The Crazies: Anything To Get In Pictures (St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Aug 24/1980/US) By Jeff Meyers



Somewhere in the sludge beneath the city of St. Louis I was waiting to make my screen debut as an extra in a Big Budget Hollywood Movie. On cue from director John Carpenter, I was supposed to crawl out of a manhole and race across a street. In the meantime, I was sure, homicidal rats, brown recluse spiders and maybe even mutant alligators were getting ready to chew on my toenails.

Although romantics would be hard-pressed to see the glamour in the situation. I was loving every minute of it. Dressed in rags made from burlap, my sandals mired in the muck at my feet, my face greased with Vaseline, I knew I was the envy of everybody who would kill for a bit part in a Big-Budget Hollywood Movie. And who wouldn't? We all yearn for magic in out lives, and everything connected with movies conveys a sense of adventure and fantasy, an escape from the drudgery of everyday existence.

Movies have a powerful hold on our society, and Hollywood has even more clout than the National Football League. St. Louis was picked as the setting for the movie because, at night, it supposedly resembles parts of New York. But before Carpenter would film here, he had to be assured of cooperation from the city, and he managed to do what is often impossible even for the mayor. He got the Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Streets and National Guard to work in harmony.

Nobody else could have come into town and said, "Well, we want to rope off a few blocks of choice downtown real estate, burn up an airplane, litter the pavement with the twisted remains of wrecked cars, light fires on the sidewalks, land a couple of Huey combat helicopters in the middle of the garment district and send dozens of maniac-looking weirdos running through the streets."

But all Carpenter had to do was mention one word, "movie." and everybody jumped at the chance to become involved. Including me.

When I was offered an opportunity to be an extra in Escape From New York, I didn't have to sit down and try to come to a rational decision. Even though I knew I'd have to work from dusk to dawn, even though I knew I'd spend most of the time waiting for something to happen. I agreed immediately to take the part. It wasn't that I needed the
$25. I think I would have paid them for the experience of working on a Big-Budget Hollywood Movie, and most of the other extras felt the same way.

Sixteen of us met in front of the YMCA on Locust Street. We were hired to play "Crazies," psychotic prisoners who live underground in 1997 Manhattan, which, according to the script, has become a walled prison after the "war" between the "United States Police Force" and the criminal element. In the movie, Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) is coerced into rescuing the president of the United States, whose airplane has been hijacked to Manhattan. Under Carpenter's direction, the movie is being filmed as a futuristic adventure with dark, Gothic overtones.

Escape From New York is the biggest, most expensive movie ever filmed in St. Louis. Reportedly, it is budgeted at about
$10 million. In the last couple of years, three movies - Delirium, Stingray and Stuckey's Last Stand - were produced here, but they were low-budget films, none of them costing more than $1 million. Nor did any of them have a director with a reputation like the one Carpenter enjoys after Halloween and The Fog.

Waiting from the wardrobe truck to arrive, the extras sat around and got to know each other. A few of them were local actors looking for a credit and maybe a big break. Some, like me, were amateurs who saw the movie as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be immortalized on film and, more important, to see firsthand how the magic is done. A couple were on unemployment, sent down to the set by the Missouri Division Of Employment Security, and needed the money. They were the ones who viewed the occasion cynically, and perhaps realistically.

"We won't get out of here until 6 in the morning." one of them said, "and most of the time we won't be doing nothing."

"I do that real well," someone else said.

Before we were given our costumes, we had to sign a release allowing Slam Dunk Productions (Carpenter is a basketball freak) to use our pictures, names and voices in advertising and marketing. Signing the document made it official - we were in the movies. Maybe we didn't expect Slam Dunk to market dolls in our likeness we shared the feeling that we had joined an exclusive club.

When the wardrobe truck pulled up, a man named Dick began unloading carts filled with pieces of costumes. As the accompanying photograph shows, I was put in something like a Charles Dickens street urchin. Last used for the movie Camelot, the costumes originally were designed for medieval peasants and riffraff. It is Carpenter's intent to show a futuristic society that has gone off the edge and reverted to the bad old days.

Encased in leggings, blousey shirts, vests, gloves and scarfs. I was wearing layers of itchy, hot burlap on a sticky summer night; the movie obviously doesn't take place in the summer. Not knowing then that I would wind up my movie career in a sewer, I was most worried about whether I would scratch myself to death. The Vaseline applied to my face in the makeup trailer made me feel even more sleazy.

After we were properly costumed and given our weapons at the prop truck (I got a rubber sickle), casting director Pegi Brotman, who was in charge of the extras, called Carpenter over and introduced him. Carpenter, looking younger than his 39 years, has longish brown hair and a mustache and was dressed in a striped T-shirt, blue jeans with patches and running shoes. There is something very peaceful about him, and his presence on the set evokes a mellow, laid-back feeling.

Carpenter reviewed us casually, not like some Army general checking out the troops. Smiling, he said, "Good-looking group of Crazies... I bet you're glad it's not hot tonight." Everybody laughed, easing the tension that had been brewing inside us. Carpenter, obviously, did not want any nervous rookie extras cluttering up a scene.

As we were escorted to the set by Pegi Brotman, the temperature was more than 90 degrees - at 9 o'clock at night - and summer heat lightning was crackling in the sky. In just a couple of hours, the clouds would open up and the set would be hit with a series of violent thunderstorms, but now the streets around St. Charles and 18th were buzzing with activity. More than 100 people worked diligently to create the lighting, sound and look that Carpenter wanted.

Technicians stepped gingerly over heavy electrical wires, and assistant directors talked loudly into walkie-talkie in an attempt to coordinate all the activity. A prop man walked on the set and kicked a hubcap a few feet to his left. A few minutes later another prop man walked out and kicked it a few feet the other way. Everyone had a sense of purpose, except the extras. Until the filming began, we were excess baggage, herded to a lighted corner of the set and told to stay put.

Probably the most frustrating part of taking part in a Big-Budget Hollywood Movie was being an extra. Although Slam Dunk seemed to make every effort to be pleasant, accommodating and respectful toward the extras, it was obvious that we were the lowest form of life on the set, mindless humanoids who could take only the most simple directions. On less friendly sets, I thought, any extra seen fraternizing with the crew is probably cheerfully beaten to a pulp.

I felt totally out of it, a helpless creature who wasn't capable of functioning without being told where to go, what to do and how to do it. I was an uninformed spectator instead of a participant. While everybody else knew what was going on, the extras were kept in the dark. If anything was going to happen, we'd be the last to know.

Carpenter was getting ready to film a scene when the rain came. The storm was so intense and unrelenting that the set was thrown into confusion. The second unit was called in from a downtown location and it was discovered that an extra was missing. The other extras were scattered all over the set, trying to stay dry. Ms. Brotman was attempting to round us up, and she was not having much luck. To this day, nobody is quite sure if the missing extra ever showed up. One theory is that someone hung him in the wardrobe truck by mistake and drove him back to Hollywood.

At midnight, with the rain still falling. Carpenter decided to break for dinner. A Big-Budget Hollywood Movie doesn't cut corners. Instead of sending out for fried chicken and hamburgers, Slam Dunk had the shooting catered by Roscoe's of Hollywood, reportedly at $7 a head. Roscoe drove his portable kitchen to St. Louis and prepared such tasty delight as trout meuniere and roast prime rib. But the extras weren't banished to the salad bar. We got to eat what the stars ate.

The rain let up after dinner, and I was sent out with the second unit to film a car chase at 22nd and Locust. Someone noticed a wino sleeping in an abandoned car on a lot that was to be used in the scene. Despite the commotion - fires blazing three feet away, cars squealing across the lot, bright lights lighting up the gray sky, chemical smoke pouring past him - the wino woke up only once, peered out the window and went back to sleep. He was the only person I saw that night who didn't care about being in the movies.

I was supposed to sit in the back seat of a car during the chase scene, but the light rain turned into the deluge and shooting was haltered. We waited for more than an hour until Debra Hill, the producer, called production assistant Geoff Ryan on the walkie-talkie, and told him to bring everybody back to the set. That was it, I thought. I'd never get to go before the cameras.

The extras were huddled under the roof of a loading dock at 16th and St. Charles. Soaking wet, tired, demoralized, bathed in the soft yellow glow of the street lights, they looked like a defeated army waiting at the depot for a train to nowhere. None of us had been in a shot yet, and we all felt that opportunity was slipping through our moist fingers.

But the deluge ended long enough for Carpenter to film a couple of scenes. Everybody hustled out to the set. Lights came to life, throwing ominous shadows into an alley. It was decided that they'd shoot the Crazies coming out of manholes. A plastic-and-wood manhole cover was substituted for the real thing and a ladder was lowered into the sewer. Jeff Chernov, another second assistant director, picked me to be the first Crazy out of the hole.

"You're a star," an envious extra said.

First assistant director Larry Franco showed me how to raise the fake manhole cover and make it seem as though it weighed 100 pounds. Then two other extras climbed down the ladder ahead of me. I went in and pulled the cover over the hole, sealing us off from the outside world. The three of us were jammed inside, waiting for Carpenter to yell "action." We rehearsed the scene once and then did two takes.

"Nice job, Crazies!" Carpenter shouted after we finished.

I finally left the set at 6:30 a.m. It was was light in St. Louis, and I should have been exhausted, but I was feeling unusually vibrant. And why not? I had taken part in a Big-Budget Hollywood Movie and, I hoped, I wouldn't wind up on the cutting-room floor.