June 29, 2005
Today the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster, War of the Worlds, opens in theaters across the country. I happen to have been one of the hundreds of extras who were playing refugees in the crowd scenes, and will be eager to find out whether my face is recognizable amidst all the apocalyptic tumult. The map below shows where the movie was filmed in the Appalachian foothills of Virginia, back in December. Dark green areas are wooded, and the "X"s mark the spots where director Steven Spielberg's helicopter took off and landed.
The day I worked as an extra playing one of the many "war refugees" was bitterly cold. In the morning, about 200 of us were bussed from the movie "base camp" to the set where we picked up prop suitcases and assorted personal belongings. We filmed a few scenes in which we trudged along the gravel road, and one scene trudging through a low-lying field that was crunchy with ice. "Background! ... Rolling! ... Action!" yelled the assistant directors. Over and over, back and forth... I think the camera was at the top of the hill where the helicopter landed, but I have since learned that many scenes in the movie were filmed with hand-held cameras, so perhaps there were a few cameramen who "infiltrated" the ranks of us extras who were playing refugees.
Then we broke for lunch (prime rib!), but to my surprise, we did not resume filming until very late in the afternoon, near sunset. We were walking down a hill, and then breaking into a run, supposedly excited by seeing the arrival of the Army (I think). "Let's do that again," over and over. It's a good thing I was in semi-decent shape; some extras had a hard time keeping up. In a nearby spot we filmed the climatic battle scene (which I glimpsed in one of the movie trailers on TV), where eleven military Humvees come racing down a road and then make a simultaneous abrupt turn to charge uphill against the aliens, with a hundred or so of us civilian refugees chasing behind. We did that sequence at least seven times, and I was exhausted! It was nearly dark by time we finished that last scene was shot, after which the assistant directors gathered all the extras together to sing "happy birthday" to Steven Spielberg. I never did see him or Tom Cruise, however. There is a new War of the Worlds archives page that includes my previous blog posts on this rather unique "Hollywood" experience, including a photo I took of the movie set in rural Virginia.
As for the final cinematographic product, the initial reviews are very good. (See Stephen Hunter in today's Washington Post.) The underlying post-9/11 feelings of confusion, panic, and despair are obvious themes, as is the creepy suggestion that the evil ones "are already here" -- like Mohammed Atta and the other 18 terrorists. One unique element is Spielberg's portrayal of Americans becoming desperate refugees like the Bosnians, Kurds, and Sudanese vitims we have been pitying for years. There is apparently some confusion over whether the aliens are from Mars or some other solar system. I'll hold off on making further comments on the movie -- and the political implications thereof -- until I actually see it.
The release of this blockbuster movie has been undermined somewhat by the recent strange words and actions of lead actor Tom Cruise. Much of the celebrity hoopla has focused on his purported romance with the ultra-cute Katie Holmes, which has elicited widespread scoffs and/or gestures of indifference. (Curious coincidence: Steven Spielberg was the idol and inspiration of the character Dawson played by Jason Van Der Beek, with whom Holmes co-starred in the WB teen drama Dawson's Creek.) Tom's jumping on Oprah's sofa seemed to be a contorted effort to display the last vestiges of youthful appearance, something I can relate to. At least he wasn't cavorting in white briefs like he did in Risky Business. Soon he will be buying Rogaine, Viagra, and Metamucil, or maybe even doing TV ads or commercial endorsements for those products. The way he's been acting lately, I wonder if he might need some Prozac, which is ironic given the bizarre interview with Cruise on the Today show last Friday. His strained lecturing to Matt Lauer on the overuse of drugs to "cure" psychiatric illnesses gave me the creeps, but I must admit he made a good point. We are a grossly overmedicated society, seeking easy remedies (subsidized by the government wherever possible) to the pains and frustrations of life that people used to accept as perfectly normal. Leaving aside Mr. Cruise's suitability as messenger, the message is very apt.