We rose before the sun, humid November chill biting at us all the way to the shower. The bathroom steamed up quickly. I didn’t want to get out, but we were due on Tybee Island by 6 a.m. It was time for Jody and me to become movie stars.
I pulled on a pair of thin cotton pants and a tank top. If we had to appear nude keeping clothing to a minimum seemed like a logical choice. I could get two garments off and on quicker than the full kit.
The road to Tybee was deserted that early in the morning.
“Do you remember the address?” I asked.
“No,” Jody said.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“We’re going to get lost and be late,” I said.
“It’s Tybee Island. It’s one road. Just follow it until you see all the trucks,” Jody said. She was right. Straight ahead we saw the trucks, trailers, generators, lights, umbrellas, cables, snacks, tables, chairs, and mixture of the busy and bored typical for a movie set. I parked and we wandered into the little pop-up village. People rushed past or ignored us until I finally stopped someone and asked where we were supposed to go.
“I don’t know, who are you?” he said.
“We’re supposed to be in the beach scene,” Jody said.
“Oh, extras. I don’t know. Go ask that guy over there by that trailer.”
Eventually we were herded into a little space set aside for “the background.” That’s how everyone referred to our little group of cinematic nudists: the background. Jody split off and hung with the female background and I buddied with the male background; well, I tried to.
I haven’t spent any real time in Savannah over the last 25 years, but at that time and in my age bracket there existed at least three Savannahs. There was the Savannah of the housing projects, the guys we now call gang bangers, who shot at their rivals from other projects and robbed the tourists roaming the Historic District.
They also preyed on the second Savannah, the art school kids who traveled from all over to attend The Savannah College of Art and Design. This was my Savannah. Early one morning upon stepping out of the police station I was stopped by one of the housing project guys who was on his way in. “You look like you got a million dollars in your pocket,” his mouth said, and then his eyes added, “If I didn’t have to be inside right now I’d knife you and find out if I’m right.”
What was I doing in the police station that morning? That brings us to the third Savannah, the local boys. They were good Georgia boys who by accident of birth found themselves in a charming little tourist town. They worked in garages and construction, out at the pulp mill or on the shrimp trawlers. They drove pickups and worn out muscle cars, and on weekends they threw on their parachute pants and partied. In the early hours they drove their Trans Ams out to the diner near the interstate and soaked up the alcohol in their bellies with stacks of pancakes.
Unfortunately, sometimes the SCAD students did the same thing. During my freshman year I packed the Quincymobile full of drunken SCADdies and drove out to the diner around two in the morning. I made a snarky comment about a Savannah #3’s parachute pants which, unknown to me, he overheard. Later when we pulled onto the highway a black Trans Am lunged at the Quincymobile, and before I knew what happened I was the lead car in a station wagon/Trans Am car chase.
I lost him when the Quincymobile stalled and he got out to kick my ass, nylon pants singing fwip fwip fwip as he stomped toward the station wagon. The car restarted just as he got to us, his revenge limited to a single slap on the Quincymobile’s fender before we puttered away.
After I dropped off my SCAD friends I drove to the police station. I sat on a bench and waited, still wondering whether Parachute Pants would’ve killed me given the chance. Two motorcycle cops came in. They took off their helmets and flopped onto the bench facing me. One of them turned to the other and said, “I bet that’s one of them SCAD kids.”
“Why you say that?”
“Look at him. He looks like a queer, doesn’t he?”
“I bet he was too goddamned stupid to stay out of Forsythe Park after dark, and now he wants to cry about getting robbed.”
On and on they went, acting as if I couldn’t hear every word they said. “Hey, are you guys motorcycle cops?” I asked.
They turned and looked at me. “Yeah.”
“Man, what a cool job.”
“It’s all right.”
“I bet everybody wants that job,” I said. “That’s, like, the best job in the whole department.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“I bet you have to be a really good ass kisser to land a job like that,” I said.
I guess the baby Jesus — the Christmas Jesus, not the Mel Gibson Jesus — owed me a favor, because just then an officer came and got me to file my report. I told him the whole story and he said, “Ah, that’s just Johnny. You should’ve kicked his ass.”
“Are you kidding? That dude would’ve torn me apart,” I said.
“You got a gun?”
“No, I don’t have a gun.”
“Don’t want to fight, get you a gun.”
“Are you seriously telling me I should’ve murdered him?”
“Ain’t murder if it’s self defense,” he said. “If you’re really worried about it, get him to step onto your property first. Ain’t no jury going to convict you for defending yourself or your property.”
Anyway, these were my soon to be fellow naked hippies on the beach: residents of Savannah #3, local boys in pickups and Trans Ams looking to make a couple of extra bucks on a Saturday.
“I don’t know about this, man,” one said.
“I know, it’s fucking cold out here.”
“Not that, man. You seen the girls? Some of them chicks are hot.”
“Is that really hot chick in the panties here?”
“Nah, man. I heard somebody say she chickened out.”
“I was going to get me some of that.”
“I’m serious, man. I don’t think I can control myself around them girls.”
“What are you going to do, fuck them with everybody standing there?”
“No, man. I mean I’m going to get wood.”
“You don’t know me, man. I get hard if the wind blows.”
“You’ll be okay,” I said. “I draw nude models all the time in class. I promise you there’s nothing erotic about it when you’re working.”
“You don’t know me, man,” he said. “I drive by a Long John Silvers I get a peg leg.”
Time crawls on a movie set. Somebody’s always busy, but everybody else is just waiting. A movie set is a lot like the DMV, only at least one person is working. Sometimes it’s the lighting guys — the gaffers and the grips with their scrims, gels, and suicide plugs. Other times it’s the art department humping props onto or off of the trucks. Maybe it’s craft service restocking the pretzels and fun-sized candy bars, or the caterers getting ready for the next meal.
The photographer kicked around the perimeter, looking for something interesting to shoot. “Hey, why is your camera so bulky?” I asked.
“This? It’s a soundproof box. Look.” He cracked open the case and revealed the standard SLR hidden inside. “This way the shutter click doesn’t ruin the film crew’s shot.”
“Cool. You local?”
“No, I’m from L.A.,” he said.
I asked every question I could think of regarding Los Angeles and the life of a still photographer, and then I said, “How much do you get paid?”
“On this show I’m making a thousand a week.”
A grand per week! I made $154 per week at Record Bar, and I only made that if Mason scheduled me for forty hours. A thousand bucks was Scrooge McDuck money. I was considering applying at UPS because somebody told me I could make nine bucks per hour. A thousand dollars per week was almost unimaginable.
We waited some more. The sun climbed higher and the crew shot footage of Keifer playing in the sand dunes. We watched Keifer and Robert shoot a dialogue scene, but we were too far away to hear what they were saying, and then we waited some more.
A busy little man rushed into our area with his assistant and yelled “Background!” Where’s my background?” We stared at him. “My hippies on the beach, where are you?” We stood up. “Okay, girls go with Terry, boys you stay with me.” I smiled at Jody, and she gave me the “good luck” shrug.
“Tell Ernest we’re ready for him,” Busy Little Man said into his walkie talkie, and then he lined us up in no particular order. We stood in line, and we waited some more.
The director and his assistant arrived. He was tall and handsome, a former soap opera actor. He bore the weight of the entire movie on his shoulders, but he didn’t seem tense like Busy Little Man. “We have a good looking bunch of hippies here,” he said, and I felt myself blush. “So in this scene you’ll be a commune on the beach, very free and laid back. Kiefer and Robert will happen upon your campsite and you’ll invite them to stay for lunch. You don’t need to worry about any of that, it’s just background for your scene. During lunch Robert’s character brags about the time he used LSD, and one of you is going to offer him some acid. This will be a quick audition. When I point to you, say ‘would you like to trip now?'”
One by one Ernest pointed at us and we repeated “Would you like to trip now? Would you like to trip now? Would you like to trip now?” On down the line until the director pointed at me and I repeated the line.
“You’re my guy,” Ernest said, and then he turned to Busy Little Man and said, “Okay, get everybody to makeup.”
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said.
“You got it, didn’t you?”
“The other guys have really thick accents.”
“Don’t apologize, that’s great.”
“It’s probably just because my eyes make me look high all the time.”
“Stop it,” she said. “That’s great.”
Waiting, waiting, waiting. The makeup people emerged from their trailer and called us in two by two like ark animals. The women went first, and then the guys. My partner was a rough-looking bearded guy.
We stepped into the trailer and one of the makeup artists said, “Strip down to your underwear.”
“I’m not wearing any,” I said.
“Why aren’t you wearing underwear?” she said.
“It’s a nude scene. I thought it would be easier.”
“Jesus Christ. I don’t get paid enough for this shit. Can we find him some underwear?”
“Where am I going to find underwear?” her coworker said.
“I don’t know, borrow some. Go to wardrobe. Bring panties if you have to. It’s bad enough I’m expected to powder pimples on the backgrounds’ asses, I shouldn’t have to have his dick hanging in my face. You, come here. We’ll get you done while we find underwear for your friend.”
My hippie commune buddy stepped to the center of the room. The makeup artist pulled at the waistband of his briefs and said, “Jesus, what a mess. Don’t they teach basic hygiene down here? How am I supposed to conceal that many zits?”
The door opened and a man with an English accent stepped in. “We’re shooting Robert’s freak out scene tomorrow,” he said.
“Okay, what’s your point?” the makeup artist said.
“Robert wants it to be accurate. Do you have drops that will dilate his pupils?”
“Nobody’s going to see his eyes.”
“It’s important to him. Do you have anything?”
“No, and even if I did I wouldn’t give it to you. What if his eyes stuck like that? We can’t be liable for something like that.”
The Brit thought for a moment. “Maybe we could get him some grass.”
“No good. Pot doesn’t dilate your pupils. I can’t talk right now. For some reason it’s my responsibility to fix all of these disgusting asses,” she said, and she dabbed some more concealer on my friend’s exposed behind.
The other makeup artist returned with a pair of pinstriped bikini briefs. They were so small that they may as well have been panties. I slipped them on while the makeup lady talked about my friend as if he wasn’t in the room.
“You’re really rude,” I said.
“We’re the ones who have to stand here naked. Don’t you think that’s embarrassing enough without all of your nasty comments? He isn’t background, he’s a person.”
My turn arrived. She pulled at the front of my briefs and checked for any glaring cosmetic needs, and then she slipped the back just off my butt and did her job without a word.
The day was as warm as it was going to get. I didn’t want to mess up my body makeup, so I pulled on my white cotton pants and found a warm sand dune to stand on. I stood shirtless, and the ocean breeze pressed the thin cloth against my legs and crotch. The heat and the fluttering material felt good, and my body responded.
I was alone, so I didn’t worry about it. If an erection happens on a sand dune and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? I turned my head, and at the bottom of the dune stood a middle-aged crew member staring at me. He climbed the short hill and stood next to me.
We faced the breeze, not each other. “That sun feels nice,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Where you from?”
“See ya,” I said.
We waited and we waited and we waited. Savannah weather does whatever it wants, and now it decided that we’d had enough warmth. The Busy Little Man gathered us and walked us to the set: a van, a few chairs, and a picnic table covered by an awning. Bowls of fruit and vegetables rested upon the table. The lighting and camera crews scrambled around, setting up their equipment.
A wardrobe lady looked at Jody and said, “You’re going to be my flower child.” She placed a ring of daisies on Jody’s head. “You’re going to be my poet,” she told me, and she wrapped a headband across my forehead and handed me a journal.
“That’s your featured extra, Sheila,” the Busy Little Man said.
“Oh, you’re my star?” she asked me.
“I guess,” I said.
Sheila handed me a small leather pouch on a string. “Put this around your neck,” she said. “You’re going to be great.”
“Thanks,” I said. I draped the leather thong around my neck, grabbed my prop journal, and walked to the set.