My Life In Soviet Army

We’re baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack…

And hopping back into the weird and wild tales of our ol’ pal Scott Phillips – writer, director, B-movie expert…

In this installment of The Hollywood Handoff, Scott regales us with the story of his time as an extra on John Milus’ cold war opus, RED DAWN. This was a film that combined a second-string Brat Pack of Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen, with the hardboiled magnificence of such character actor legends as William Smith, Powers Boothe and the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton. It brought the idea of small-town invasion by the Red Menace to the sands of Las Vegas and filled the desert with winter-camo, kids with machine guns and paratrooping russkies… what could possibly go wrong?!?

IN SOVIET NEVADA, SLOT MACHINES PLAY YOU…

And don’t forget – for more of Scott’s contagious brand of B-movie shenanigans and Drive-In tomfoolery, visit him on CHEESE MAGNET, the best B-movie site on the interwebskis! 

Hollywood Hand-off

MY LIFE IN SOVIET ARMY – By Scott Phillips

When I was 19, I heard the exciting news that John Milius — director of Conan the Barbarian and Big Wednesday, two movies I loved the hell out of — was going to shoot his new movie, something called Red Dawn, in New Mexico. I’d been making short films on Super-8mm since I was 8 or 9 years old and desperately wanted to work on a real movie, but while film production in NM is rampant these days, back in the early 1980s there wasn’t a lot going on.

 It’s been a long time now so many of the details are lost in a fog, but if I remember correctly, somehow I got word (I believe it was through Patricia Rogers, who I didn’t know at the time but eventually became friends with, and she’s probably my best friend to this day) that Red Dawn was looking for extras. I made some phone calls and got through to the Red Dawn production office. They told me the movie was shooting in and around Las Vegas, NM, and they were only hiring locals. I lived in Albuquerque, a good 120 miles away. Remembering the great story of how a young John Landis made his way to Yugoslavia and essentially lied himself into a job on Kelly’s Heroes, I figured I could do something similar, albeit far less reckless and manly.

I wangled my buddy Mike Peck into driving me to Las Vegas, where we tracked down the production office. I went in, nervous as hell but determined to get some kind of job on the movie. There were several people in the office, and I told them I was hoping to get hired as an extra. No dice. Locals only, as the surfers in Big Wednesday might say.

 That’s when I brought out the big guns: “I wanna work in movies more than anything,” I said, “And I would crawl backwards over broken glass through Beirut for a job on this movie.” The folks in the production office all swapped a look. “Milius would love this kid,” one of them said. And so they hired me, with the caveat that I’d have to handle my own room and board while in Vegas.

 I gave ’em my phone number and Mike drove me back to Albuquerque. I was bouncing around the car in excitement and worked up a brutal need to urinate, so Mike pulled over on the side of the road. It was cold as hell that winter and out there in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. Certain that some kind of hideous beast was going to lunge out of the darkness and tear me open, thereby cutting short my dream of working in movies, I managed to pee all over my own feet.

 The production company called soon afterwards and said they needed me in Las Vegas for a week. I caught another ride up with Mike and rented a room at a seedy motel. Mike headed back to Albuquerque and I settled in for my movie-making adventure. First stop: a small burger joint near the motel. I took my food back to the room and watched TV while I ate. In the middle of the night, I woke up, needing to hit the bathroom. Throwing the covers back, I put my bare feet on the floor… and the floor was squirming. I turned the light on to see a writhing mass of cockroaches scurrying around the room, many of them enjoying the grease on my discarded burger sack. Needless to say, I slept with the lights on after that.

 Bright and early the next morning, the military advisor and some other guys came by to collect me and we drove to a location just outside of town — some kind of farm complex or something; again, my memory is sketchy but it was used as a location for a combat scene in the movie — the bit where one of the Wolverines tosses a grenade at their foes and the invader shrieks “Una grenadaaaaa!” before getting his ass blown skyward. There were bullet holes in the walls — or so I thought, until closer examination revealed them to be clever splotches of paint. Now, keep in mind, the entire bunch of us were just shmoes — no ex-or-current-military in our ranks that I recall, but we were expected to learn to march in step within a few days and look like highly-trained Spetsnaz commandoes. Just don’t look too closely at us as we stride into town in the movie.

This training continued day in and day out for a week, and we were usually released after several hours. That meant I was loose in Las Vegas with nothing to do — except, as you might recall, there was a movie shooting in town, and what better way could there be to fill those empty hours than by making a pest of myself on the set? I had made friends with one of the other extras (a local with a car) and we found our way to the location. That day Milius was shooting the sequence where Jennifer Grey sneaks a bomb into the Soviet Welcome Center and is hit on by a Russkie soldier as she’s trying to flee the scene. Not only did my buddy and I get to see stuff blow up and tanks roll around, we helped ourselves to food off the craft services table, stuffing our pockets like Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.

 The next morning, my newfound pal picked me up and we drove to the Plaza Hotel, where the cast and crew were residing (you’ll recognize it from the scene in No Country For Old Men when Javier Bardem pursues Josh Brolin out into the streets). We wandered into the restaurant, where Powers freakin’ Boothe was having breakfast. I was frozen with fear, but my pal said hi to Mr. Boothe, who then — I shit you not — invited us to sit down and join him for breakfast. I had a million questions I wanted to ask him but chickened out entirely. He was a great guy, though — told some good stories and paid for our breakfast.

Finally, the week — and our training — were at an end, and we were taken to the location for our big scene. At this point, I didn’t know who was in the movie aside from Powers Boothe, Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze (and I only knew about Swayze because they had considered using me as his stand-in until they realized I was about four inches taller and he was about a foot wider). Now, as a good Russian commando, I wasn’t allowed to wear my glasses, so when I saw our commanding officer approaching, my first thought was “That blurry dude is shaped like William Smith.” As he got closer, I very nearly flipped out — that blurry dude wasn’t just shaped like Big Bill, he was Big Bill! For a kid who grew up on drive-in movies, this was an awesome moment, and it only got better when Ron “Superfly” O’Neal and Harry Dean Stanton showed up. Imagine how thrilled I was when I meekly said “Mr. Smith, I really enjoy your work,” only to have Big Bill slap me on the shoulder and say “Call me Bill.” Man, it makes me giddy to this day.

 As we were arranged in position, rifles were handed out to us. We had never trained with them, so there was a lot of excitement from the guys, who started playing with the guns even though we’d been warned not to. I didn’t want to risk my job so I slung mine over my shoulder, following orders like a good soldier. Then a loud BANG lifted me off my feet and I felt something burning my back. The military advisor was instantly down the throat of the guy behind me, who had pulled the trigger on his rifle while aiming at my back — and there was a blank in his gun that had gone off, the wadding hitting me and burning through my uniform. Needless to say, that guy had no ass left whatsoever when the military advisor was finished yelling at him.

In typical movie-making fashion, a long stretch of time went by. Eventually, Milius and a couple other people looked us over, then singled out me and another tall guy (like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, I stand about 6 foot 4). Leading us to the front of the group, they handed us Soviet flags, making us the standard-bearers of our half-assed commando squad — which meant we’d be marching directly behind William Smith. Not bad for my first time on a real movie set.

With our flags held high, the Soviet anthem began playing and Milius called for action. We marched past the reviewing stands, looking exactly like a bunch of extras who’d been training for four days (Vladek Sheybal quietly said “Perhaps they could use a little more training.”). As you might imagine, numerous takes followed. We finally got it together well enough that Milius was satisfied and we moved on to our briefing scene. As we were setting up for that, one of the other (male) extras flirtatiously asked me if I was a model. I informed him that I was just a particularly handsome lad with no ties to the modeling industry and a deep, abiding love for the ladies, then went back to the business of getting into character. We were told that William Smith would address us in Russian and we had to act like we knew what the hell he was talking about. Apparently we were all much better at faking an understanding of Russian than we were at marching, because we got through that scene pretty well.

 With the briefing in the can, we extras were released. I begged the extra-wranglers to give me more stuff to do, and they assured me they’d bring me back very soon. That night, me and my pal ventured out to the set again, this time getting lucky enough to see a helicopter gunship fire its rockets, resulting in even more shit blowing up. I stood there sipping hot chocolate we’d skeezed from craft services and feeling happier than I ever had before — this was, after all, a dream come true for a kid like me; after Red Dawn I’d only need to work on getting laid.

 The next morning I caught a ride to Santa Fe with one of the extras, and my dad picked me up there. A week or so went by and I didn’t hear from the extra-wranglers, so I called them. Turns out they had called a few days earlier, wanting me to take part in a battle scene, but my brother hadn’t bothered to pass along the message. I still harbor that grudge to this day, I doubt I have to tell you.

Not wanting to leave me hanging, those fine extra-wranglers told me they were gearing up to shoot a big scene and that I should get my butt back to Las Vegas asap. My buddy Mike — never one to let a guy down — drove me to Vegas and I checked into my old fleabag motel once again.

 This time around I’d be on the other side of the war, playing an American POW. The wardrobe people stuck me into some ratty clothes and we were taken to the drive-in, which had been converted into a prison camp and was full of burned-out cars, trash can fires and all sorts of ramshackle shelters. Propaganda slides were projected on the screen. The weather was frigid and the extras were huddled around the various fires, getting into character with no trouble at all.

 One of the extras warming herself at the trash can I stood by was a saucy young lady who seemed to think I was pretty funny. Dork that I was (am?), I was more interested in the Winnebago parked nearby, where John Milius was hanging out with Harry Dean Stanton. It was taking a particularly long time to get rolling that evening, I suspect because Milius and Stanton were having a good ol’ time shooting the shit in that warm n’ comfy motor home. At one point I overheard someone on a production walkie-talkie say that “burnt offerings were being placed at the feet of the Big Kahuna,” which apparently meant they were trying to lure Milius out into the cold so they could start shooting.

 While all this was going on, that girl kept moving a little closer to me and complaining more and more about the cold. Eventually, she gestured toward a wrecked van parked near us and, smiling slyly, said “We could get in there and warm up…”

 Please note: as previously mentioned, I am a dork. It takes a lot for me to realize when a girl is coming on to me (neon signs and skywriting are a good start). Not to mention I was having the time of my life working on this movie and didn’t want to do anything to mess up my chances to continue working on it, and I was afraid getting into that van might make me miss my cue or something. It only occurred to me days later what that chick probably had in mind and that a couple fewer extras — in the dark, mind you — would have had no bearing on the scene whatsoever. This missed opportunity for an — ahem — “romantic interlude” is just one of many on a very long list of missed opportunities. In fact, thinking back on that are-you-a-model business, I just now realized I probably could’ve scored on either side of the fence during Red Dawn, were I so inclined.

 Long story short: not catching the finer implications of her suggestion, I told the girl we should be ready to leap into action when needed — or something along those lines, anyway; I really only remember the look of disappointment on her face and her sudden relocation to another fire nearby. But man, I was ready when Milius and Stanton finally emerged from the motor home and things got rollin’. I found myself only a few yards from Stanton as he hollered his famous line: “AVENGE ME! AVENNNNNGE MEEE!”

A few hours and a bazillion takes later (I heard the words Avenge Me more times than anyone should have to), we were released and I caught a lift back to my motel. The next morning I went back to Albuquerque and my day job (installing and repairing gas pumps and other petroleum equipment). There were no more calls to the Red Dawn set, sadly, and production soon wrapped. A year later, though, the woman who had been in charge of the extras was working on another movie, this one shooting in Albuquerque, and when they needed a production assistant, she remembered my enthusiasm and called me in. I was hired on that flick, a little-seen romantic comedy called Animal Behavior, starring Karen Allen and Armand Assante. It was there that I learned to heed the words of the man who tells you not to shake hands with the monkeys — but that, as they say, is another story

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