I have been working in the acting profession for the past dozen years or so, and have been given the opportunity to portray dozens of different character types in over 100 film and TV productions. It’s not like a predictable, boring office job where you sit in a cubicle and do the same job day in and day out, knowing that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow will be the same old thing. In the world of an actor’s life, it’s different; you never know what you may be doing for your next gig or where it will take you to. It’s like the phrase from Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” I was reminded of that adage recently when I got the gig of a lifetime being a body-double for actor/comedian Ricky Gervais. It’s for a film called Special Correspondents that will be shown on Netflix. And this was no ordinary gig; it was a six-day-long commitment involving driving cross-country for over 3,000 miles. When I was offered the assignment, equal amounts of trepidation and excitement crept through my mind, but it was the carpe diem in me that solidified my decision to go ahead with it and to seize the moment. Life is short after all, isn’t it?
Our adventure during the week of July 27 through August 1 can best be described as a guerrilla film-making experience involving a team effort of seven people who wanted to make a little movie, reach a deadline and if we all survived, have fun doing it. Many things went wrong, but our need to make this endeavor a success pushed us way beyond our comfort zones and forced us to use our ingenuity and survival skills to make this endeavor a success.
Day 1: Three-Mile Island
We began our odyssey at 5:00AM at the entrance to Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Our rag-tag team of seven individuals would over the course of the next five days become a close-knit A-Team that was determined to get the job done in the face of adversity. Our group consisted of Megan, 1st camera operator, Johan, the director of photography, Mike and Corey, the director assistants, and Erika, who was the supervising producer in charge of coordinating this daunting effort. Lastly, James and I were the two body doubles for the two actors of the film. Our assignment was to represent the two actors in the car as they drove cross-country from New York to California as written as a scene in the script. And to make this scene happen with as much realism as possible, a fully-functional red 1955 vintage Ford was the vehicle we were to drive through key locations across America. This vintage car, an absolutely beautiful specimen from that time period, was admired by all who saw it and the main star of our cross-country scene.
On day one, Erika wanted our first shot to be the car driving by the factories of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to show the car passing through Industrial America. Only that Pittsburgh was still very far away from where we were at and Erika wanted to get our first shot in earlier in the day instead of later. She scrambled to find another location using her laptop and android phone. It was then that I suggested that we consider filming at Three-Mile-Island at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Those cooling towers look ominous and industrial, I thought; they may be a great backdrop for a driving scene. Erika loved the idea and we immediately set our GPS coordinates for that location.
When we got there, we found a good holding location and parked our three vehicles. Two of them were mini-vans that carried the crew, camera equipment and our personal belongings. One of the vans had our “crafty table” or snacks and drinks that would help get us through this long trip. The third vehicle was a large pickup truck with a humongous custom-made black trailer that totally enclosed and protected the 1955 Ford from the elements. That car was the star of this whole production; we had to make sure that we treated it well for if anything went wrong with it, we’d be stuck.
James and I got on our wardrobe and after the Ford was wheeled out of the trailer, we both climbed into the front seat of the car. The car was turned on and we were ready to go. It was showtime.
As we drove the Ford through the Pennsylvania countryside with Megan and Johan filming us with the Three-Mile-Island cooling towers in the background, equal amounts of excitement and nausea went through our minds and bodies. The excitement came from the fact that our scene may likely be used in the final cut for the film; the nausea came from the overwhelming stench of burnt gasoline permeating the air that we were breathing. We both looked at each other and thought, “If people only knew what actors really have to go through”. We tried to shrug off this discomfort and knew that we had a job to do. For the remainder of the shoot, we would have to breathe in this gas exhaust every time we drove that car.
After we had some good footage showing the irony of bucolic rolling hills and farmland juxtaposed with two functioning nuclear reactors in the background, we realized that we got what we were looking for. As we travelled further west along Interstate 80, we got great video footage of the Ford driving across an all-steel Pennsylvania bridge. Driving through Ohio and racing against the last hour of daylight, Erika was desperately looking for a great-looking farm to be used as a backdrop to represent America’s Heartland, but we could not find the kind of farm that she was looking for. Our final destination for the day was a hotel stay in Indianapolis after driving and filming for 21 hours. This was our longest, but least eventful day of the whole trip.
Day 2: Busted in St. Louis
Departing from Indianapolis early the next morning, we finally made it to St. Louis by late afternoon. We were going to film the Ford driving by the Gateway Arch for our next scene. We were excited at this stage for now we started to see good progress as we drove cross-country and were now smack-dab in the middle of America’s Heartland. As soon as we rolled out the Ford from the trailer and turned on the ignition, the car would not start. After repeated attempts, it still would not start. It appeared as if the car simply died. At the same time, the trailer pulling the Ford had broke; the brakes were stuck in a locked position preventing the trailer from moving. After some scrambling, we googled both car and trailer mechanics. Eventually the car and the trailer had to be taken away to be repaired at separate shops along the outskirts of St. Louis. Since we had no car to film a scene in, we had to abort our mission for the day and spent the night at a hotel in St. Louis.
Day 3: Making Up For Lost Time
The next day we had to wait a few more hours for the repair men to get their respective jobs done. We were all stressed out by this time and we decided to go to local pub to share some beers. It turned out to be a gay bar. I didn’t know that Missouri had those, but now I do.
After the Ford and the trailer were both fixed, it was time to get back to business. We all met near the Gateway Arch with the camera set up in the back of one of the hatchbacks. James and I started driving and it was now showtime again. Johan and Megan got the footage we should have gotten the day before and we were now ready to leave this godforsaken town and travel further west for more filming adventures.
Our final hotel destination for the day was Tulsa, Oklahoma, but we still had several more hours of daylight to find the elusive farm backdrop that Erika so desperately wanted for the past two days. Erika got a piece of information for a classic farmhouse along the way and had an address for it. After driving for a few more hours, we finally got to the address she shared with us, only that there was no farmhouse anymore, only farmhouse ruins. This can’t be, we were thinking. We had no time to cry over spilt milk, so we continued driving along the countryside and discovered quite by accident the quintessential farm house complete with silo and everything else that goes along with it. It was as if we discovered the holy grail or something. Knowing we only had so much daylight left before the sun would set, we whipped that Ford out of it’s trailer in no time, threw our wardrobe on, then jumped into the car and filmed that scene. We got a good 15 minutes of footage in the can that evening. We were happy and called it a day. And by calling it day, it didn’t mean we could now stop and rest; we still had several more hours to get to our hotel rooms in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Day 4: Out of Gas and the Man-Eating Mosquitoes
The next day, it was decided that I join Mike to keep him company in his truck. Mike was in charge of driving the pickup that pulled the trailer containing the Ford. This was a huge responsibility; Mike was pulling two vehicles with that pickup with a combined weight of well over 5,000 pounds. And he had to drive fast so we could all get this mission done within the five-day deadline. We had about 3,000 miles to cover that week.
The combined weight of the trailer and Ford made towing them very difficult. So much gas was burned that Mike’s pickup was only getting seven miles per gallon. He had to make frequent gas stops along the way. Then came a point where the gas gauge in his truck was quite low and then hit the ’empty’ mark. Mike was determined to push on hoping we’d have just enough gas to make it to the next rest stop. It was at that moment where I was reminded of that famous Seinfeld scene where Kramer and his friend were driving their car with dangerously low levels of gas in the tank and pushing their car to the limit. Only that was TV and we were real people driving through the middle of nowhere. Somewhere in the middle of a lone stretch of Oklahoma, he pushed his foot all the way down on the gas pedal, then incredulously said, “Josh, check this out”. The truck slowed down and came to a complete halt since it was now out of gas. Mike jumped out and shouted something like, “Josh, I’m gonna hitch a ride to the nearest gas station!”, then left me alone with the truck off the highway. This was the moment where my imagination kicked in thinking a few bad things could’ve happened to me, but I was determined to think happy thoughts and patiently waited for Mike to come back with a container full of emergency gas.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Mike came back with gas tank in hand after hitching a ride with a family en route in the other direction.
We eventually made it into Texas and we all stopped for lunch to eat at some sort of Texas steakhouse off of Highway 40. When we got back into our vehicles, Erika asked me to come with her and Johan in one of the vans to help them scout for great locations off of Route 66, the historic route that still exists in many parts of our country.
As we were driving through the plains of Texas, there really wasn’t anything visually interesting to film along the way, but we did see a lot of wind turbines. Erika asked me to use my android phone to do some research on some upcoming Texas towns found along the route we were taking. Noticing a town about 10 miles ahead on the map, I quickly googled the town, then looked at the Google images associated with that town. There was a huge Jesus cross in many of the images. Erika thought It would be a great idea to find that cross and film it which we did.
A few hours later, we crossed the border into New Mexico. One of the locations on Erika’s shot list was the Blue Swallow Motel in a little Sun-burnt town called Tucumcari. It was a classic hotel right off of Route 66 and a throwback to the 1940s when Route 66 was THE route to the West Coast. We filmed a few takes of James and I driving the Ford up into the hotel parking lot to show how our characters are now taking a break from their long cross-country trip. It was important to film this scene during twilight to show that an entire day had passed and now it was approaching night. As the Sun went down and we were taking a break after filming, what seemed like a million voracious mosquitos came out from nowhere and immediately attacked the crew and I. These were not normal mosquitos; they were man-eaters that seemed starved for human blood. They were large and hungry. We desperately swatted them away from us, then ran to the safety of our vans. Some mosquitos got into the vans and it then became a fight between us and them.
After the mosquito incident, we got the hell out of dodge. Our next goal: drive three more hours to get to our next hotel stay in Albuquerque by 11:00PM, have dinner together, and call it a night.
Day 5: Hotel Arizona
The next morning, we all woke up in our Albuquerque hotel refreshed and ready for our final day of filming. Today our goal was to reach our final destination: Phoenix, Arizona. The scene called for the main characters to drive cross-country to California, but it was decided that our last shoot would be filmed in Phoenix. Erika found a block there lined with tall palm trees that could easily pass for California. Faking scenes like this is not new in the movie business and is done all the time. And it’s a big money-saver for productions that have budgets to adhere to.
As usual, one of the first orders of business was to visit the local Starbucks to over-caffeinate ourselves so we could last for another long day of filming. Starbucks has been our go-to coffee shop throughout this whole adventure.
We leave Albuquerque for Phoenix via Highway 40 and experience the most amazing views of mountains, desert and blue sky along the way. For our final leg of the trip, Erika wanted the Ford to travel through a desert scene showing that the characters have now travelled through most of America. For full effect, we decide to pull off the main interstate and began driving up a small desert highway nestled between the mountains. We all pull over to the side of the highway because Mike was running low on gas. We knew that we were entering the desert with no gas station in sight for hours and this was the point of no return for all of us. As soon as we got out of our vans, a horde of man-eating mosquitos comes out of the woodwork again and attacks all of us. We flail our arms wildly at them trying to ward off their thirst for our blood. Then we all run back into our vans, slam the doors shut and notice that some of the mosquitos followed us into the vans. So here I am haphazardly swatting at everything. I manage to smash my palm onto a mosquito that landed on the van window. A bunch of blood spurted out of it and I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s probably MY blood!”. We drive back to the interstate just a mile away to get gas for Mike’s truck and mosquito repellant wipes for everyone, which luckily did the trick.
Corey was one of the production assistants who spent a great part of the trip driving the van that James and I were in. As he drove us through a panorama of mountains, mesas, buttes, desert and blue sky, Corey chose this moment to play the soundtrack to Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. He cranked up the volume while our ears and eyes soaked in the moment and imagined a young Clint Eastwood from a 1960s spaghetti western riding his horse through the valley we were driving through.
Finally after driving through the desert for while, we found the quintessential desert background to film at. Johan and Megan set up their camera in the trunk of the van in front of us with the hatchback popped open and began to film James and I driving the old Ford through the middle of the desert. Everyone involved in this scene at this very moment knew that the footage they were filming would be gold. James and I were so enthralled at the sights we were seeing that we zoned out of touch with reality. We began to live a moment that became very Jack Kerouacian for the both of us. We were on the road driving through God’s country and the possibilities of where life could lead us seemed endless.
Once we got plenty of great desert footage, our vehicles finally made it across the border into Arizona. We made it into Phoenix with only about an hour to go before sunset. For this last scene, filming the scene during twilight was crucial. Erika wanted to show the Ford driving up the street to our final destination at the moment of twilight to show an end to the day for the characters in the script. This footage would close the entire cross-country scene and showed the passage of time as the main characters finally completed their cross-country voyage, park their car, and have a night of much-needed sleep. At this moment, we had the Ford and the camera van all set for filming. Just at the moment of twilight when we were about to film, it began to rain heavily. A moment of panic shot through our minds and we scrambled to figure out what we should do. Our choice was either to film the scene in the rain or to wait until early morning right before sunrise that would imitate twilight. We tried to guess what Ricky Gervais would like better. He was the producer of the film and the actor who I was body-doubling for during this entire gig. We wanted to create the highest quality work and we decided that having dry-weather scenes that ended with a rainy scene would not look good in the final edit. So we all decided that it would be best to film early the next morning. Since sunrise in Phoenix was at 5:40AM, we had to meet in the hotel lobby at 4:00AM, which meant that I had to wake up at 3:00AM. There are a lot of sacrifices that actors, directors and producers make in order get the best shots for the sake of creating a high-quality film. Waking up at the ungodly hour of 3:00AM to get this last shoot in was our sacrifice for the sake of the art.
The next morning, we get to the location, roll out the Ford out from the trailer one last time, start it up and drive it up three blocks to our one spot. Megan, Johan and Erika wait for us in the camera van three blocks ahead of us. Since we forgot to bring a walkie talkie with us, I had to await Erika to call me on my cell phone to yell “action” so we could begin driving into the scene. My cell phone rings, it’s Erika on the phone, which means “Action!” We drive up the block past all the palm trees and zoom right by the camera van. And cut…. they got the footage! And immediately after that, we hear the words that every actor, director and producer loves to hear to indicate the final end of production: “That’s a wrap!”. Those words were music to our ears.
This entire production lasted a full six days, one day longer than expected due to the car and trailer issues back in St. Louis. Probably about 60-90 minutes of film footage was actually taken in all by Johan and Megan. When the movie is finally finished, you may see one to three minutes of footage for this scene. That’s show biz for you.
Day 6: Going Home
A few hours later, we drove the vans to the Phoenix airport, boarded our plane and a few hours later, landed at JFK Airport in New York. Mike had the arduous job of towing the Ford all the way back to Buffalo, New York; an adventure in itself since the wheel and the axle of the trailer had broken apart along the way and had to be fixed by a mechanic in Colorado. Erika drove further west to California to spend time with her friends. Corey had a later flight to his hometown of Baltimore. James, Johan, Megan and I took a Delta airlines jet plane. Upon arrival at JFK, we all hugged and said our goodbyes and departed our own separate ways.
I came home to my children who immediately hugged me for what seemed like an eternity. This was the longest time I have ever spent away from my children, but this experience of a lifetime was well worth it for me.
I want to thank every single one of the six members of our cast and crew who served an important part of making this trip a success. And to Erika, our supervising producer who always kept her cool in the face of adversity and managed to use her super girl powers to solve every single problem that came our way. And to my fellow body-double James who went above and beyond his job description to help trouble-shoot and fix many of the issues that arose during this trip.
Film Clip: The Cross-Country Scene
After the film was finally produced and bought by Netflix, our cross-country scene appeared in the film. It was only about one-minute long and likely consisted of 60+ minutes of raw footage. This scene took us six days to film. With a crew of six people that needed to be paid, fed and housed, each in separate hotel rooms, and a plane ride back to New York, I estimate that this entire scene cost production over $30,000. All for a minute’s worth of film footage. Now you know why filmmaking can be an expensive endeavor.
Below is our one-minute scene as presented in the film. Close-ups are obviously of the actors Ricky Gervais and Eric Bana. Any distance shot where the passengers were indistinguishable were James and I, their body doubles. This one-minute scene reflected six days of a trip of a lifetime; a trip that was full of adventure, awesomeness, and suspense that enabled me to experience actually travelling through America while being “on the job”. When you see the clip with the giant Jesus Cross, keep in mind that I found that cross, and I’m damn proud of that!