I Suddenly began to realize that everybody in America is a natural-born thief. I was getting the bug myself. Sal, On the Road
I arrive at Base Camp at 9:20 AM and see Paul, Jarrod, Zach and Saunders milling around wardrobe. My outfit, which I had taken off on the rig, has magically appeared on the mainland. I change into my boxers and T-shirt in the BG trailer.
I see the guy from Fairhope again. He grabs a water out of the cooler and I notice the back of his shirt. It says “Ship-Faced.”
“I love that shirt,” I tell him, “whatsyournameagain?”
“It’s Tommy and thanks,” I notice it has OBA, the acronym for Orange Beach, on the front pocket.
I find out that Tommy is a grip and we hit it off so well that I tell him my wife Susan and I bought a lot in Fairhope and will be building a new house soon.
“Hey congratulations, that’s exciting news.” he says.
“Yeah! It is, and thanks, check it out if you can.”
Actor Joey (playing Alvin) steps down out of his trailer.
“They are filming day four raft scenes today, and I’m doing my stunt later.”
“That’s awesome!” I say, happy for that nugget of information about our scene together. He tells me about the fight scene and how he falls “like 25 feet.”
“I’m going back in my trailer to eat my breakfast burrito.”
Very little waiting yesterday, but we are making up for it today. It’s already been two hours, and I’m still here at Base Camp.
All of a sudden it’s go time and people are running around like they just stepped on a fire ant mound.
Paul, the production assistant, has two walkie talkies and two cell phones. He seems to manage them all rather nicely, and still talk to me, the person standing next to him, while we wait at the marina. Minutes later we are joined on the dock by amputee extra Zach and Stacy, who reminds me of my sister Laurie.
There are none cooler under pressure than make up and wardrobe. I call them out because they are the people responsible for transforming me from a fake leg-wearing amputee into a humble, Skivvies-wearing sailor whose stump has been shredded into something completely foreign, even to its owner. Stacy, the silicone wonder, Amber my oiler and Dawn patrol guru, and Melody my sunburner and eye blackener all work together to bring me, and many other extras, as director Mario says, “near death.”
Prop man comes by and tries dropping a set of dog tags over my head again. The opening is much smaller and I have to pull and wiggle them over my head.
Lillian is tying a tourniquet around my thigh.
“Mmmmmm,” she says looking at a picture of me on her phone from the day before. “This one’s shorter.” She walks away and then quickly comes back with my denim rag prop.
“Today is Day 4 in the rafts and we act on the direction that we spot a plane, then see a plane dropping supplies, and finally watch the seaplane in the air that will later land and rescue us. FYI: There are no planes we can see flying, but there would be if we ask Siri to find “planes overhead.”
In the Water
Our group is down from ten people and three rafts to 5 people and two rafts.
I’m in the same raft with Joey, Nic, and Marley but I’m shlumped over the opposite side of the life raft with my back to the two guys who have lines. Jarrod is solo in the smaller raft.
There is time between takes. The extras are silent as Nic and Alvin talk about acting, makeup, movies, etc. Alvin recommends a book called Wanderer, (by Sterling Hayden) and Nic says he’s interested in it. I want to say ‘I’m a librarian, and I’m interested in that book too,’ but because of my status as an extra and physical position in the raft facing away from them, I keep quiet.
I relax between takes, and though I’m mostly in the water I lean my back against the side of the raft and look over at my raft mates Joey, Nic, and Marley, the director’s son who is sitting beside me. I’m not the kind to get star struck, Nic’s just another guy in the boat who gets the lines and the most camera face time. Plus Mario is a great motivator, very supportive, and always positive with the actors and extras. Mario’s ability to empathize with actors makes him an actors’ director. Between takes there is a lot of talk about “close-ups,” “wide angles,” and “camera speed.”
The Zodiac comes by several times with Nic’s make up person. She is touching him up during the time between takes.
Mario on the bullhorn, “Thanks for your patience guys. We’re changing the camera battery.”
I notice a pattern on the water’s surface a few yards away indicating a school of fish. Does anyone else notice the fish swimming all around the rafts?
With all these fish swimming around us, I wonder if we are being served up to the Gulf Coast sharks as lunch. Later on, one of the special effects guys says the rig is surrounded by an electromagnetic pulse, kind of like an electronic fence that keeps your dog in the yard. The sharks don’t like the pulse so they stay away, in theory.
I point as an osprey pulls a fish out of the sea, gripping it within his talons.
“Check it out.” Just as I say it, the fish falls back to the sea. As Alvin and Nic look over, Nic says, “What kind of bird is that?”
“It’s an osprey,” I say, “some people call them sea hawks.”
We watch the bird fly north, toward shore, and out of sight.
“There are bald eagles around here too,” I blurt out.
“At the beach?” Nic asks. Is he trying to Stump the Librarian?
“Not sure about here, but definitely in Mobile Bay, and all across the Delta,” I say.
“I didn’t know that. I thought they were only in the northwest, like Alaska,” Nic adds.
“Well, I think they’ve made a resurgence here and all around the country.”
Marley, pushes me on the right shoulder, and points up above the rig. All eyes look up to see the osprey land on the top of the crane, settle his wings, and start scanning the Gulf looking for his next catch.
We shoot two scenes, with everyone “near death.” For every take, I’m facing away from my raft mates, stump resting on the side, and right arm and shoulder draped over the side of the raft.
Nic and Joey are talking about what to do this weekend. They are staying in Mobile.
“You should visit my hometown, Fairhope, across the bay,” I tell them. They stare at me, like they’ve never heard of it.
“It’s a nice walkable downtown and it’s great for families too,” I add, sounding like the Chamber of Commerce.
“Picture’s up.” I hear. I say to myself, ‘Saved by the megaphone.’
“Rolling, Rolling.” I settle into my sideways position and instead of tensing up, I relax, rest my head on my blue denim rag, and feel the sea roll beneath me. I close my eyes just as the camera enters my peripheral vision, and remember the method to this madness is “near death.”
On the Rig
Mario comes by after conferring with Saunders, points at me and says, “Your wrapped.”
“Am I gonna’ live?” I ask.
“Are you gonna live?” Mario smiles and then starts laughing, “That’s funny.” Now I’m smiling. Everyone around is all EF Hutton, listening. People on the rig resort to observation, eavesdropping, snooping, and general skullduggery to find out WTF is going on. It turns out nobody knows WTF is going on, so I continue to press the only one who actually knows what’s going on, Mario.
“Seriously, I’m not being philosophical, I’m being literal. I want to know if my character dies.”
“You’re still here aren’t you?” Mario says, and keeps on walking, but I still don’t have an answer.
He and Saunders speak privately a few feet away. Saunders comes over and says, “You should get a callback for Monday.”
While sitting in Video Village next to Bama, a main character, who is getting make-upped, producer Richard Rionda Del Castro introduces us to a woman who is the grandchild of a USS Indianapolis survivor. I learn later from a Channel 5 interview that Bama’s late grandfather was also a survivor. The granddaughter, turns her phone toward us and flicks through pictures of her granddad, in uniform, on board the ship, and posing in Hawaii with a hula girl. Just as I notice how tall he looks, she says, “He was six feet, five inches.” She mentions, in a lighter moment, the Navy being know for its low narrow doorways, and how he always had to “duck.”
She gives Bama, Richard, and myself a personal detail of what helped him survive in the water.
“He held a potato in his hand the whole time.” I look down at my own hand, imagine a potato, ‘That’s all he had to hold onto.’
Grateful to hear such a personal and moving story, I think to myself, ‘Alan, the leg not only takes you places it puts you in the right place too.’ I thank her for sharing the details and the photos with us, and Bama says, “We just want this movie to honor the men and tell their story.”
Back to Base Camp
On the boat ride back Melody and I sit next to each other on the bench in front of the captain. A rogue wave hits the bow of Tony’s boat sending a wall of water at us just seconds after I put Melody’s phone in my plastic Ziploc baggie. Having a cell phone on set is another item on the extras don’t list. As an amputee, it’s another thing I can actually do, or, at least get away with. Yesterday, I took a picture of my stump under the table, so I have a record of Stacy’s fantastic work.
Taking off my wardrobe, I grab for the dog tags and notice the name. E. B. Sledge. Of all the dog tags in the props department, I get the pair that belong to a man whose son still lives in Fairhope. Up until a few years ago, John Sledge wrote a book column for the Mobile Press Register that avid readers, librarians, and lovers of literature read religiously. I’ve only met John a few times, but he’s a well-known and much respected author in Lower Alabama. Anyway, his father’s memoir, With the Old Breed: At Peliliu and Okinawa is the basis for the HBO series The Pacific, and probably the reason the props department for this film has a set of his dog tags. The actor who played him in that series, Joseph Mazzello, probably wore these very same dog tags. When I saw the name, I suddenly felt humbled and very proud at the same time. Humbled by the actions and respectful of his writings and of all the World War II service men and women. (Stump the Librarian recommends, And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II, by Evelyn Monahan.)
I walk into to a trailer to do paperwork so I can get paid, and who do I meet? Cam, the screenplay writer. It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. It doesn’t hurt that I’ll talk to just about anybody. I guess that’s the journalist in me. I’m curious about people, and want to find out their stories. These traits serve me pretty well at Fairhope Public Library too. I tell Cam I’m an essayist and blogger with an MFA from Spalding University. He talks about writing and character and how the screenplay for the film was developed, using several sources including In Harms Way. He explains that the story is “inspired by” true events and many of the secondary characters are composites from actions and experiences of survivors. Cam reminds me a bit of Woody Allen, with his rectangular framed lenses and his fine wavy hair. As he’s leaning forward to read his green copy of the shooting script, I notice he’s constantly sweeping the hair away from his eyes and face.
“So you’re the script writer and the script doctor?” I ask, as I notice him making notations on the script in his hands.
“Yeah. I’m working on adding a scene that we had removed back into the script.”
He asks, “Are you an actor?”
“No, I’m an amputee,” I say, and I laugh at that since it’s obvious.”When they did a call for amputees I auditioned as an extra with Mario and Tim, one of the producers.” Cam asks about my impression of it all.
“Oh it’s been a great experience and a great opportunity to check off the bucket list.”
“I need to thank Mario for using actual amputees in his movie, instead of just green screening everything.”
“Mario’s awesome and it was 100 percent his idea to use actual amputees to film some scenes.”
“It was great talking to you Cam.”
“You too, Alan.”
On the Road
On the drive home, I feel physically and mentally exhausted. After a ten-hour day, an hour and a half in the water, we probably shot less than two minutes of film that will be in the final cut of the movie. My mind starts to wander, drift really, so I pull over for a minute and close my eyes. I see the osprey, so majestic and strong, dropping his catch again. I begin to wonder if the osprey is becoming my albatross.