Dust of War: Making Of Action Movie Story with Paul Cram

south dakote rattle snake
PAY ATTENTION I mentally shout at myself while standing on the "Dust of War" film set in South Dakota. Trying to listen to the instructions being set forth by the on-set production coordinator gal is hard.

I am attempting to stop thinking of the snake scene in "Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark." The one where Indiana is looking at the floor covered with poisonous snakes. They are crawling over everything. And even pouring out of the walls. To free himself, Indiana douses them with kerosene and uses a torch to light it all ablaze.

Just the mental image of all those writhing scaly snakes is enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I don't like snakes. Never have. Their long bodies undulating together in a twisted knot of scales and slithering. Ick!

"Snap out of it." I say mentally.

Taking a deep breath I review it all out trying to use logic:
For one, I don't have any readily available gasoline. Or a torch with which to set snakes alight with. And for two, I am not locked in the bottom of an ancient desert pyramid with snakes at every turn. And for three, I can't see any snakes... yet.

"Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they aren't there" says the gal. Almost as if she can read my thoughts.

My pulse starts picking up again.

I am standing in a circle of about twenty people, mostly men, at the film's base camp. It's obvious who is an actor and who is with the crew. All of us actors are wearing tattered war-torn costumes. A look achieved by putting Civil War costumes into a blender with Desert storm gear. We are all listening to the production coordinator, who is giving instructions on snake protocol. There's the make-up trailer to our left, the wardrobe trailer to the right, and directly behind us is the food trailer.

"This area is a hot bed for Rattlers" she says.

I didn't realize, until just moments ago, that this location we are filming at is a breeding ground for venom fanged snakes that shake their tails. Usually I consider myself to be smart, but somehow I totally spaced it out that if I am going to be filming in the prairies of South Dakota, that means there are going to be snakes.

The production coordinator obviously was smart with her selection of footwear. She is wearing knee high leather cowboy boots. Which makes me glance down at my wardrobe-provided canvas boots. It's that odd blender thing again- this time with what is essentially a canvas shoe, with extra canvas attached to make it look sort of like an army boot.

Looking to my left I see that all the other actors are in thick leather boots that come at least mid-calf. Which makes me wonder if I was a venomous snake, which shoes would my fangs be able to pierce?

The production coordinator's talk continues with information that Rattlesnakes will try to avoid you. They only bite if they feel threatened. "Much like a honey bee" she coos. Her voice actually went up a register higher when she said that part. And with a gleeful smile! And immediately my brain pictured her in her bedroom at night singing bedtime stories to an aquarium tank of snakes at the foot of her bed.

Furthermore the boot-clad gal says that we will be walking single file from the base camp (make-up trailer, food trailer, wardrobe trailer, etc.) over to the filming location. Which is set atop a small hill. The snake wrangler will lead the way, with each of us actors behind.

I could see the filming location from base camp. About two football field lengths away.

"Be alert while walking. If you hear a rattle, stop and shout 'Snake' and stand dead still. If you hear someone shout 'Snake' and you don't see one, you still should stand dead still. The snake wrangler will come back and handle the snake from there." 

Ten bucks says the production coordinator will take the sack and brings it home to her aquarium. I think to myself.

I break from the circle and start walking towards the production coordinator to follow her to set. But she interrupts me and says that there is more yet.

"Not only are their Rattlesnakes out here, there are also Bull snakes." she says. "Which opens a new set of concerns because while Rattle snakes wouldn't hurt you at all, unless they are threatened, a Bull snake is aggressive and will chase you." she says.

Oh this is just great! I think. So here we are supposed to watch our step and not move if we hear someone shout 'Snake!' because we don't want to disturb the nice-as-honey-bees Rattlesnakes. But there could be snakes fiercely hissing and slithering towards us too? And we are supposed to stand still?

This just isn't sounding like a good thing for my canvas-covered ankles.

So we all get into a line. Walk single file to the filming location.

All of my senses were sharp. My eyes peeled to the ground, constantly scanning. No one spoke, just listened.

I didn't see any while walking.

Fortunately for my dramatic scene that day, I had to freak out. Be scared. All while pleading for my life. We did several takes of filming. The director came over and said "You are doing great. Whatever you are tapping into to get that primal fear- keep it." I keep my mouth shut, just nod my head. I don't find it necessary to tell him that I am using a bit of my environment in to effect my performance. Seriously, how could I not let some of that fear of writhing snakes at my feet soak up and into my voice? So at the end of the day of filming I feel good about the work.

That evening walking bare foot on my snake-free hotel room floor, I think about how I got there & that I ought to have put more thought into where I would be filming before I arrived. So mentally I wouldn't have gotten as worked up. The audition was unique. I used my computer's cam to video myself reading the lines without anyone reading the opposite lines. Which is not how I usually do out-of-town auditions. It's just that no one was available to lend their time to read with me. After the casting director saw the audition video, he sent a note saying "That was a very odd but refreshing audition video. And we like it." And the rest was fairly simple. Getting the nuts & bolts hammered down of travel dates, and things like that. I drift off to sleep thinking about what's coming for my character the next day. My second day of filming has me wading into a river. While soaking wet, my character is shot at by the villain of the movie.

I wake up, get dressed, and dash out the door to meet my ride. It's a 30 minute drive from the hotel to set.

I walk into wardrobe and am pulling my canvas shoe/boot things on my feet. Today I am happy about the light canvas they are constructed of because of how wet I am going to be in them.

We get to the river via a van.

The crew is setting up. I wander to the edge of the river.

I dip my feet into the water. It's temperature is perfect. The day is hot, around 80. I get right into the mucky water and duck my head under, swimming a few yards. When I come up for breath I see a few of the crew looking from their shore-line vantage points. The looks are quizzical. I can only assume they think I am nuts to be willing to get into this dirty water. Little do they know that I am used to swimming in dirty ponds. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would swim in a river and have leeches all over our bodies after. And we did that again and again. So this seemed like nothing. And the water's great on this dusty afternoon. I float on my back waiting for the crew to set up the camera.

The camera is all set and the director of photography gets into position. The director calls out action and the establishing shot is filmed without a hitch. "Cut" yells the director.

The camera man moves the camera and the shot is readied for my character to be fired upon.

I don't like snakes. I don't like guns. And I don't like violence. Over the course of many bumps and bruises, I've learned (See Paul's Backstage article Kick to The Head) that it's best to have someone else do the stunt first. To show me how it is properly done.

This is the point where I turn to the director and say that I was fine being shot at with the blank bullet, but only if he would stand in and have it shot at him first.

And guess what? He was more than willing to do it. He pulls down his pants, leaves on his boxer underwear, tosses off his shirt and wades into the river with me.

It made me happy to see him stand soaking wet and call "action."

"CRACK" the echo of the shot reverberates along the river. The bullet doesn't do a thing to the director. He turns to me and gestures for us to trade places.

I slosh into place and the same thing is done. Once the director shouts out "cut." I am wrapped with my role. It is a brief two days of filming for my character.

The only thing I have changed though is that I would have read up on venom antidotes before arriving on set. I love too that the director, Andrew Kightlinger, only wore open-toe sandals on set.

South Dakota horizon photo by Paul Cram, Rattlesnake photo by Rick Budai