September 30, 1997
Shooting: Day One
Revenge of Jet lag!
I woke to total darkness, which meant that it was still early morning. I stared at the red numbers on the digital clock beside my bed. It was 3:30. Once again I thought about how this would be an excellent time to be up if I were going on a fishing trip. But this wasn't fishing -- this was zombies! With set call still fourteen and a half hours away, and a wrap scheduled for 5 a.m. the following morning, I was staring down the raw throat of a very long day. Unable to return to sleep, I switched on the TV. Despite being nothing but info-commercials (I think it was at this time that I memorized the Psychic hot-line commercial), it was no aid in putting me back asleep.
Time passed and by noon I was on my way with part of the troupe to the Los Angeles international airport to meet a group of reporters coming from Japan. Capcom was paying a lot for this commercial and wanted it to get as much coverage as possible. I have to admit that upon seeing the horde of press people I was unhappy. I had been under the impression that I was getting exclusive or near exclusive coverage. What were all these people doing coming here? Why had no one told me about this? How dare they cut in on my dream job!
Riding the mini-bus back into town with the other reporters, I made peace with the situation. I decided to consider myself lucky. After all, I was able to meet George Romero with the possibility of watching him work still ahead. How often does one get this sort of opportunity?
We drove over to the Biltmore Hotel in LA's downtown section for… uh-huh… another meeting, this one concerning the role of the press and their limitations on the set. It was explained that I would be the only one with unlimited access. Outwardly, I shook my head solemnly in acknowledgment of this decree. Inwardly, well I would say my feeling was akin to someone striking the Lotto after it had reached one of those unfathomable monetary levels. The other reporters, those in charge of the commercial went on to say, would be allowed only escorted entry from time to time.
Finally, at a little after four o'clock, we arrived at the jail location. And here's where the real tale finally begins:
The lot behind the prison had several trailers parked in a line against the back gate. One for the stars and their make-up people, one for production, and one for Mad George and his men. SMG and his crew were the first on the scene, as they had to prepare over a dozen zombies for the shoot. At about four-thirty, the zombie actors and actresses begin to arrive.
One of the zombies was a sort of pretty Russian woman with dirty blonde hair and the kind of accent I associate with James Bond films (an unfortunate result of having grown up on the tail end of the cold war). She said she had no idea what the production was about and admitted that she never even heard of George Romero or his movies. I clued her in. Her eyes grew wide and she said that she'd always wanted to be in a horror film. She then took out and tried to impress me with some photos from her portfolio. They were of her in some Hulk Hogan action film I'd never heard of. (You can imagine how my blood pressure did not increase in the slightest as I flipped through shots and shots of her and the Hulkster.)
Speaking to the other zombie actors, I found that they were all delighted, if not elated, to be working on a production as big as this. Most had never done this kind of work before and looked forward to the experience of being put into heavy make-up. Interestingly enough, the lead zombie, played by Michael Deak, was an old hand at the living dead. In fact, his first job in the business was as a zombie in Day of the Dead. (He was the zombie pulling Captain Rhodes' legs off at the end.) At this time Deak was working at KNB. He was near delirious to be working with George again.
A half-hour before twilight, George showed up followed by his assistant, Jason Bareford, a burly, soft-spoken man who claimed to have at one time been a professional wrestler and a bodyguard. Work came to a halt as the staff ran up to greet George and to receive any orders he may have.
At this point the Russian zombie actress pushed her way to the front. She held her hand out to George. "Oh, Mr. Romero," she began, her accent drawing attention. "It is such an honor to be working with you. I think I've seen all your films and would love to be in your next production." Is it any wonder George dislikes working in LA?
Hungry, I attacked my favorite part of any film set: the catering! They had been busy spreading out a well-stocked variety of chow that covered two large tables. In addition, there was a truck that folded out with a large grill and which also served various types of drinks, both hot and cold. The welcome smell of cooking hot dogs and hamburgers permeated the area around the trailer.
At the end of one of the tables was a basket full of legal pep pills: extra strength B supplements, ginseng pills, caffeine pills, and pills derived from odd parts of fish. I stuffed a couple of B-12 and super-multi vitamin tablets in my mouth and pockets to prepare for the long, upcoming haul.
I walked into the prison to see how progress had come since yesterday. Where it had been a near sty, it was now swept clean. The peeling yellow bars of cells were painted a fresh black. Lights were mounted about the second floor and against the walls were crates overflowing with cables and other various film equipment. By 6:30 the first scene was ready for rehearsal.
Scenes featuring female character 'Claire' were first. Adrienne was made up and on her head was set a $4,000 wig. At the fitting the other day there had been a problem with the auburn wig because its length was too long. The price to cut the custom, real hair wig to size? Seven hundred dollars! Once in costume, Adrienne laughed and sprang around, playing make believe with her prop gun. Soon, it was time for the first shot of Adrienne walking up to and casting a shadow against the frosted window of a door that had R.P.D. (Raccoon Police Department) stenciled on in heavy block lettering.
On side of the door opposite Adrienne, the side to be filmed, lights were set so as to cast the shadows of bars against it. For mood lighting, two lights encased in what looked like large oriental paper lanterns sat stacked above each other to the door's right. From the hallway outside, I spied George busy at work. He and the DP (Director of Photography), Peter Deming, were discussing the shot.
I stood around in front of the door not sure where I belonged. Could I go into the room? Or, would I be thrown out, causing a scene and embarrassing myself in front of George Romero? What exactly am I to do during the shoot? Again, I looked through the open door and watched the people busing themselves inside. A call was given announcing that the door would be shut and bared from any further traffic. I needed to make a decision quick!
I slipped quickly into the room, sped around the film lights and lengths of cables, and found a spot in the back where I planted myself in a shadow. Inafune and Terada from Capcom were standing around. I guessed since they were the company representatives that gave them the right to be there. Gathering up confidence, I stepped from out of the darkness and took a spot beside them. As I did this George glanced my way. His face was a serious mix of deep thought and anticipation. I could see that he was preparing himself for his first, official shoot in several years. Here it comes, I thought. Not only am I going to be tossed out, but it will be done by George himself.
But he did nothing of the sort. His face, though solemn, held a welcoming expression. His eyes sparked on seeing me, losing the grinding look of the moment before. He gave me a cheerful nod before returning to work.
It was then it dawned on me. Though not an actual member of the crew, I was, nevertheless, an integral part of the aim of the entire production: to promote 'Biohazard 2'. By experiencing and photographing the production I will acquire the material needed to write the more than half-dozen articles on my return to Japan. Perhaps if this were a real motion picture, one where more artistry was sought, I might not be allowed to wander about unabated like this. But these circumstances were different. Here, I was as valid a part of the advertising machine as anyone on the set. My presence was not only okay, but vital.
With newfound confidence, I walked amongst the crew as one of them. As I figured -- no one gave a shit. A wave of wakening adrenaline surged though my veins. This is going to be cool!
I focused on George. I became attentive to his behavior. I watched him closely, trying to taste his style as best I could. I'd heard it said that he has a near non-communicative style, that the crew and actors seem to know just what it is he wants. This is what I felt too as I watched him work. He spoke only when necessary. When he did, it was only slight tweaks. He never came across as brazen or demanding. He simply imparted what it was he wanted, letting his demeanor back him up. Basically, he let people do their jobs, which is what anyone doing any job wants from their boss/manager. Really, there are few things more annoying than a boss telling you every moment how to do a job you know like the back of a hand.
Because of this, the crew and actors responded well to George. In a way, he is like the hippie teacher at school, the one who encourages you to do nothing, yet when all is said and done you do more work under him than under the teacher who marches around the aisles of desks employing tactics learned from confiscated gestapo manuals. George just let it happen. He would ask for a setup, run a hand over his beard while the crew went to work, and then during filming would stand around with arms akimbo as it all came together. The over-all effect was a crew that put out all they had almost without realizing it.
This approach went over the heads of the Japanese clients (mostly due to language and cultural barriers). They stood, milling about a small, ten inch color monitor receiving a feed from the camera that was George's way to judge the film after each shot. By the looks on their faces, this monitor was the coolest thing they had ever seen. At one point their voices grew noticeable. George, his eyes pulling into a squint as they yapped in their here foreign tongues, looked my way. He tossed me a shrug, and then resumed work. A minute later I overheard him mention to the DP that he hoped the clients, still in front of the monitor, were happy with what he was doing. This show of humility and even lack of confidence was surprising. But I guess like anyone, we all worry about pleasing the boss. Able to speak reasonable Japanese, I mentioned that he had nothing to worry. All they had been saying were words of praise; even going so far as to call the entire production wonderful. A wave of relief passed over his brow. He was genuinely happy that his work was being met as such by the client. He went back to the shoot focused entirely on the job at hand.
Forty-five minutes later, the first set of scenes were completed. These were the above mentioned shots of 'Claire' appearing in the frosted window; her first contact with main character 'Leon'; and her catching a gun he tosses at her. As the crew moved to the next location, I approached George, whose hair had begun to paste to his forehead because of the lights and fog machine.
"Congratulations!" I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's been a while since we've gotten something out of you and it's just great to see you working again.
He let out a loud laugh and that warm grin of his spread across his face. "Same here. It's great to see myself working again!" We both smiled and I patted him on the back.
Outside, Mad George and his crew had been busy pumping out zombies for the first zombie shot: the final scene where Leon and Claire are surrounded by living dead. Ten zombies plus two 'arm zombies' were on call.
Completed zombies had been wondering into the jail for the past half-hour. All of them had enough scars and torn flesh to gross out even the most jaded horror fan. There was a zombie cop, dressed in a ragged blue officer's uniform and with an old pistol in his hand. There was a zombie wearing the soiled uniform of the world's largest delivery service, Federal Express. There was a middle-aged woman zombie and a tall zombie in a sweater with what looked like chocolate pouring from his head. This had been the only restriction placed on Mad George; he could not show any blood. He got around this by giving the zombies a 'dried blood' look. Painting them a brownish color, causing them to resemble a further state of decomposition, such as found in Day of the Dead.
The zombies collected in a holding pen of the prison, a few cellblocks down from where the scene was to be shot. As the crew set up, I went to get photos and ask question of the zombie actors.
This being my first time on the set of a zombie production I was unprepared for the up close quality of the make-up. I had always thought it somehow geared for the camera, that it would not appear gruesome to the real eye -- How wrong I was! Everything about their appearance was disturbing. Speaking with them was like trying to make small talk with the Elephant man. It was impossible to pretend that there was nothing out of the ordinary when their appearance was so striking. This group looked -- if such a thing were possible -- like a collection of revived dead. Their wounds were vicious and generously abundant; their was hair matted, like that of the worst bad hair day imaginable; their clothes were worn and torn, as if submitted to relentless exposure to the elements. There was no mistaking -- these were zombies!
Soon, they were on call. Though the shoot was without sound, the actors moaned with conviction. I found a spot in an open door just off camera, propped myself in a shadow, and watched as, after George yelled, "Action", the zombies stumbled past. (Sitting here, I pretended that this was all real, and that if just one of these zombies caught scent of me I was a goner! As I used to often play 'zombie' as a boy, this was a little bonus thrill for me.)
The final scene of the commercial was then readied. In this scene, zombies circled the main characters as they prepared for the showdown. George had the camera set to pull back and dramatically reveal several living dead in front. These front Zombies had make-up applied only up to their elbows. While the crew worked, 'Actor X' spent his time trying to find the best stance for his character. The scene was then rehearsed until George was happy. The camera rolled and swung back. 'Actor X' and Adrienne cocked their guns as they were surrounded. It was extremely exciting to watch, and I would have been happy had this single shot just gone on and on all night.
After this was completed, Adrienne was released. All her scenes were in the can.
Scene 16 was next, a scene of zombies bursting from behind closed bar doors. The camera was placed close to the bars and George put the most gruesome zombies in front. The DP sat at the camera cart adjusting settings on the camera, his broken leg (he'd injured himself just the day before) propped on a corner of the cart. Several rehearsals were done until it was felt that everything was just right.
Except for a few moments, up until now George appeared slightly somber. At times it was difficult to tell how his thoughts were proceeding. On the one hand he appeared in total control, directing the cast and crew with the deft confidence of a career filmmaker. On the other he came across as somewhat indifferent to each scene, merely racking them up like a shooter might a run of skeets. However, with this zombie only scene George's stance changed. After its first run through, his patent crooked grin peeled across his face. With zombies stumbling about the murky jail halls George looked a happy man. The effect of his mood was infectious and quickly spread throughout the set. The shoot was becoming fun -- real fun.
The next scene was much more challenging. It called for 'Actor X' to spy out across the zombie mayhem from a window on the jail's second floor. On the street below, several zombies were positioned beside a trashed police car that was rigged to emit fire. From a crane, a spotlight to mimic that of a helicopter's was set to beam light across the action.
The camera was placed over 'Actor X's' shoulder and the shot marked off. Through a broken window a few feet away I watched the zombies lumbering outdoors. Had the world truly been under the siege of zombies I couldn't imagine it not looking more real than what I was now seeing.
Action was called. The flames in the squad car leapt about as zombies reached and stumbled mindlessly around it. To my left, 'Actor X' performed the scene earnestly. I looked at my watch. I was nearing the twenty-four hour mark. I popped an extra strength vitamin into my dry mouth. I had to keep myself going.
After this, a few scenes of 'Actor X' running for his guns and ammo were shot, as was an interview with him for the 'making of' video. I took care of my own work too, catching him between shots and running through a few questions for articles back home in Japan. He was considerate and answered every question as best he could. It was obvious that he initially took this as a lark, but what with the zombies, George, the set, etc., it was all turning out to be more fun than he'd anticipated. 'Actor X' looked now to be having a blast. In fact, that had become the prevailing mood on the set. This was no normal gig. This was going to be a job to talk about for years to come: the little Romero zombie movie.
Being a minor, 'Actor X', could only work 9 hours, with an hour of that for eating. After his scenes, he was released. Too bad for him -- because this was where the commercial's money shot came in.
The camera was moved outside to the front of the building and placed on a platform that was then raised twenty or so feet in the air. Below, the on-again off-again burning police car and another car beside an industrial trash bin were readied. At the back of the scene was a wind machine and a smoke machine. A man stood in front of the wind machine, ready with a bag full of leaves, newspapers and other assorted junk that he would let blow across the path of the zombies. The main zombies -- the ones with the most horrendous make-up -- were called to the set. To the right of the jail's entrance, George and crew set camp under the camera. Folding chairs, a table, and other necessaries were set around George and his small monitor. Soon rehearsal was called.
The zombie actors, picking themselves up from a rest on the pavement, went to their marks. The fire in the police car was turned on. The wind machine began to blow. The helicopter light on the crane swung to its starting mark. "Action!" George screamed. The zombies stumbled and moaned, their gruesome gurgling audible over the sound of the howling wind machine.
I was running around at this time, snapping up as many shots as I could: shots of George, shots of the zombies, shots of Mad George and his crew. It was the ultimate zombie photo op, and, though feeling fatigued, I wasn't going to lose out on some good shots due to something as trivial as lack of sleep.
Several dry runs were done and the scene was ready for the camera. This time smoke poured from the fog machine, covering the street in an eerie mist. The police car was ignited and from it a blazing heat emanated. The moment after the camera hit speed, George gave the command, and the zombies lumbered toward the front of the building. The scene was filmed, but the director was unhappy with its results. It was set up and filmed once again. After this take the question of time became an issue. The scene was visually exciting, and had it been a film it could be savored by the lens of the camera. But this was a commercial. Time was the deciding factor on everything. Suddenly Jason came up to me with a request. As odd as I thought it sounded, no one on the crew had a stopwatch, and one was needed. I quickly produced my Casio G-Shock and ran him through its operation. Jason ran to George and flashed the watch. He nodded in approval. Boy, I thought. This really is a Romero shoot -- everyone chips in in every way possible!
Looking for a new spot from where to take photos, I found one by the dumpster near the police car, only to be yelled away by one of the guys operating a fire extinguisher. Good thing too. A moment later the windshield of the police car unexpectedly blew apart from the constant heat.
The scene was up again. George gave a last few bits of zombie advice. Interestingly, he mentioned earlier that he prefers not to give directions to the zombie actors. The reason being that if he does, they only copy what he does. As odd as it may sound, George claims that people have a good idea how a dead person should move. Now he was simply correcting a couple of exuberant zombies and trying to get them to slow their movements, wanting the speed to come from the camera movement. He ended this direction by gleefully adding, "They're dead; they're all messed up!" At this, I let out a sharp laugh. George's eyes settled on mine. "I know that from somewhere," I said. We grinned at each other like over-grown children. George, I had by now decided, was completely cool.
The shot continued and I ran off more film. By the eighth take I decided I'd gotten enough, feeling I was worrying too much about photographs and not taking in the beauty of the moment. I put my Nikon down. Near the front and to the right of the movie camera's range I found an empty fold-up director's chair. I sat down. Before me the zombie actors stood waiting for their cue, behind me George Romero sat, the crew at his side. The shot was called into action. I detached myself from reality and focused on the scene:
A thick mist twisted in front of the Raccoon Police Department. Stirred to action by the spinning blades of an alighting helicopter, old newspapers took to the air and danced about several darkened bodies approaching the building. A harsh light flashed from the chopper and illuminated the area. Struck by the beam, one of the bodies peered up. It revealed the remains of a face half torn away. The others, fellow members of the living dead, lumbered past a burning squad car. Beside the car lay the twisted body of the officer who had once been its driver. His legs broken, he was struggling in vain to get to his feet. Hunger burned on his pathetic face. Another zombie, lipless, its rotten teeth exposed to the world, rose its wretched arms in the air as the helicopter flew past. Oblivious and singularly focused, the zombies made their way to the steps of the abandoned station. The open door of the precinct beckoned them with the promise of fresh meat.
This is what played before me. There was nothing about it that felt staged or phony. It was zombies in full panoramic, high definition reality. As they lurched and staggered, the crew behind me, the very world itself, melted away. A chill shot through my spine, one as cold as a drip from an old basement water pipe. It was pure horror -- and I loved every moment of it!
Finally, George was happy and the scene was called a wrap. The long day had ended. It was now 5:00 a.m. I had long ago passed the twenty-four hour mark. I paid my respects to George and Jason and then staggered to the trailers around back. The zombies had lined up in front of Mad George's trailer, impatient to get the make-up off and to go home. There was a bit of commotion and I went to investigate. It was the Russian woman. She was crying and screaming for the makeup to be removed. A van rolled up and Yaji waved me over. It was the ride home. We drove across the downtown streets to Hollywood as the sun broke over the rolling LA hills. Sparse traffic dotted the way. The city felt deserted, only accentuating the feeling that I was living in a post doomsday world. The homeless that approached the van for pocket change appeared to me as zombies looking for a quick bite of human flesh.
Back in my room, I tried to go to bed, but the flood of memories was too strong. I couldn't fall asleep until 6:30, only after the remnants of the day had washed away into a multi-colored, tie-dyed mess of unintelligible images.