Chewing the Scenery

Photo by James BunoanMy life might be very different now if I had just sucked it up and let Heath Ledger and the Lords of Dogtown cut me off in traffic.

It was the moment every extra dreams of: the moment when someone—a crew member or, better, a director sees your face in the crowd, grabs your shoulder, and quick-walks you up front.

I'd thought idly about this, my close-up, when I auditioned, with my car, to be a driver and an extra in director Catherine Hardwicke's (Thirteen)new movie, Lords of Dogtown, which is filming now around the Southland, from Huntington Beach to Mar Vista to San Pedro.

I still wasn't prepared for the callback, when the casting director told me that my car and I had been picked for four days of filming at a church in Altadena.

It sounded great, sort of: the real lords of Dogtown (Venice beach) were a group of skaters who basically reinvented the sport in the '70s, with modern moves and plenty of bad attitude.

Until the recent Dogtown and Z-Boysdocumentary, they were just another group of classic outlaw American idols who did something great by doing their own thing. I looked forward to helping bring their story to its biggest audience yet.

I was told they were paying me $89 for eight hours of work each day, time-and-a-half after eight hours.

I'd make enough to get my car painted, I estimated—and I'd get a good look at how one quintessential California subculture (the movie industry) viewed another (the skate rat).

One look, as it turned out, was enough. I eked out one 12-hour day, baking in the sun, and made around $130 (pre-taxes) before I hung it up.

On set, there was plenty of the hurry-up-and-wait, “stand here,” “walk slower,” “hold this” that you get when you're 11—and can't wait till you grow up. I thought I'd outgrown it, just like I thought I'd outgrown the witless small talk, fart jokes, inanely cutting remarks and pranks.

But they were all there waiting for me, in the 6 a.m. chill—all my frienemies from sixth grade.

“I'm reading Waylon Jennings' autobiography,” the first driver I met kept repeating throughout the day—mostly to impress other male drivers (there was only one woman, a mom in a Camaro convertible with the top up).

Like every other extra, he was trying desperately to make the personal connection that'll get you that Hollywood friend, that next job, that great story to tell about how Heath Ledger threw you a forward pass between takes.

“I can watch this on DVD when it comes out,” said the man. “I can show it to my grandkids and say, 'Look what your granddad did.' “

What he did was run off at the mouth all day. There was nothing else to do, except ogle all the sweet young things in tight embroidered '70s jeans, short-shorts and barely-there tank tops. And scam on them all day, which was what most of the guys did.

It's as if we were transformed into male chauvinist pigs by a little wardrobe and makeup.

“How about if I just lay across the front row?” this granddad asked a row of young, perfumey Dogtown groupie extras as we got into the shuttle to be driven to lunch. They were too young for snappy comebacks—just embarrassed sidelong glances and a few titters.

In a 12-hour-plus day, the crew managed to get around a half-dozen shots down. They wisely budgeted the shank of the week for the Dogtown crew's awesome showing at the Del Mar contest—the gig that made them superstars in shredded Vans.

My one big scene—which I blew off—was to have been the Dogtown skaters' raucous rush through the parking lot at Del Mar (in reality, the church parking lot).

My black, '63 Falcon hardtop is one of the cars they cut off in their haste to arrive. The crew took more than an hour to set it up, putting fake, period blue-and-yellow license plates on all the cars and doing so many rehearsals that my engine nearly overheated.

Then, finally, Heath Ledger—playing Dogtown impresario Skip Engblom—handed his cup of coffee to a crew member named Pablo and climbed into the Cadillac—lighting a cigarette, rocking around in the seat and honking the horn repeatedly to get in character.

He started it, the skate grommets piled in, and, gunning the V-8 motor hard, they roared past me in the left lane, covering about 30 feet before the drive shaft gave way. The crew pushed the Cadillac into a parking space for the next shot. That was a wrap for me. I'd had enough.

It wasn't without value: I got my look inside Hollywood—and got paid for it, though it nearly killed my car.

They were due to reshoot the arrival sequence the next morning. It could have been my big break, but I didn't care about being discovered; didn't care about whether, as someone suggested, Heath Ledger was hitting the bottle in his trailer; didn't care about getting my car in any more movies. I didn't even care if I got paid.

I drove home south on the Harbor Freeway, heart beating faster as my engine cooled down and smoothed out. My Hollywood ending was seeing Dogtownin my rear-view mirror.

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