Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I Was a Teenage Production Assistant: Super Mario Bros. Part One!

Here it is - after three posts that did NOT feature me as a production assistant (OR a teenager, for that matter) - here at last is the post where I actually start being a production assistant!

Before we get to the movie represented by that poster, however, I'll cover one other production I was around briefly during this period.

Simple Justice: The Thurgood Marshall Story was an feature-length episode (or maybe multiple episodes) of the PBS series American Experience. I must have gotten on the lot (MUCH easier to do in those days) and turned in a resume - and I got called in to talk to the production office coordinator about working with them as an unpaid office intern.

I took the position - but I told them that any extra work from Amos and Andrew would have to take precedence, as that paid. They agreed, and I started work on Simple Justice on the next Monday morning.

So, an office production assistant can handle a lot of duties - just like a set production assistant - office PA's might: bring in the morning bagels for the office crew; make coffee; do copying, printing, and faxing; pick up people and equipment and cart them around hither and yon; retrieve and lay out lunch for the office crew and producers; facilitate script readthroughs; and 1,000,006 other things. The problem was - I knew little to nothing of any of this - so I was not a great self starter. I also barely knew my way around town, so making runs was a real problem.

I sat around the office for a few days, doing bits of this and that. A copy here; answer a phone there. Eventually I wandered off with my camera on my lunch and took some pictures of stuff I'd found while wandering around the studio.

The Green Goblin truck front from Maximum Overdrive

A non-articulated foam hand from King Kong Lives

After a few days of this - I got in to the stand-in work on Amos and Andrew, and I let the Simple Justice people know I was going with the paid job. It turned out that Simple Justice had a heck of a cast - but I never saw a'one of them. Even Samuel L. Jackson stopped over on a day off from A and A and played a bit part - just to be in the project. Maybe I should have tried harder to say around SJ, as sometimes an office PA in pre-production can become a set PA during production. But alas, it was not meant to be.

The rest of this post - which will be my jumbled up memories of working on Super Mario Bros - is actually a cobbled together re-edit of an interview I did for the Super Mario Bros Movie Archive. I apologize for the random nature of it - if you've never seen the movie everything following might be well nigh incomprehensible. If you have seen the movie it might only be confusing.

In the spring of 1992 (for those just joining us) I got hired to play a television crew guy in some scenes in Amos and Andrew which were shot off and on starting in April and into May or maybe even June. Having showed that I was a good, punctual worker, the extras casting lady told me a new movie was shooting that was going to need a lot of extras - Super Mario Bros. So I got listed for that movie as an extra too, somewhere around mid April or May 1992.

SMB was going to be bringing in 300 people a day as Dinohattan citizens for the big days - and there were going to be a LOT of big days.. I alternated working on both movies off and on for the rest of Amos and Andrew's production period. When it wrapped, I just kept working on Mario.

My very first day on SMB I was an extra, and as I had yet to meet Stefania or Jeff Goodwin, I was just one of around forty or so extras for the day. The sequence to be shot was the police station. I had worn dark clothing as requested, and I was scruffed up a bit by extras hair and makeup. I was chosen to be part of a chain gang, but not I think attached to the Mario Bros.

I remember being taken to set, and first goggling at the sets, then meeting a prop guy, who gave us some plastic chain painted silver. Several of us extras "chained" ourselves together, and in the scene we're struggling with a couple of cop extras, being dragged into the station or around the station.
While shooting this sequence, at one point during some downtime I got the chains off and wandered off away from where they were shooting to ogle the sets some more. I ran into an actor I recognized, but could not name. I had seen him in a horror movie called Blue Monkey a few months previously. I mentioned the title of the movie as an introduction, and Don Lake smiled at being recognized. We chatted for a couple of minutes and he was very pleasant and nice. I went back to shooting a few minutes later and didn't see much more of him then.

Don Lake

During the early days in the police station I met one of the assistant directors, a young woman named Stefania Girolami Goodwin, who took a liking to me and my enthusiasm for the work and film knowledge (her father is an Italian director whose work I was familiar with) She introduced me to her husband Jeff Goodwin, who was the key makeup artist on the movie. He also took a liking to me, so now I had two solidly placed contacts on the movie.

Back at the police station, we shot in there for a couple of weeks. Eventually I moved into one of the cages (actually a few cages over several days) and spent a LOT of time wishing I'd slipped a paperback book into my pocket. However, during my cage time I was positioned one up and over from Mark Miller - my first meeting (of several over the next few years) with him - we later worked on Radioland Murders together among others - I was fascinated by his lizard man makeup and really enjoyed chatting with him.

Mark Miller as "Lizard Man"

I also got a visit from Rocky Morton - who climbed into my cage, looking for something - not sure if it was a glint or gleam he was seeing down below, or possibly scouting some new camera angle that would drive the crew crazy - but I mistook him for one of the assistant directors, which made our chat a bit prickly for the few minutes he was in my cage. He then left and that turned out to be my one direct run-in with the directors.At one point later I was also one cage straight up from Mojo Nixon - also a very nice man who entertained everyone as much as he was allowed with his impromptu playing and singing on set.

Mojo Nixon

I had to show the wild haircut they gave him.

The extras and actors had to be loaded into the cages with scissor lifts, and it was a long and laborious process, so once everyone was loaded, they just kind of left us in there for hours on end. Eventually, seeing some folks being released for drinks and bathroom breaks, I also scored a trip back down to the ground for a while. While up there, I did get to watch the fireball that sails across the room - that was cool. It was an effect done again on the Dinohattan set later more than once - but it was my first on-set special effect in the cages, so I remember that one warmly (pun intended).

The cages. I might be one of these people.

One of the cage nights we were out in the holding tent outside, and a ripple came through the crowd - Dennis Hopper had arrived on set! We didn't expect to see him at all until we got to set - but danged if he didn't march right into the tent and tell us all hello! He stayed for a few minutes, chatting with some of the extras - and I got to shake his hand and tell him how much I'd enjoyed his work. He was terrific. He then got bustled off to makeup hair and wardrobe I guess, and when next we saw him on the police station set he was Koopa.

After the police station sequences - including the seemingly neverending days in the cages  (a sequence that takes up about four minutes in the movie) we geared up for the biggest extra days - and Dinohattan!

Before we get to that truly incredible set - by this time Stefania and I were friends, and she'd introduced me to Jeff. Now, I've been a fan of special effects makeup forever, and found a real kindred spirit in both Jeff and Vinnie Guastini, who was doing some of the prosthetic work on SMB. When Jeff found out how much I was interested in the process, he chose me to wear one of his latex pieces for the movie. I got to sit in the same chair that Bob Hoskins sat in for makeup!

Jeff cleaned my forehead of oils and dirt with some alcohol on a cotton ball, then allowed it to dry. He then applied adhesive to my forehead and applied the piece which was positioned high over my right eye almost on my temple. Once it was in place, he did the delicate work blending the edges of the piece into invisibility, then spent several minutes painting the scales green and making the "skin" around the burst area angry red.
When he was finished, Stefania took me to the head of the line for hair in the extras tent and personally worked me over as can be seen in the picture I uploaded this evening. She gelled my hair and worked it into a "slick guy" kind of look.
Once that was done, she then took me to wardrobe so they'd give me something special, and I ended up in a black shirt, purple patterned tie, and a shiny silver and purple vest. With this in place, I felt like I was going to be fourth billed in the movie after Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper. As we have seen, that was not the case.

I don't remember the young lady's name. I wish I did, as she was a sweetheart.

Cool or gross? I still have the latex piece...


But on to the next set. Dinohattan.

 Dinohattan. Wow. What a set. What a place. It was truly awesome - and even after tromping in to it nearly every day for four months, it was still an amazing place. My first introduction to the place was as an extra, after we'd finished that round of shooting on the police station set. The first time we were taken in I was a moving bystander on the Boom Boom bar side - in the pictures above (which I'll refer to as the bar side from here in.) They got us all in, and my first action was just walking down from the movie theater end all the way to the bar. Simple as that. I don't even know what was being shot or where the camera was.

Unlike a lot of the extras on that set, I was still a newbie, being my fourth time on a set, third as a true extra. And this was by far the biggest set and biggest movie I'd ever been on. So I was just being dazzled by all the sights and sound and energy and bustle around me. I wasn't consumed by the need to find the lens and battle my way to it. I eventually learned to at least get some idea of where it was I went on, certainly.

During the downtime between setups the first few days I managed to check out all the doors (locked or not real for the most part) and sidle up into all the nooks and crannies on the bar side. I think of the three sections on that level (counting the walkway, even though it is a bit lower) I think the bar side was the safest. It took a few days, but we gradually spread out the 300 extras across all parts of the set, and I took turns being on the donut shop side and the walkway, although the walkway was a bit boring because there was less to do on camera there unless you had some good props (like a fishing pole). The donut shop was a particularly hot place to be stationed, so I tried to avoid it.

Basically they would like the camera up, and during the lighting of the scene we would rehearse our actions (with constant cries of "QUIET PLEASE!" from 2nd 2nd AD Anthony D'Esposito) and finally shoot it. Repeat for 12-14 hours, usually. Usually a set stays the same for the most part throughout shooting - but Dinohattan got a one side makeover somewhere along the line.

After we'd been shooting on the set for some period of time, on the far end away from the bar, a giant billboard of Koopa kissing a baby appeared, and back where the set originally just kind of faded back into being a cement factory, more stuff was added, like the movie theater facade and other bits and pieces. I'd be interested to hear why this happened.


I don't remember exactly when it was, but after Dinohattan, and I'm thinking before downtown with second unit I was briefly hired to be a lighting stand-in for Jeff Pillars' character.

Over my standard issue black t shirt and dark jeans I had to suit up in a cheaper version of the gear Jeff wore. Wow that made it an already hot set that much more toasty! After a set up or two where I stood in for him, I think Jeff got a little weirded out having a stand-in and he in effect dismissed me, standing in for his own self. I was not truly dismissed however, and I stayed around helping out here and there.

Jeff Pillars

Kevin West

Don Lake was there, and the two technicians and some Goombas. It was shots of the technicians working, Don Lake being dragged in, stuff like that. I would think this would have been pickup stuff that first unit had missed that the script supervisor indicated would be needed by the editors, so they geared up the smaller unit to shoot the inserts and shots not involving the top listed cast. I only worked on that set for a day or two.

Kevin West was somewhat famous at that time for starring in a very manic Domino's pizza commercial but he was fairly muted on set, as was Jeff Pillars. They joked some, but no big flareups or anything. It was still a fun piece of the production for me - my first stand-in work!

Here's a weird story - the one I already ran in my Amos and Andrew post - the only time in my entire production career I pulled something like this off. I mentioned before that for a period there were two films shooting in/near Wilmington: SMB and the comedy Amos and Andrew. (Young Indiana Jones was also in town right around this time).

Well, I worked on SMB one day as an extra - during the police station. I went in early, like 6:30-7:00am. Worked all day, getting released for the day with no callback for the next day around 7:00-8:00pm. I got home and found a message one of my roommates had taken that said Amos and Andrew (which shot only nights) needed me as a extra - so I quickly showered, changed, and jumped back in my car and headed out to that set (on the other side of Wilmington from Ideal Cement).
I arrive around 8:30-9:00 and discover they are happy to have me. I figure I'll shoot all night on A& A, then sleep all the next day. It was a looooong night. Around 4 or 5 am I was really sleepy, but I muddled through the rest of that evening into the coming dawn, which was always A&A's wrap time. I stumble back into the apartment around 6:00am, and find a message that apparently had come in five minutes after I'd left for A&A the night before requesting me to come in for another day's work on SMB! And by golly, I needed the work and the money!
Another shower, another change, and I drove back out to the cement plant, now past the 24 hours up with no sleep mark. I worked all day on the police station set, and most of the day is a blur. But on the back side of the day, I was sent into an office in one of the station hallways with the direction to "do office-y stuff" behind the frosted glass office windows while first unit shot some kind of action scene out in the hallway.
I walked around the desk, talked on the phone, sat at the desk, rummaged in the drawers (found the first set of "sides" (mini script of just one day's scenes for the actors to use throughout the day)) I'd ever seen in that desk...anyway, there was a long lighting setup in there, and they just left us on set as we were out of the way and quiet, and I started drifting badly, not quite sleeping, but as close as you can get.
Thankfully this early in the show they weren't needing to go 18 hours (yet) so they wrapped (or wrapped us extras) around 5-6 pm. I somehow managed to drive home, now 36 hours in and no sleep. I had no call time for either show and was planning to meet some friends for dinner. Got back to the apartment, half afraid that Amos & Andrew would have left another message for me - not sure what I would have done there, but thankfully they didn't. I got to my place, planning a shower before dinner, sat down on my bed - and it was suddenly the next afternoon. Slept straight through like 18 hours or something.
On single shows, I had some 18s on SMB, hit my record of 22 hours twice, (with those stories to come) but the combo SMB/A&A got me an amazing 30+ straight hours working!

But back during my time as an extra I wore my special outfit and had the Jeff Goodwin scale patch on for a few days, however, the other assistant directors were all guys, and they were more interested in featuring the hot young women close to camera to score points, so I never got featured. Then thankfully Stefania started using me as an extra "extra wrangler" on set (in effect, being a low level production assistant (PA) for her). Even while I was still working as an extra, she started to have me set far background in some of the wide shots of Dinohattan.
The funny thing is, it was my fourth experience on or near a set (Superboy and A League of Their Own preceded Amos and Andrew and SMB) and because the setups were long, I would have time to really set up some intricate stuff in my section of the shot - I did a full on slapstick comedy sequence with chains of events (guy 1 steals wallet from guy 2, who then can't pay for his rat on a stick but he's hungry so he takes it and the vendor starts chasing him - that sort of thing) and then when I saw the movie - the shot all that work was supporting was the rat creature looking up at Big Bertha as she lands in the jump boots - everything that isn't the rat or the boots is completely out of focus. *sigh* And that happened a lot. On subsequent movies I learned my lesson, found out what the shot was and provided background appropriate to what was needed.

It was a hard shoot - there's no getting around that. It was the depths of summer here in Wilmington, so it was HOT. And I'm talking about the exteriors downtown and the desert. Then there was the Dinohattan set - WOW HOT - it was metered at 120 degrees up on the third level at one point, and it was a cool and refreshing 95 or so down in the bottom area where the cars ran. So there was always discomfort. It was also not the safest set - Dinohattan was a rough place - and that extended to the set - sharp metal jutting out, flooring that could be less than structurally sound and was taped off except when cameras rolled - the sparks that were falling down in shots - if that stuff hit you - OUCH!

All that said though - it was a good time. My friendship with the Goodwins was not the only one I developed. I have friends still that I met on that set. All of the setups were pretty long, and often the extras will be brought in (especially if there are a lot of them) so that they're already in place when the shot is ready, so we stood around a lot and joked and cut up.
The guys over at the SMB Movie Archive told me that the superfans of the movie actually watch the background closely - looking for new tidbits to marvel at - and they love how busy the background is. As far as that background goes - well, not to sound too full of myself - but the odds are better than half that the background that is catching the eyes of the fans might well have been set by me, as I was there almost every day for Dinohattan and started working with Stefania early. Even after I stopped strictly working as an extra and moved over to production assistant, it was agreed that my work outfit every day would be a black t-shirt and dark jeans, so I could be in shots if necessary to direct action without standing out.
The biggest example of this was when Bertha jumps across to the bar - when she comes down on the walkway in the middle, I'm right on camera on the sidelines of her landing point, directing the extras to clear out for her landing. That was pretty wild. Per Stefania's directive, I was out there on the walkway with 30 or so people, and had them milling about and moving ala Dinohattan. And then, several times across the course of a shot I would bellow "CLEAR!" and all my people would spread away from a central spot, which was for Bertha to land.
And for these shots, Francesca was not there - she was going to be added in later. She did have to go up on a wire rig briefly - but she was also doubled - by a man - and weirdest of all, that young man was the nephew of Fred "Rerun" Berry from TV's What's Happening. The nephew's name was Jeff Johnson, and I can't figure out which of the 50+ Jeff Johnsons on the IMDB he is. But you get a good look at Jeff in the police station sequence - they cut to him briefly in the cages at least once. I was in there too, but only in wide shots - about three cages over and one up from Jeff.

Jeff Johnson. Nephew of Fred "Rerun" Berry.
I have to give this guy props. He went from extra
to production assistant to stunt double across SMB.

Back at Dinohattan - we moved on to the Boom Boom Bar.

The Boom Boom bar was really located inside as an interior set to the Dinohattan exterior set - which was an interior set (!) Yes, they built them big on Super Mario Bros! We shot in there for a couple of weeks or so. It was hot (as all of the interior of the cement factory was).
This was another place where the assistant directors excelled at placing the attractive young women closer to camera. I am barely seen sitting at a table along the wall, and then in one cut as the camera shows the walkway outside I come by and watch a person who jumps/falls off the walkway. If you remember that person, I'm the guy who comes up back to camera and looks down. (We extras added a bit where I'm pickpocketed and chase off after the thief, but not sure any of that is seen as the shot cuts pretty quick).

Back inside the bar, I also am on the edge of the huge crowd shots during the dancing - that was my first such scene - and I was flabbergasted as they had no idea what song would be played in the movie, and had a representative song they only played long enough to give us the beat, then cut the music so they could record live sound as the boys make their way through the bar.
I do not remember the Spike/Iggy rap - wonder if that was shot later by a unit I wasn't working on? And yes, it was really hard for everyone to maintain one beat, and do it silently, so there were a lot of cuts in those wide shots. It was just like everything else in the movie - intricate, long, and hot. But as with the rest of the filming - we still had some fun.

It was around this time that Stefania started using me as an additional PA - and as soon as I fulfilled this last round of time I'd promised to the extras casting people, I stopped being an extra and moved over to working as an official (and paid) production assistant! At long last! Huzzah!

And since that's a nice stopping point - we'll split this murderously long pile of anecdotes into two - and mark this as the end of part one!

Part two will post next week at this same time - but the regular department posts will go up in between - until then, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!

Hey! When do we get our turn in this thing? We even brought cake!




  1. Way cool! I've always wanted to see what it's like to work on a movie! :)

  2. What an awesome story Craig. I read about this movie a lot when I was younger since I'm a huge movie fan and had the behind-the-scenes magazine. I didn't see you in there. Go figure. Visually spectacular film and Patrick Tatoupolus went all out with the creature designs. Looking forward to part 2!

    1. Thank you Maurice! It was a wild adventure - in front of and behind the scenes! I do want to point out that Patrick T did design Yoshi, the Goombas, and the Koopa dinosaur - but all of the makeups up above were designed by either Jeff Goodwin or Vincent Guastini!

  3. I never understood the lizard makeup. Yeah, they're descended from dinosaurs, but...it's not like humans descended from apes have patches of fur springing out of our foreheads.

    1. Apparently the studio agreed with you - as they kiboshed that during production - meaning they stopped putting much of that on people after the first few weeks - and then in editing they downplayed it a lot too. But to explain - there was the thought that with the fungus strangling the city that slow de-evolution was starting to spring up. This led to Koopa developing a fast acting evo/devo ray. Yeah, it was confusing to us too.

  4. I wonder, though, does the studio have that cute little prop? The tiny wind-up bomb Mario used to blew up Koopa? I would really like to have that! LOL!

    1. Kaijinu - I actually had that little sucker right here in my house - I was helping my buddy auction it off - getting the Bob-omb and several other props and costume pieces from several movies out to Los Angeles for a big Hollywood auction - it was pretty wild!

  5. Wonderful write-up, Craig. Thumbs up!
    I especially enjoyed what you wrote about switching between A&A and SMB. My goodness, that must've been tough.
    Love the pic with you and the nameless lady.

    Thanks for reminding me of "Blue Monkey". Love that movie but haven't seen it in quite a while.

    1. Thank you sir! It was a tough 36 hours back and forth between the two movies - I'd die trying that now!

      Blue Monkey is a cool little movie - just rewatched it a couple of months ago!

  6. I want the green goblin truck part, how much to buy it

  7. I want the green goblin truck part, how much to buy it

  8. Great stuff, Craig, love your photos off the King Kong hand and Maximum Overdrive truck front. Nice detail here too, especially with working such lengthy shoots! I know by the end of even a 15 hour shoot I'm as good as dead!