“As a kid, I used to do stupid stuff like jump off a roof onto a mattress. I’d put a sheet over my head and pretend I was skydiving. The sheet didn’t do shit. It didn’t catch any air. I went down like a rock and boink, I’d bounce off the ground. That’s where I learned how to roll and tuck and fall.”
Speaking is Brayden Hawk, 40, stunt coordinator, stuntman, movie extra.. .we’ll get to the rest in a minute. Hawk is large. I don’t mean fat; there is little fat on him. I mean large. He has a large oval face, large ears, large shoulders, large chest, large legs, and large feet. His six feet several inches of body does not measure as remarkably large, but when he stands near you, LARGE is what you feel.
Hawk is clean-shaven, has shoulder-length auburn hair, which on this day is tied back by a paisley black-and-white bandanna. He is wearing a black T-shirt, military camouflage pants, and black boots. Mr. Hawk’s wardrobe is rounded out by a blue varsity jacket with an image of a Panavision movie camera on its back. Above the camera,
“STUNT COORDINATOR” is sewn in big red letters, while below the camera, smaller in size and sewn in white thread, is the logo “DIE TRYING Productions.”
We are sitting on green plastic chairs in the diminutive backyard of a 1920s triplex located on First Avenue near Hillcrest. Hawk has the rear apartment. What follows is a sifting of six hours of interviews carried out here, in a restaurant, while walking around a flea market, and over the telephone.
“If I found a mattress in an alley, I’d drag it home.” Hawk smiles. “My mom used to get mad, because I’d bring all this stuff back to my makeshift stunt ranch I had going. Or I’d hide mattresses down the street and when I wanted to do stuff, I’d pull them out and find a building to jump off.
“I got trash bags, filled them with soft trash, tied the bags into a knot, stacked the bags, and threw a blanket over them. Anything to make the fall softer. My neighbor had an old Plymouth. It was a piece of crap. It was all banged up, beat to hell, rusty. He didn’t care. He let me run my bicycle into the side of his car and I’d fly over the hood. I did it just to see what it was like. When I got older, me and a bunch of friends would pool our money, buy an old beater for a few hundred bucks, take it out in the middle of nowhere, and roll it.”
Sounds like fun. “Sounds like fun.”
“At the time, we didn’t know about a roll cage or harnesses or a cell tank. See, you don’t want to use a whole gas tank full of fuel. A small fuel cell keeps everything compact, so when you do the crash, fuel doesn’t pour all over. In those days, we just wanted to see how many times we could roll. We’d take turns. We’d crash, flip, say to each other, ‘Hey, it runs. Let’s fire it up and do it again.’ ”
“I assume this occurred during high school.” Hawk’s face is blank. “How did you like high school?”
“I left early. Went to racing motorcycles. Later, I got my high school diploma. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’m having fun. I’m chasing chicks. I’m traveling. I’m making it up as I go.
“I was never into sports, even though I’ve done Chargers commercials. I’ve watched some sports. I’ve watched the Chargers play, for example. But my interests were motocross, off-road driving, flying, skydiving, jet-skiing, and scuba diving. I never went to high school sporting events or school dances. I was at home working on my minibike or go-cart. I used to race go-carts.”
“How about college?”
“I went to different training things. I graduated police officers’ standard training to become a cop. But then, after I graduated and got my certificate to be an officer, I quit and went back into the movie industry.”
I note a jump through time. “When was that?” “In the early ’90s.” Make that a big jump through time. “You said ‘back into.’ When was your first contact with movies?” “In the ’80s. Like ’83, ’82. I worked as an extra.”
“Where were you living?” He’s going to say Hollywood.
“Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach.”
“Did you know somebody in the movie business?”
“No, I knew where they were shooting. It was a low-budget movie, or maybe it was a made-for-video movie. They were shooting near Manhattan Beach. I...just...kind...of...was there and walked onto the set.”
“I became a background actor, an extra. I played a beach bum. I was running on the beach, behind some people who were talking. That was my scene.”
Not a bad afternoon for a 23-year-old kid. “How much were you paid?”
“I don’t remember. Whatever was standard at the time, and they probably gave us munchies to eat. The whole thing lasted one day. That was my first job in the industry. They were shooting a lot of shows back then. Whatever they were shooting, I would happen to drop by.”
“Would you see a story in a newspaper,‘So-and-So is shooting here, So-and-So is shooting there,’ and drive over?”
“Exactly. Eventually, I put my name in with an extras group. There was a guy — I can’t remember his name — I think his first name was Dennis, but he had an extras casting business and used to call me for gigs”
The morning fog is beginning to burn off. I position my chair for direct sunlight “How did you connect with Dennis?”
“I think I met him on a set. He was interested in me. He liked my size, liked my build, and liked that I could do different stuff.”
“Were you making enough money to pay the rent?”
“No, no. I was turning wrenches in someone’s garage or beating nails. I worked regular jobs. Being an extra was very part-time. I might get a job once every two, three, or five months. That’s how sporadic the movie industry was. Once I got registered with an extras group, they used me more. After a while, any time they had a crowd scene, they’d call.”
Hawk is describing a normal career path in the arts. “Brutal. How much work did you get out of Dennis?”
“Maybe once every week or a couple times a week, sometimes once every couple of weeks. That was great compared to months and months of nothing.”
I, too, was an extra on a movie: one movie, one time. “Did you have a portfolio?”
“When I was on set, we talked about that. Productions are hurry up and wait. You sit around forever and do nothing. You talk to a lot of extras, and sooner or later somebody says, ‘Do you have any photos?’ You share photos and study the different looks — who’s hot right now, what extras agency you’re with. You do a lot of networking on set. I didn’t sit there and play board games like a lot of people do. I was always very inquisitive. I’d ask questions.” I was an extra on a mediocre Western. The 1975 movie was called Bite the Bullet.
Hawk shifts in his chair. I ask, “In Extras World, where is the top of the food chain and where is the bottom?”
“The movie industry is like a totem pole and extras are the ditch where the pole goes in. That’s how far down you are. There is what’s called a ‘featured extra.’ You’re still an extra, but you have some sort of a direct relationship with the main read. For example, they’re shooting a scene and the actor asks you a question. You don’t reply. There’s no dialogue included for you, but you’re in front of the camera with the actor— you’re not in a big crowd scene with a bunch of cattle. You’re by yourself and get a little more camera time.
“There were occasions when I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m a featured extra! I’m going to be in the center of this.’ And then, when the movie was shown, turns out the camera panned right and all you see is my elbow. I remember taking a friend to that movie and telling him, ‘See that elbow? That’s mine.’ ”
Bite the Bullet was filmed nine miles from the Colorado border, in Chama, New Mexico, because Chama was terminus of the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad, which ran a steam-engine locomotive.
“Do they treat you better when you’re a featured extra?”
“Some productions, no matter who you are or what you do, treat you well. Others, you can be a cameraperson, you can be anybody in the crew, high or low, and they treat you like dirt. It depends on who’s on set calling the shots. They’re spending thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars a day, and they want to get things done yesterday. Some productions are patient, some are not.
“When you have a pool of extras on a set, you’re there for the duration, whether it’s 1 hour or 15 hours. The point is, you’re there. A lot of times they have what’s called an ‘extras wrangler.’ He or she is the person who keeps extras together like cattle in a herd, so when the director wants extras on set, he calls the wrangler—he doesn’t need to find you, he doesn’t need to look around for you.
“I was always the one getting in trouble, getting scolded by the wrangler, the production assistant, the assistant director, whoever, because...see, extras sit in one little area, they play board games, they play cards, or they read. They just sit there and wait for their little measly background part. But I was there for a purpose. I was there to get ahead and move on.
“I would leave the extras area, literally walk around and find the set. Sometimes, the set was 50 yards away or a couple hundred yards away. Some were a pretty good distance away. No matter where the set was, I would find a way to get there. If the set was far away, well, the shuttle van went back and forth and I’d jump in the shuttle van. The driver didn’t know who I was. I’d go to the set, watch what they were doing, and talk to people.
“I’d talk to the stunt coordinator or the production people or the talent and schmooze a little bit. Learn what they were doing, what ‘camera left’ was, what ‘camera right’ was, ‘upstage,’ ‘downstage,’ you know, the different terms of the trade.
“Then, all of sudden, I’m on set as an extra, and the DP — director of photography — or the cinematographer, which is the cameraman, would say to me, ‘Could you move camera left?’ He’d start to explain, but I’d move to my right and ask, ‘Is this far enough?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, wow, you knew camera left.’ All of a sudden, you’re easy to work with, they can light you quick, everything works out good. Now I have this click with the DP and that’s good, because a lot of times they’ll pick extras for certain scenes. And a lot of times they’ll bring your name up to the director. That happened to me because I snuck out of the cattie pen.”
Since Bite the Bullet was a Western, long-haired men and men with beards were needed as extras.
“I didn’t want to get typecast as an extra. Do extra work too much and that’s all you’re going to do. I’d see a guy who’d been working on a TV series for years. You’d think the guy would have so much more priority because of the experience and advantage of being on set for that long. Everybody knows him. They’ll say, ‘That’s Fred’ or ‘That’s Bob,’ or whoever. They know him by name now. They know his character traits. But he’s still an extra. Who cares if he’s been there five years?
“I would be on a set and all the extras are waiting for the crew and cast to go in and eat, and then, as soon as the food line dwindles, they’d jump in and their priority was to be first in line. Those guys had been on that set for years and years. And that’s just the way it is in the movie industry. I moved on because I don’t like being at the bottom of the pole of anything.”
So 40, 50 long-haired men, and their girlfriends, drove up to Chama to be extras on Bite the Bullet. Pay was $20 a day, in cash. Big money. Easy money.
“I never thought being an extra was a career. I can’t act for shit. I can play bad guys. I kill people really well. I can take a hit and I can die well. But when it comes to dialogue, when it comes to thinking, chewing gum, and tap-dancing at the same time, on a set, I can’t do it. I stick with what I can do.
“There’s a whole bunch of people, lots and lots of people, who want to be in the movie industry. They’ll do anything. I’ve seen extras just like me sitting in the cafeteria. And then, a couple days or maybe a week later, I’d be on a different set and that extra who was in the cafeteria is now one of the PAs [production assistants]. Or he’s the extras wrangler. He’s getting more money, he’s getting a steady thing, now he’s the person in charge of the extras versus being an extra. He can move up into certain areas like camera assistant.
“A lot of grips were extras. Grips are way-cool guys and gals; they’re humping equipment around. If there’s a big guy who is an extra and he can handle the weight, and he figures out what a C-stand is and what a sandbag is, he knows how to say, ‘Give me a fernie blanket,’ whatever, all of a sudden, he’s a grip, and then maybe a key grip, which is the man or woman in charge of grips. Now you’re part of the crew — you’re no longer in the hole, you’re no longer in the ditch. You’ve crawled out of the ditch and you’re up there with the movie people.”
Chama was a tiny one-block town with an old two-story hotel and one bar. Ninety-three would-be extras camped a few miles north of the metroplex. We had us a camp-fire-roaring, fiddle-playing, marijuana-smoking, whiskey-drinking, moonlight-fornicating, all-night jamboree. Tomorrow morning, we were going to be in the movies.
Hawk makes a trip to the bathroom and returns. “How long were you an extra?”
“It was off and on, like I said. There might have been a year or two I didn’t do anything. And then I’d go back again and do a little project or a student film. I did a lot of student films and low-budget films because I wasn’t focusing on the movie industry then — it was something I’d do now and again. That went on for seven, eight years.”
“Were you still living in Manhattan Beach?”
“I was living all over. I lived in Hollywood, Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Van Nuys. I lived in El Cajon for a while with my brother. I’d go to L.A., back to El Cajon, and up to L.A.”
“Did you work regular jobs during this interval?” Richard Brooks was the director on Bite the Bullet. Staring actors were Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, James Coburn, and Ben Johnson.
“Yeah, I turned wrenches. I was a part-time mechanic, worked on dirt bikes. I was a lifeguard for years and years. I worked as a lifeguard at private parties, big bashes in L.A. I got a lot of referrals. When it came to mechanical or hanging a cabinet, fixing something, helping out somebody who needed help, I was a very handy guy.
“I’d get called because I was an emergency medical technician. A business or a group of individuals, they’d go camping. Every year they’d go camping or to the beach or wherever. They hired me to be a lifeguard, because this beach didn’t have a lifeguard. Or they’d go camping and have me along as their medic. I was there to hang out and have fun, but if anybody got hurt, I’d take care of it. Those people were money people.”
“How did they find you?
“Word of mouth. I never advertised. I’d talk to people and they might say, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m building a hangar.’ And I’d say, ‘Let me know if I can help. I used to do construction, beat nails. I know how to do framing and all that.’ And they’d say, ‘Why don’t you come over?’ Sometimes I would do it as a favor, because I thought maybe they were in a position to do me a favor later. Sometimes they’d pay me under the table, whatever.
“Then, people called and said, ‘Would you like to watch our house for a week or two? We’re going on a trip overseas.’ I’d say, ‘Damn straight.’ They’d pay me to be there, the food was there, they gave me money to spend. It was like camping.
“People would fly in from Europe and want to go to Mexico. That was a bad place to go. I’m not slamming Mexico by any means. But they’d want to bring all their worldly possessions with them. You don’t need to bring all that stuff to Mexico. You bring your I.D., some cash in your pocket, and that’s all you need to bring.
“Those people brought bags and equipment to Mexico. They’d set stuff down, and the next thing they knew, it was gone. At the same time, they wanted to learn where to go, where not to go, which alleys to go down, which ones to avoid. They needed protection and I used to do that.”
“What did you charge?”
“Maybe a few hundred dollars a day, which was well worth it to them. I’d take them to the cool shops and everybody got back safe and everybody had a good time. I certainly wasn’t getting rich, but I wasn’t living on the streets either.”
Bite the Bullet people rented every available room, building, and shed in Chama. Then they brought in RVs; three-ton grip trucks; prop, camera, and production trucks; generators; trailers for makeup and wardrobe; more trailers for cast; and dozens of Porta-Potties. Suddenly, outlanders outnumbered residents.
Hawk and I fall quiet. Finally, I ask, “What was happening with your movie work while you were escort-ing and lifeguarding?”
“I was doing some hand-doubling. After they do coverage, which is a two-shot for both of us, and they do singles, which is over my shoulder to you, and over your shoulder to me, then they do inserts. They don’t usually do inserts when they shoot the big scene, because they need to get the big stuff and move on. They have an insert crew for that.
“For example, you and I are in a scene together. I say, ‘Here’s the information you were asking for,’ and I hand you a booklet. The insert crew will get a shot of me handing the booklet to you. It’s just a tight shot on the booklet, maybe I’d open up the booklet and thumb through it. All you see is my hands.
“I used to play a little soccer. They were doing a scene where the lead kicks a soccer ball around, but the ball was going all over hell. He couldn’t control it. So they came back later with an insert crew. I did tricks with the ball. They shot, not on my face, but tight on the ball. In the movie you’d see the star going to kick the ball, and the ball would be kicked hard, and it would look like the star had kicked it, but actually it was me doing the kick.
“The director that does this is a different director than the director who’s shooting the movie or project. That’s important to know. This director is a second-unit director, or an insert-unit director. He watches the director’s scenes and tries to match up everything. If I was hand-doubling, I’d wear the same rings or bracelets as the lead was wearing.
“Have you ever watched The A-Team on television? They’re always in some predicament: stuck in a building or cave or warehouse or something. There’ll be all these insert shots. You see Mr. T’s black hand, and the next scene you’ll see a hand, but it’s a different shade of black. Same with Mr. T’s gold rings. They’ll be different in the next scene. Sometimes you’ll see arms that are thinner than Mr. T s. You can tell it’s an insert shot. They don’t care.”
On that first morning in Chama, we set a morning fire and had our breakfast and coffee. First stop was wardrobe. A dozen of as walked into what had recently been a bakery. Three young, gorgeous flunkies were buzzing about in the back of the room. A beak-nosed, scowling middle-aged woman glanced up from a cafeteria table, “You’re fine as you are,” and waved us out.
“Besides hand-doubling, I was doing body-doubling. I remember getting called to do a scene with a flashlight The star was walking into a building and it’s dark and he has a flashlight. They figured I looked enough like this guy in the dark so you couldn’t make me out from dick. I was supposed to walk in and shine the flashlight. So I walked into the building and shined the flashlight into the camera. You couldn’t see anything but a silhouette. Later, I saw the movie. I remembered that scene with the flashlight I thought ‘That’s me, that’s not him, that’s me!’ ”
“How did you make the transition from being an extra to doing stunts?”
“I was on set as an extra There were two guys looking at me from across the parking lot. I thought I was in trouble, because I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It seemed they were checking me out. I looked at them, they looked at me. I thought, ‘I’ve screwed up. I’m going to get in trouble again because I’m not supposed to be here.’
“Well, those guys were looking down at a piece of paper, looking at me, back and forth. One signaled for me to come over. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m definitely busted,’ and walked over. The guy said, ‘We don’t mean to stare, but you look like somebody.’ I said, ‘Yeah, ’cuz I am somebody.’ I was kind of a smartass, because I was nervous. And they go, ‘No, you look like somebody who’s in this movie. We need somebody to double for him. You have the same size, you resemble the guy. Have you ever done any stunts?’ I said, ‘My whole life is a stunt.’ The taller man broke in, ‘There’s a foot-chase scene and there’s a car-chase scene. We’re interested in having you do them.’ I said, ‘Damn straight, I’d love to. I think that would be way cool.’
“They said they were the producers, wrote my name and phone number on a slate they carried, and said they’d talk to their people. I was pretty excited thinking this could be a move up. I waited by my phone thinking, ‘They’re going to call me. They’re going to call me.’ I was in heavy anticipation of this big break for me.”
By the way, on Bite the Bullet, all the bottom-feeding underlings, both male and female, in all departments, were young and gorgeous. I have never, before or since, seen that many magazine-beautiful human beings do menial work.
Hawk coughs. “I finally got a call from someone else. He said, ‘I was given your number by the producers you met. They said you were interested in doing stunt driving in some car-chase scenes. Are you still interested?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘Well, can you be here in two days?’
“A couple of days went by. I don’t know if I slept very much. I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be cool.’ I showed up and did some running scenes. I rolled down a couple of hills. I went through some hedges. I loved every second of it.”
“What was the movie?”
“It was a cop movie. And then, of course, there was the car-chase scene. They said, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ We went to an area away from everybody, an industrial road off by itself with no buildings or cars on it.
“They wanted some turns. So I got in their car and took off sideways. There are certain ways you work an emergency brake so it doesn’t lock up. I spun the car around, took off backwards, spun 180 degrees, popped it in drive, and drove forward.
“They put a box in the middle of the street and said, ‘See how close you can get to this box without hitting it.’ I got so close that the wind from the car moved the box but didn’t knock it over.
“They have to have a guy or a gal behind a camera where the box was and they wanted to see what I could do. I did a series of skids, showed them how I could drive around a corner fast and be totally in control. Afterwards, they said, ‘You’ll do fine.’
“I was being paid $40 for eight hours as an extra. But doing stunts, the money was much better. I would have done it for free. It’s what I love to do. They were very happy after I basically impressed the hell out of them. They didn’t think I could do half the stuff I did. Everything went fine and the inserts looked great. I made money and got discovered in the sense that they discovered me and I discovered what I wanted to do.”
Like Hawk says, it’s all stand around. Back in Chama, our first scene was standing on a platform as the Cumbres and Toltec train came chugging into the station. Some movie guy on a bullhorn was screaming about how we were supposed to cheer when the train arrived.
“Hawk, you must have thought, ‘I’ve gotta do this again.’ ”
“I was hooked. After that, I didn’t want to do any more extra work. In fact, I made a point to turn down offers. I didn’t say, ‘Oh, well, I’m too good to be an extra’; I said I was busy.
“I needed more seasoning. At that time I hadn’t done any falls. On set I always talked to the stuntman: ‘What do you do? What kind of equipment do you have?’ I was very inquisitive. Asked a lot of questions. I was a pest, always pulling on shirttails: ‘Excuse me, when do you turn before you hit the pit?’, or, ‘When you fall on that ramp, when do you roll? Which way do you lean?’ Then I’d go home and copycat.
“I started making calls. I’d look in the local newspaper or Drama-Logue or Backstage, in the section under ‘Movies Being Shot.’ Might be student films, low-budget films, made-for-video movies, whatever. I’d call up colleges, because I knew they had a film program. I’d say, ‘I’m working my way into the business and if you can ever use anybody to do action stuff, some fights, give me a call.’
“Sometimes I didn’t get calls and sometimes I did. I remember going on a set for a bar fight. At the time, I didn’t have any pads. I would grab clothing, stuff it around my back and hips. I would use whatever I could find to pad myself. We’d do a fight scene and I’d be thrown over the bar. I didn’t know about a soft pit, so I hit the ground. Sometimes it hurt and sometimes it didn’t.
“It’s not like you ever get ‘Come on over and go to work.’ They’re busy. They’re busy, busy, busy. I’m catching producers, directors between scenes or at lunch or whatever. I was told many times, dozens of times, ‘Now is not the time. Come back later.’ Always being turned away. But I always came back.”
We stood around the Chama train station all morning. I think they filmed three scenes, each one lasting 45 seconds, max. Then the crew broke for lunch. The crew had catered meals, hot fancy food, heaps of it, tables of it. Each table was dressed in white linen cloth. They sat behind a plastic picket fence and selected dessert from a silver tray. This was the mid-’70s, in New Mexico, where 20 bucks a day was good money. Food like that, well, you never saw it.
“Tell me about your second stunt job.”
“It was summer, sometime in the early ’90s. I was green. I barely had pads and I got a stunt job. I went out on my balcony and said, ‘Everybody, I got a stunt job!’ I was jumping up and going, ‘Yeah!’ I was pretty damn proud of myself. I was kind of strutting around like a rooster that had just raided the henhouse. The thing is, I was really, really happy.
“It was a straight-to-video movie. For my standards, it was a huge project. The budget was several hundred thousand or maybe a million or two. Not bad for a movie. They were having problems with their directors. When I got there, they were talking about how they lost a couple of directors. They were having set problems, control problems; they were on their second or third director. I was just happy to be there.
“It was a night shoot. My call was around five o’clock in the afternoon. I probably got there at four or four-thirty. I was so excited to be included. I was in awe because of where I was; even though it was a low budget, there were lights, cameras, people, crew. And there I was, not knowing where to go, what to do, or who to ask. I didn’t want to screw up.
“I walked around telling people, ‘I’m the guy they called. You’re doing a fight scene that you’re doing and I’m the guy they called to do it. Could you point or tell me where I’m supposed to go and who I’m supposed to talk to?’ ”
“Who were you asking?”
“Production assistants. The director may meet with you briefly, for a second. They don’t take much time. I remember I went to makeup and hair. That was exciting. I ran into a couple guys I’d done extra work with years before and I met the stunt guy I was doing the fight scene with.
“I think I made, maybe, a few hundred dollars. That was a big payday. I would have done it for free, for my resume, for the opportunity, just to be able to say, ‘I’m in the movies. I’m doing stunts. I’m doing fights.’
“I went up to damn near every person kissing ass. I’m still real green and new at this. I was making my presence known. I worked the crowd. I think I exchanged phone numbers with my opponent and a couple of other guys on that movie. I think I got the stunt coordinator’s number. I know I gave him mine. I basically schmoozed: ‘Great working with you.’ I shook the director’s hand, ‘Thanks for having me on the set. You’re an incredible director.’ I praised him, the PAs, the camera, everybody. I thanked them for letting me be there and let them know I had a great time. And, also, ‘Do you want my number?’
“Because that’s what you do. It’s networking. Because the director, the cameraman, and all the PAs scatter after the project is over. They go in different directions, on to different projects. If one of them remembers who I am, or has my number or my card, something might happen: ‘Let’s call this guy.’ It pays for itself.
“Even though I was sincere, it was also a line in a way. I had it down: ‘It was good working with you and I look forward to working with you again.’ I mean, after all was said and done, I did leave with the thought, ‘I am a stuntman,’ because I got praise. The director said, ‘Great fight, you did a great job, you looked so real out there.’ The best honor you can get is recognition. They looked at me not just as some guy, but as this guy who did a bitchin’ fight.”
The Chama movie people got under our skins pretty quick. It wasn’t just their arrogance toward us, although that would have been enough, it was the way they bullied each other that speeded up divorce proceedings. Brooks sat in his director’s high chair and screamed at his assistant, who turned, walked 20 feet, and screamed at his assistant, who turned and marched around the lot until he found someone to scream at. The head wardrobe shrew shrieked at her underling, who passed it on to his underling. Even in the trades, the lead carpenter berated his assistant, who quickly passed a verbal beating on to his helper. Humiliating one’s subordinate was so universal, so consistent, so constant, that at first we thought it was a parody, a Hollywood in-joke.
Hawk picks up a bottle of spring water and takes a sip. I ask, “And then, you’re back on the street, looking for another gig?”
“I was making a lot of calls. I was calling student productions, low-budget productions, anybody and everybody I could find Low-budget projects, a lot of times, don’t have stunt coordinators and I would just show up.”
“Did you have a résumé?”
“You get some clips and you start making a reel, like a writer’s collection of clips. You use any type of project. If it was a cheesy piece of crap, a student film, three minutes, two minutes long, I’d use it. If I had a scene where I tripped and fell down, that was on my reel. If I got punched in the head, that was on my reel. Anything, it doesn’t matter how minuscule. I was doing anything to get experience.
“Sometimes I had to bring food. Anything I could do to get on their set and then be able to say afterward,‘Guess what? I’ve done this.’ Because now your résumé has something on it. It sucks when you hand a résumé to a stunt coordinator and there’s one thing on it, or it only has your name and stats. Resumes, in the stunt business, don’t talk about where you went to school and all this other crap. They’re about the movies you’ve been in.
“You write down the production name, what you did, the director, the producer, what you can do, what special skills you have. I said, ‘I can do burns, car crashes, and ride motorcy-cles.’ A lot of people in the movie industry put down, ‘I can ride a bicycle’ or ‘I can walk and chew gum.’ They put down every little thing, stuff like roller-skating. They figure some people can’t roller-skate, so they put that down.”
“So when was your next gig?
“I don’t recall.”
“Pick one that comes to mind.”
“I was in a student film. Even though it was just a student film, it was, in a sense, a video movie. I think it was filmed in the College Area. I think it was an actual house, versus an apartment, but I can’t recall. It could have been a condo.”
“Were you paid?”
“I got paid nothing. It was just for the resume. I was one of the roommates and...”
“Do you remember the college?”
“It may have been in San Diego. I think it was San Diego State.”
The Chama extras were not hippies; the only thing they had in common with hippies was long hair and marijuana. They were poor. They lived hard, physical lives. Recreation, for many, was getting drunk on Friday night and fighting, or fighting on Friday night and then getting drunk. Worse, from the point of view of the production staff, most of the male riffraff did not abide personal discourtesy. By day two, you could tell that the movie people were headed for trouble.
“The film was shot at San Diego State and you were the stuntman?”
Hawk nods. “The film was called Dirty Stinking Laundry. I played one of three roommates. One roommate was a disgusting pig. His room stunk, it had a putrid, rotten, stinking, dead smell. His roommates were appalled. His dirty laundry was everywhere. The room stunk so bad that it finally grew into a life-form, an organism that came to life and started killing people.
“Besides being a roommate, I was the creature in this movie. I was the laundry monster. I made a big dome out of chicken wire. It looked like a giant rock. They had all these people sewing and stapling stacks of laundry to the chicken wire. It was big enough so I could squat down underneath it The director would scream, ‘We need the monster,’ and I’d say, ‘I’m in here, I can’t see shit.’
“I would raise this laundry monster up and lift the front. I think they had teeth on this thing. They were sharp looking and white to give the effect of a monster’s mouth. This thing was eating people, not just burying them in dirty laundry.
“The disgusting pig roommate wore big black glasses. He never took a bath. When he opened the door to his room, you could see a cloud of smoke come out of the laundry pile because it stunk so bad. We said something like, ‘Hurry up and close your door!’ And then the laundry monster engulfed him and pulled him in and the door slammed.
“And then, all of a sudden, a pizza guy showed up and said he had a pizza for the pig roommate. We said, ‘Oh, he’s in the room down the hall. I hope you’ve got a gas mask.’ And, sure enough, the pizza guy went down the hall holding this pizza and knocked on the door. No one answered. I said, ‘I know he’s in there.’ All of a sudden the door opened and you see this big creature made out of dirty clothes engulf the pizza guy, swallow him, and pull him in. We’re seeing the pizza - boy eaten by a pile of dirty, stinking laundry. After the pizza boy was eaten, the roommates had to have a plan. One of us was a psycho dude. My job was...”
“You were an actor in this?”
“I was an actor/stunt guy. They used 16mm film, a big budget for students. I had a love interest. I got to make out with a girl. We had kitchen scenes.
“There were three of us playing roommates. We fired weapons, but nothing could stop the laundry monster. We finally cut the tops off detergent boxes and threw detergent all around. The monster began to disintegrate and dissolve. We killed it with laundry detergent. It was a dirty, stinking laundry monster.”
Looking back at Chama, it was the white-girl-at-the-stake scene that did it. There was a scene where the movie star girl was tied to a stake I and five or six Hollywood guys, dressed as Indians, were supposed to dance around the movie star white girl who was tied to the stake and “Whoop, whoop, whoop.” I know, I know, we couldn’t believe it either.
“When was Dirty Stinking Laundry filmed?”
“Late ’80s or early ’90s. After that I started to do more projects. A lot of them were low-budget student films, straight-to-video movies, and so on. Then I started doing made-for-TV movies. At that point, I was beginning to work with big-time stunt people. I would hear they had a stunt somewhere and I would show up and talk to them.
“Or I’d go in as an actor. I couldn’t act for shit, but I was trying to get myself in the door by saying, ‘I’m here to audition.’ If I called up and said, ‘I’m a stunt guy,’ the first thing they think is, ‘I’m not going to use any stunts,’ followed by ‘It’ll cost a lot of money.’ All I’ll get is ‘Thanks, we’ll call you.’ So I’d audition for a character who did not have lines, like a bad guy who gets killed early on. You can add stunts to that.
“I’d walk on set and say, ‘I’m auditioning for this part. If you have any fights, I can do it. You want a car crash or something, I can work that out.’ But it was frustrating, because gigs were far and few.
“That’s when I started getting interested in stunt coordinating rather than doing stunts, because now I’m selling the package. Here is a producer or a director. I’m going to try to do anything I can to impress the hell out of him. I’d say, ‘I can give you this and I can give you that.’ Their eyes are starting to get big, thinking, ‘We can do this shootout or we can do this fight.’ All of a sudden, if they’re doing a shoot-out, they’re going to need guns. Where are they going to get guns? ‘Oh, I can get those.’ I was making more or less false promises. I didn’t have guns in hand, but I knew I could get them.
“Most of the stuff was student stuff. I remember going to a student film festival. I was sitting there watching films and I saw four projects I’d worked on. It was kind of cool. None of them went anywhere other than getting somebody a good grade, but I got my clip, my experience, and the connection.
“I’m not making any money, but by being on set, it’s a connection. These people, especially on student films, these students, they’re all together, like they have a pact. One guy will literally be carrying sandbags as a grip and next week he’ll be the director on another project. He’s a grip now, but he sees what I’m doing as a stunt coordinator.”
“And five years from then he might...”
“If you think about it, Lucas, Spielberg, all those directors, started somewhere. You can be on one student film and get to know, maybe three, four, or five directors. Pretty soon everybody switches roles. They have to help on each other’s projects. So if I’m on one set,
I lied my way on, I cheated my way on, however the hell I got on that set, if I’m on that set once, there’s a. good chance I can get on five, six, seven little projects from that one job.”
As late as 1996, New Mexico claimed the lowest personal per capita income ($16,674) of any state in the nation. Folsom Paleo-Indians lived in New Mexico 10,000 years ago, followed, in recent times, by the Apache, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians. The Spanish arrived in the 1560s. New Mexico was a Mexican territory in 1821 and remained so until 1846, when Anglos rode in and took over. Here’s the point: the land had been in dispute for the best part of a thousand years; descen-. dants of all the principals still lived there, still maintained a large portion of their culture, and still didn’t like each other. New Mexico, in the 70s, was tense, a lot of people carried guns. I was shot at, in downtown Santa Fe, three times within six months. A few weeks before Bite the Bullet opened for business in Chama, relations between Hispanics, Indians, and whites went to hell.
I ask Hawk, pressing a little now, “How many student films have you been in?”
“I’ve probably done, maybe 20 or 30.”
“Mainly in San Diego?” “Back and forth. UCLA, here, anywhere they were shooting. I was feeling pretty confident Even though they weren’t big movies, they had the same equipment as big movies. I got burn clothes, special gels, pyrotechnics, that kind of thing.”
“What was the most expensive film you’ve been in?
“I don’t know if there’s anything that stands out in my mind as the most ‘big time,’ but I’ve done a ‘Movie of the Week.’ ”
“Any studio films, network television films, HBO films?”
“ ‘Movie of the Week.’ ” One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heartbeats. “I’ve worked on a television series and so on. I worked on a movie called Prophet of Evil That was in the ’90s. Remember Waco, Texas? After that whole Waco, Texas, standoff went down, they did a lot of made-for-TV movies about it. This was a cult film, the plot was taken from Waco. The main guy in it was Brian Dennehy.”
“Where was it shown?” “It was for USA, I think. The USA television network.” “Big enough movie so they’re using big cameras?” “Panavision. On stu-
dent projects you were lucky to have 16mm. Now we’re using regular dollies, we’re using fancy lighting equipment, trucks, and Panavision. Ronnie Howard directed.” Hawk makes a full stop, then with enthusiasm says, “I have the top from Ron Howard’s Jeep! I bought it after his assistant wrecked the Jeep in Mexico. I bought the bikini top. Ron Howard’s bikini top is on my Jeep!”
“How did you get on Prophet of Evil?”
“I was called. I don’t remember who I was called by”
“Were you living in L.A.?”
“No, I was in San Diego. I think it was Billy Burton who called me, if I’m not mistaken. This was the second unit. There was a scene where this guy — what would you call him? prophet, cult leader?—I think townspeople killed some of his people, so he ordered this town burned to the ground “I was one of three or four guys in the back of a pickup truck throwing Molotov cocktails at preset, pre-rigged buildings. We blew up buildings, set everything on fire, burned cars, the whole thing. This was shot, I think it was in San Diego, I don’t remember. I think it was in East County somewhere, or in Chula Vista, out in that area.”
The New Mexico cultural pot was boiling because of a recent murder that occurred in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A young Indian woman was found in her home, tied to a bedpost, with her throat cut. Fact and rumor snowballed from there. One version had a gang of Hispanics killin’g the girl, another had two whites killing the girl and then raping her mother. There were other versions. Very quickly throughout northern New Mexico emotions were drawn so tight that an explosion seemed inevitable. This situation translated in Chama to the fact that nobody was willing to put up with a shrieking megalomaniac who wanted to film a scene about a white girl tied to a stake with phony Indians doing a phony whoop-whoop dance around the white-girl-tied-to-a-stake. Then, to make things interesting, add a screaming assistant director who ordered extremely edgy malcontents to watch all of the above and make appreciative noises while they watched.
Hawk enjoys another sip of spring water. “You’ve been doing this for 15 years. Tell me about some stunts you’ve done.”
“Falls, high falls. I jump off a bar, I get a knife in the ribs — I’m flying midair to make it look like I’m being hit with a knife in midair. I crash into the floor, into a big pit that was dug as a trap for werewolves. The townspeople dug it. I tip over a stagecoach. I’m shot by arrows and fall through a roof.
“I fall through a window doubling for an Indian guy. I got some cuts on that. There are two types of windows you can use. Tempered glass, which is like a car passenger window: when it breaks, it breaks into little pieces. But it has to be exploded, has to be popped by something; you don’t just break it by your momentum. It’s broken by putting a pin in it or a charge that cracks the window and makes it break up into pieces as you, simultaneously, hit the window. If you hit it too late, the window will pop before you go through. It has to go ‘pop’ as you go through it.”
“When you say charge that cracks the window,’ what is the charge and how do you set it?”
“There’s a little pin — it’s similar to a squib in a pin/hammer land of a setup. It’s an electrical charge. You nail this little bracket next to the window with the pin facing the glass, about a quarter inch away from the glass. There’s a charge behind it with a wire connected to a detonator. There’s a person squatting out of frame with the detonator. In this case, I went through the window backwards because I got knocked through the window.
“So we do blocking. I would take a couple or three steps back. John was the guy who was going to be setting up the charge. So I say, ‘Okay, John, we’re going to set this charge. I’ll do step one, step two, step three, and on this step, right here, boom, hit it.’
“So we block it out. The charge is like a puck with a hole and a pin. The pin fires forward into the side of the glass. As soon as something hits tempered glass, the whole thing shatters into thousands and thousands of tiny pieces.
“I had some pads on my back and elbows and I was wearing a duster, which is a big trench coat. So when
I went through the window, I was wearing all that. But anytime you do a window gag, if you have exposed skin and that skin hits the ground, you’re going to get cut My hand hit the ground and I got some cuts.
“Besides tempered glass, you can use what’s called ‘candy glass,’ or ‘sugar glass.’ They make it out of sugar. It’s a lot safer. Tempered glass, it breaks in tiny shards. Have you ever seen a broken car window? You see tiny bits of glass all over. I mean, thousands of them. Candy glass, or sugar glass as it’s called, is thin. When it breaks, it doesn’t break into tiny pieces, it breaks into big chunks like a dinner plate does, but it won’t hurt you because it’s so crumbly. It’s so brittle that if you use it for breaking bottles in a bar scene, sometimes the bottle will break when it’s picked up because the material is so delicate. The littlest thing can break that stuff.”
I’m quite sure the Chama movie people were more amazed at what occurred than we were, and believe me, especially as time passed, we were amazed. Here were $20-a-day nobodies, dreck who lived in squalid adobe huts, drove rusted pickup trucks, and we, by God, were complaining. It must have seemed impossible, literally contrary to natural law, not to be believed, and yet, there it was.
I take a slow breath and look directly into Hawk’s eyes. “Would you, and I’m begging now, in a more or less chronological fashion, inching toward the present moment, tell me about a few other projects you’ve worked on?”
“There was Behind the Screens, at a San Diego Film Commission awards ceremony. This was way back in ’98. It’s a hosted cocktail thing with awards and scholarship presentations. One of the presenters was in the original Addams Family cast. I was a stuntman for that. I was helping, I wasn’t the coordinator, but I ended up turning into an assistant.”
“How did that come about?”
“I was doing a fight scene, setting it up for safety. I did the safety stuff. This was my introduction to David Smith. David is the founder, president, and CEO of Stunts-Ability. He is a left-arm amputee. He had this great idea of taking amputee individuals—single leg, no legs, single arm, no arms—and using them in the movie industry.
“I’d met David before, here and there, at different stunt shows or whatever. I’d see him around, he’d seen me, but this was the first time he saw me work as a stunt coordinator. I was kind of covering his ass. He had help, had people covering him, but he liked my style. We were in the middle of something and he said, ‘I’d like to have you coordinate for my company, Stunts-Ability.’
“I’d met him several years before. We’d worked together on different things. We’d been friends. There was a great stunt coordinator that was already on set at the time. I was assisting him, but he was busy. David was getting ready to do a burn, where he’s set on fire. The other stunt coordinator was working on all the other stuff, so I assisted David, making sure he was comfortable, making sure his burn suit was on right, just helping him. Even though there were other people there, I was more or less his assistant. David said, ‘You and I really click. I like your style. I like the way you work, your attention to detail, and the way you kept checking on me, making sure the glue wasn’t soaking through.’ He was talking about a chemical we put on the stuntman. You apply the burn solution, let it sit for a bit, and then he’s glued up.
“Since then we’ve done maybe 10 or 15 projects. Some are one-day gigs or demonstrations. We do demonstrations at some of the colleges around here. We do stunt shows, charity events. I became vice president and stunt coordinator of his company, Stunts-Ability. I work with three organizations: Die Trying Stunt Productions, San Diego Stunt and Pyro, and Stunts-Ability.”
“Stunts-Ability trains disabled people to work in movies, to do stunts?” “Yeah. When you work with physically challenged people, there are certain things you need to know and a certain way you need to talk to them and a certain way you need to address them, because they’re people. They’re the same as us.
“People think, because they walk with a limp, or have one arm or no legs, ‘Oh, my God, we’d better bring a stretcher for that person and treat him differently.’ Well, I treat them as equals, because they are equals. I know how to talk to them. For example, people call them midgets or dwarfs. Well, I call them ‘little people.’ They actually have a Little People of America organization.
“There are thousands of these little people, and they have a code of ethics: ‘We’re on a set, you speak to us as an equal, and we’re called little people, we’re not called dwarfs.’ They will walk if you say something like ‘Look at the midget,’ which is disrespectful. Treat them as equals. Who cares if they’re a little shorter?
“So I liaison with amputees or little people, because I know what they like and don’t like. I know their quirks, how they like to be treated, whereas some coordinators might pull a punch or do something that might not be adequate for the situation and cause a problem.
“I’m like a translator. They know they’re going to be getting exactly what they deserve, equal treatment. There might be a stunt coordinator there who doesn’t know how a one legged woman or an amputee would hit a lamp. I know, because I work with them all the time.
“I have a picture of me with the original Hamburgler. He was the first Ham-burgler. He was the coolest guy and he was, of course, very small. I worked with his daughter. She was also very small, a little person. She introduced me: ‘This is my father.’ I said, ‘Nice to meet you, sir,’ and we talked. He said, ‘Yeah, I was the original Hamburgler in the McDonald’s commercials.’ I said, ‘My gosh!’ McDonald’s is a big thing. That was like meeting somebody from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The man was an icon to me.”
And so, when the Chama movie people set up the white-girl-at-the-stake scene, a gaggle of extras, went up to Brooks, said, “We can’t have this,” explained current events, finished with “We don’t need white girls tied to stakes and Indians whooping it up.” There is an unblinking stare, a body language, a tone of voice, a tilt of the head that men use when violence is the very next step. It’s known as the “you’re going to do this my way or we’re going to fight” moment males instinctively understand.
Hawk is thinking. I break in, “Any more?”
“I was on a show for British TV. It’s called Freak Out. It’s made by a studio in England, in London. I went there, to the studio, and met the guys who set up the whole thing and also Mat Fraser, the host, who’s a physically challenged man. This was supposed to be a stunt-training session. And Mat comes in, and he has
these hands, he’s got no arms, just little hands coming out of his stumps. And the show is a spoof on this. We end up doing a fight, a bum, the whole thing. We’re joking, we’re getting in shape, we’re doing pushups and I say to Mat, the no-arm guy, ‘You call that a pushup? You’re cheating.’ ”
“Stolen Innocence, a student film I did years ago, early ’90s, possibly. This is inside a liquor store. The bad guy kills one of the kids. I’m their mad hitman and they send me to kill him. And I did an Extra TV show. I have a copy on tape. The beginning of the tape is news-news, but there’s a segment about women in the stunt business. Some women got injured, different things, yada, yada. And then, I’m doing a burn. We’re going to talk about amputee stunt performers and we’re going to set somebody on fire in the parking lot. David Smith is doing the interview, but I’m the person who’s in charge of the burn. Of course, it’s about Stunts-Ability, but I’m the coordinator.
“When I coordinate, I set up everything. I had to get the location, I had to get all the personnel, the safety, the equipment, all the stuff, everything for that entire shoot, other than the camera they brought down from L.A. Even talking to everybody, setting up times, dates, when to be there, directions, all of that — to give you an idea. Anyway, we set somebody on fire in the parking lot of Channel 10 or Channel 9, whatever, different channels, I don’t remember exactly which ones. But I could look.”
You had to be crazy— worse, you had to be as arrogant as Richard Brooks to issue a diktat in his bought-and-paid-for town, on his bought-and-paid-for set that said, “You can’t do that here.” But it worked. There was no white-girl-at-the-stake scene shot that day. That happened later, after we left town.
“And, let’s see, I was in The King’s Guard. It was a made-for-video movie with Eric Roberts, Julia Roberts’s brother. And I did stuff for KPBS — they make some training videos for domestic violence and so on. I’m their stunt coordinator. And I had the Learning Channel. I think it was the Learning Channel. I can doublecheck on that. It was a show called The Ten Most Dangerous Jobs. I was interviewed as having one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the world.
“Then I was in a Chargers’ commercial that they do for preseason. They show it during the season too and they show it in AMC Theatres. And I did the Pumpkin Drop, where they drop a pumpkin out of a helicopter. A lot of local news stuff.
“I did a Western round-up-days commercial for an RV dealer. I think it only aired in Arizona. I don’t think it was ever shown here. I was the stunt coordinator. We did some pretty cool things: guys are trying to get in the motor home and they’re hanging upside down over the front windshield. I was in charge of all that and it came out really cool.
“I opened for Rita Coolidge at a cancer-society thing. It was a charity benefit, although I got paid for it. They had a certain amount of money for entertainment. They brought in Rita Coolidge, some big Western-prop drops and facades. They spent big money for that. There was even a local news personality there talking about cancer in his family and so on. Coolidge was profiled in San Diego magazine. I’m listed on page 44 of San Diego magazine, in a section called ‘Western Fixings.’ They had a section with Western stuff and gunfighters.”