed a half inch and a voice like a full vomit from the sternum. Rich and I were the opposite—skinny, young, out of shape smokers whimpering from our pale, asymmetrical faces. Captain Dye, in perfect cadence, explained to us that we were going to have to attend “boot camp” to get prepared for our roles. The principal actors had already done it, he said. “Don’t you fuck-ing dare call your wea-pon a gun. It is a ri-fle; it is your best friend. Every time you call it a gun I will be so far up your ass you will be shit-ting teeth for a week but first you will give me twen-ty. If your ri-fle touches the ground you will be suck-ing dirt.” If we marched out of procession we were to do push-ups. If we fucked up a scene by the camera catching a watch we forgot to take off or a pack of Marlboros in our pocket, we were to get down and hump the desolate ground. I already wanted to knock that perfectly sculpted jaw out of socket but I was intimidated by him, by the whole situation. I could barely do two push-ups, Rich could do even less. We were to learn how to take authority like real Americans, something I have never done before. I took slight comfort in the fact that I could leave anytime I wanted. Like the solace of knowing that if life gets too strenuous you could always find God or blow your brains out. It wouldn’t be the first time I took the easy way out.
Like real men in an almost real army they split us into platoons–Rich, in a different one than I. On the first and only day of boot camp Captain Dye made us run up an elephantine hill to get to our lunch waiting at the craft service trailer. Rich wasn’t very good at foot to ground contact, he tripped and hit his head on a rock; luckily he was wearing his helmet. That bulky piece of rubber may have saved his life, still he played it off. He got a free trip to the medic tent where he got to kick back in air conditioning, while the rest of us baked in the tall Wyoming sun. To this day I wonder if he fell on purpose. Possums and armadillos do it and they don’t even have the ability to reason. We all fall on purpose sometimes. It’s easier than standing all the time.
It was at least twenty degrees warmer underneath the rubber armor. Neil Patrick Harris had his own personal assistant who held a tiny fan that misted water in his face and poured Mountain Dew down his throat. We could only get water by hiking a half mile out of the hole. And we couldn’t just leave when we wanted to; we had to wait until our platoon wasn’t scheduled for a shot. Cattle had more employee rights than we did. We weren’t part of SAG, just a bunch of breathing mannequins.
Filming was scheduled at least twelve hours a day, either from 6am -6pm, or 6pm-6am. The first scene I filmed was fitting. A scene where the newly enlisted troops land on Klendathu and exit the hull of ship straight into battle screaming and shooting. We were thrown into the movies like the infantry we were playing. It had rained that morning leaving a huge puddle exactly at our mark, a six foot opening three hundred of us were to run full speed through while the camera man sat on the back of an ATV holding a steady-cam . Instead of waiting for it to dry, the crew dumped sand in it, turning it into quicksand. Twenty people were injured, mostly with twisted and broken ankles. The closest hospital was 50 miles away. I stepped on some poor sap’s face like I was fighting for a TV during black Friday at Wal-Mart. But in reality we were just soldiers on a distant planet trying to save the human race from gigantic bugs, no big deal.
Once the excitement of Hollywood wore off — about two hours in — filming became like any other job. The only good part was craft services. I ate better at that trailer than I had eaten at most Thanksgivings. If it were twelve years into the future Instagram would be on fire. It was all hurry up and wait. Waiting hours while the people with clipboards got their logistics just right; when they were finally ready you better be ready too or Captain Dye would be up your ass. He had the ability to appear from nowhere—more ninja than sixty year old man. Most of ours scenes consisted of running full bore from point A to point B, screaming at an imagined enemy or a bright green sled with tennis balls attached to it, trying not to twist our ankles on a loose rock, raising our weapons in the air like the kids in Red Dawn, but we were hell bent on killing insects instead of commies. Of course there was some sort of metaphor there, the insects really being commies or terrorists– the sudden patriotism, invading another country, the fear of an imagined enemy installed in people’s minds by Big Brother–America the proud, home of the terrified.
Kills On Top lived on a reservation not far from Hell’s Half Acre. He always had weed. I could count on him to get me high behind a rock or in a cave when we were waiting for our scene. It definitely made the long hours in the hot, cumbersome uniform more bearable. I still wonder how Captain Dye would’ve reacted if he caught us getting high. “Is that reefer on my set you maggots? Do you think this is the Battle of Bong Son?”
“We don’t have a bong sir.”
“Bong Son was a battle in Vietnam you scumbag,” he would say.
“We ain’t your sons sir.”
“Drop and give me twenty.”
“Hold my gun sir.”
Verhoven usually kept about three five second scenes for every twelve hours of filming. I stared at the poutiness of Denise Richard’s lips, she didn’t notice me, so I didn’t rush to her aid when she was nailed in the head by a falling prop and had to be air lifted out of the big hole in the ground. Jake Busey was the friendliest, or maybe it was because his teeth were so big that even if he wasn’t smiling it looked like he was. Neil Patrick Harris was still known as Doogie Howser. He wasn’t out of the closet yet and wasn’t very personable. I heard Casper Van Dien played James Dean one time but I never saw it. I wonder what he’s doing now. Is he writing about it like me? How he was the star in a big budget film in 1997?
Me and Rich didn’t show up for work a couple different days but each time they called us back. When production began they gave everyone military style haircuts and everybody had to be a certain size and in a certain age range—have a certain look, but towards the end they didn’t care if you were a felon, ugly or even if you had a pony-tail. There had been so many people injured, or people that almost died from heat stroke or people that couldn’t take the grueling hours, that they just needed bodies.
I was ready to take my way out. Driving to set one night I decided to drop a few hits of liquid LSD on my tongue. The sun was going down while I was coming up. By the time we arrived on Klendathu my senses had been kicked by wild horses and I was really flying. They planned on filming pyrotechnics that night. I realized my level of fucked- upness as soon as I stepped over the intestines of a mannequin on hell’s cold ground. Fear hopped on my back like a playful nephew and it held on. All it takes is one negative thing—a look, a word, a vibe, to turn the whole thing into a hell ride. The butter of anticipation churned in my gut and the pinnacle was approaching swiftly. The heads in cowboy hats laughed manically as they blasted multi-colored fireworks into the lonely Wyoming sky. Bats swooped down from their perch and back up again. I crawled into a tiny cave and waited for my resurrection. What looked like thousands of feet kicked up dust as they ran by; thousands of voices screaming into the bloody night. Bombs destroyed insect civilizations that were there, that I couldn’t see. It was all a show. It was all so real. Dale Dye barked orders through all of it. He was Satan in that half mile of hell. Too frightened to take another order, too frightened to sacrifice myself one more minute for this silly war, I found Rich in the melee. “Hey man, I can’t do this. They won. I can’t go on. Can we get outta’ here?” I said. He seemed bored, almost calm.
“I was waiting for you to say that. This shit sucks,” he yawned. And with that we walked the gauntlet through cameras, comrades, invisible insects, dead dummies, all while explosions tore holes in the never ending darkness of Nowhere, Wyoming. Some may call it treason to leave our brothers in arms like that, but my face was falling off. I had to calm down. War wasn’t the place to be Timothy Leary.
Rich drove me to the top of Casper, Mountain, where we literally got lost in the woods. Most of my life Richard has been there waiting while I played out my idiotic adventures. He was the anchor to my sinking ship. We watched the lights of Casper glow silent down below. Regular people with regular jobs slept in regular homes while their grass grew green out front. They wouldn’t have regrets tomorrow. They would get up and live and do it all again.
After a few hours I was calm enough to head back into civilization, back to our host’s house where drugs weren’t allowed. It was okay though, we didn’t have any drugs, they were all in my synapses sparkling like the crazy lady’s crystals in sunlight. As soon as we locked ourselves in the guest bedroom I heard her moccasins on the wood floor. She was right outside the door. The last thing I wanted to do was to talk to her. I put my finger up to my chapped lips, motioning for Rich to keep quiet. I couldn’t wait to be normal again, to go home to my regular life. I lay awake as the birds outside started singing, watching devil horns sprout from Rich’s forehead as he slept off the terror of war.
Starship Troopers was released about a year after we left Hell’s Half Acre. You can almost make out my face in the final scene–the one where we pull the Brain Bug from a cave. I’m the guy directly behind Doogie Howser, turning my head from east to west, looking for an easy way out.