Veterans on the Set of World War Z

Me and Brad Pitt.
Me and Brad Pitt.

Update, September 29, 2013: Finally got a screen grab of me from the movie. Above.

Update, June 21, 2013: I saw the film last night and I’m proud to confirm that the scene that I describe in the paragraph below made the cut. I spent the morning searching for it online but came up short. When it comes out, I’ll get the screen-grab and put it up.

No shit, there I was, knee-deep in the the zombie apocalypse.

Pushing my way through a dimly lit, dank labyrinth deep under the USS Truman, I dodged refugees, aid workers, and other marines. I’ve been awake for two days. I haven’t shaved, and wondered if my sergeant was going to give me shit for it. I found the family of three I was looking for, a small child and his grandparents – his parents were dead. Grandpa looked wealthy, with neatly combed silver hair and a blue blazer. I know how he got on board – money. “This is bullshit,” I thought to myself. “This isn’t my job.” His arm was around his wife and his hand rested on the child’s shoulder, lovingly. I pressed up close to them, allowing others to pass behind me. “Sir,” I said, my voice dripping with hate, “we’re still looking for a space for you and your family. They’re clearing out some room in the lower decks. It shouldn’t be much longer.”

He nodded, understandingly. His family looked to me, pitifully. In the corner of my eye, I saw him approaching, holding his daughter, getting briefed by that guy from the United Nations. So this is the guy who’s going to save us, I thought? I nodded to the family, ready to head back. I really should shave.

“And, CUT!”

Brad Pitt stepped out of the door and walked past me, less than a foot away, and moved back to his starting point. We all watched. I saw him up close and he still looked handsome, but older than I ever remember seeing him on screen. The director came in and said he wanted to do the shot from a different angle. On cue, a team of burly construction men immediately entered the set and began smashing a wall, knocking it down. Drills buzzed. Paint came out and was expertly applied to dull spots. They worked quickly. Time was money.

I looked around the hallway. Another “marine” leaned against the wall, tall and in full fake kit. He looked about my age, but probably younger.

I approached him, “So, do you do this often?”

“Yeah,” he responded, cooly, “I’ve done a few movies.” Before long he was showing me pics of him on his cell phone in War Horse and the Dark Knight.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I’m just doing this for extra money,” he said.

My brow furrowed. He didn’t have an accent. “Are you American?” I asked?

“No, Canadian.”

“Oh,” I said, kind of surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to school, and I’m in the British Territorial Army,” he replied.

My interest piqued and I turned to face him a bit more, “Oh, cool. I was in the American Army. I’m here now for graduate school.”

“Cool,” he said, cooly.

Two summers ago, with the help of a ragtag bunch of veterans (and Brad Pitt) I helped save the world from a zombie apocalypse.

I was studying in London when I saw this article looking for US service members or veterans in the United Kingdom to act as extras in a zombie flick. My classes were over, I could certainly use the extra money, and I had never been in a movie. Visions of being discovered and starting my new life as an action star swirled in my mind. I sent them a picture and was thrilled when I received an email asking me to be an extra. I would play a marine.

Later that week I boarded a London train to some distant place, a compound out to the west of London. I walked past giant warehouses where other movies were being filmed. The sounds of saws cut the morning air, flowing out of warehouses where sets were being created for our enjoyment.

I found my building, checked in, and took a seat. After a few minutes I was called and sent to wardrobe for fitting. The place looked like a military Goodwill. Rows and rows of uniforms hung from mobile hangers. The wardrobe guy took my little slip of paper and looked at it for a moment and then looked up at me. “Marine, eh?” he said in a thick British accent.

“No, I was in the Army,” I responded, matter-of-factly.

He let out an annoyed laugh, “Nah mate, you’re playing a Marine, right?”

“Ah, yes,” I said, embarrassed.

He looked at me again, sizing me up. “Do you know your sizes?”

“Medium Regular, top and bottoms, eight and a half regular for boots,” I said confidently.

I imagined that my precise knowledge of military sizing conventions impressed him and saved him precious time. He set off to find the uniform.

“Your name’s Gomez, eh? How about Gunnery Sergeant Gonzalez then?” he asked, approaching holding a uniform on a hanger.

“Sounds good to me,” I said, taking the uniform from him. Marine desert cammies.

“You’re going to have to roll the sleeves, like Marines do,” he said as I was slipping on the top. “You know how to do that?”

We did something similar in my old days with the 82d Airborne Division, when we still wore the green camouflage uniforms. “Yes, I know how,” I said.

I didn’t. He was going down a checklist, annotating what sizes I would wear. I was panicking, trying to get the sleeves to fold just right. I felt my face get flush and I started to sweat. I didn’t want this to look bad.

Sensing that he was finishing up, I did the best I could and put the top back on and stood up. One sleeve was slightly tighter than the other. It didn’t feel right, but I think it looked okay.

He looked me over, studying. “Okay,” he said, nodding slowly, “Go over to makeup.”

I marched out of the building and started toward the makeup trailer. This was the first time I had worn a military uniform in five years. As my foot stepped over the door frame, I dutifully placed the marine cap onto my head and placed two fingers on the bridge of my nose, the tips barely touching the brim, ensuring a proper fit.

Five years and old habits die hard.

I stepped into makeup and two middle aged women ushered me in. It was like Ab Fab. “Well, look at you soldier! Go ahead and take off your cap and sit in the chair.”

I took off my cap, revealing a freshly shaved head. They chuckled. “Well, nothing we can do there, luv.” I climbed into the chair and smiled. They studied my face in the mirror and applied some makeup, dulling the shine of my head.

“Go ahead and stand against that wall, luv,” one of them said, the other handing me a placard to hold with my information written on it. They snapped a Polaroid and handed it to me.

“Bring that back to casting,” she ordered, “and when you come back for filming, make sure you don’t shave for a couple of days. You’re supposed to look tired. Zombies, you know.”

I nodded and stepped out of the trailer, heading back to casting. I thought it strange that I wasn’t supposed to shave. I was there for the invasion of Iraq, and in the craziness of the rush to Baghdad, our leaders made sure we shaved every morning. I couldn’t imagine that even a zombie apocalypse would interfere with the duties and obsessions of wicked sergeants throughout the military.

I went back to casting and handed my slip to the young woman at the desk. She smiled and said to come back next week to start shooting.

A week later, there I was, sitting in the corner of a large room inside of a warehouse. We self-segregated. Extras who were playing civilians and refugees huddled together on one side of the room and extras who were playing uniformed military personnel huddled together on the other side of the room. The two groups didn’t interact. It was stupid and childish. We ate cheap cookies and drank cup after cup of coffee and tea as we waited to be called in.

Most of the military guys already knew each other. They lived there in the UK and did ‘extra’ work on the side pretty regularly. They moved from set to set, like vultures. One guy from the Air Force took leave for two weeks in order to do this. They shared “war stories” from other movies they were in. iPhones came out and they boasted over pictures from War Horse and Dark Knight.

I kept quiet, mostly. I was embarrassed by the whole thing. I never did this before. Eventually we got around to telling everyone our stories – what service we were in, what we did, and whether we deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or not. I felt superior because I had actually deployed and fought. No one else in the group had. I was an infantryman, a grunt. These guys were just support personnel, mechanics and engineers. I felt like I deserved to be on the set, next to Brad Pitt. I earned the right to be there. They were going to play infantrymen in a Hollywood blockbuster but hadn’t actually done it for real. I felt – immaturely – angry and disgusted.

The only guy I got along with was the Canadian guy who was an aspiring actor. He was in the British Territorial Army, which is kind of like the US National Guard. He was infantry, but hadn’t deployed. Close enough, I thought. I told him stories about Iraq and he told me stories about picking up girls on different movie sets. It was a mutual admiration.

Later in the week, as I stood in a very depressing line with the other extras, waiting to sign our payment stub for the day, the man with the silver hair asked if I wanted a ride to the train station. “Sure,” I responded.

After signing my stub, I left with him and we walked out into the parking lot to his car.

“So, you’re military?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Well, I was… I mean, I’m a veteran. I got out in 2006. I’m here for school.”

“Oh!” he said, sounding impressed. “Did you.. go overseas?” he asked, with some trepidation. When people find out you were in the military, they want to know if you went to Iraq or Afghanistan. Then they want to know if you killed anyone, in that order.

“Yes, twice. I deployed twice. To Iraq,” I said, opening the passenger side door and sliding into his car. He drove a nice car.

We started driving. “You know, I served in Vietnam. I was a pilot,” he said.

I looked at him, surprised. “No kidding! That’s amazing. What did you fly?”

“AC-130 gunships,” he said proudly, turning his head slightly to make eye contact.

“Cool!” I said like an excited kid. I saw the magnificence of the AC-130 when I was deployed to Iraq, and infantrymen everywhere respect its raw power.

“Yeah,” he said, remembering.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, suddenly more surprised at his being here.

He rattled off something about the State Department, and some kind of business. I really didn’t understand, and I really didn’t care. My mind was still focused on what it must have been like to be an AC-130 pilot in Vietnam, and how weird it was meeting him like this.

On the quiet ride from the studio to the train station, we spoke about how strange it was that here we were, two American veterans from different eras, just outside of London, filming a zombie movie with Brad Pitt. We talked about how odd it would be to tell our old selves, at war, that one day we would be doing what we’re doing. It didn’t make much sense, but we loved it.

I asked him if he does this regularly. “No,” he said, “this is the first time.”

He dropped me off at the train station and we said goodbye. After that week of filming, I never saw him again.

Next day on set. I knew I looked right. I contacted one of my friends who had served in the Marines and he gave me a lesson through a Google+ Hangout on how to properly roll the sleeves. I looked sharp. We lined up for inspection. Most of us were military, or ex-military. There was me, the old-paratrooper turned Middle East Studies student, the Air Force guy from Columbus, Georgia who believed in every conspiracy theory he ever heard, the hard looking British Army Engineer who had firm instructions not to say anything because his accent was so thick, and the suave Canadian who told me stories of picking up girls on the sets of different movies. There we were. A bunch of military-esque faux actors, lined up, ready for fake inspection.

Then our master walked in, lower lip protruding, filled with tobacco. He was shorter than me. He looked like a hundred sergeants I had seen before; grizzled, confident, angry. He was white, with close cut hair, crows feet around the eyes. He wore a white t-shirt, jeans, and old combat boots. Hands in his pockets, he walked past us, looking us up and down.

“Fix your helmet, it’s fucking crooked,” he said to one of us.

He moved down the line, stopping at another, looking down at his boots. “Seriously,” he asked, “tuck your pants into your boots. God damn, marine!”

He passed me without making any comments, thank god.

He was the on set military advisor. An ex-marine that somehow found his way into the most amazing job in the world. His role was to ensure that everything military seemed realistic, or at least as realistic as possible. It is the job that only a grizzled junior sergeant could do. Someone whose eye was trained for stupid details, things that other people would think insignificant, but would ruin the movie for veterans and military folk. He also served as the de facto mother-fucker-in-charge for all of the extras playing military roles on set, something he seemed to enjoy. We liked him and admired him, but were also deeply jealous that somehow he landed that job, and we didn’t.

He appeared on set between shots to make sure our uniforms still looked right and to suggest we stand a certain way, to make sure we looked like we were really marines, and not just ex-Army guys trying to play a marine in a movie.

My biggest moment came late in the week, when a panicky production assistant came into our room and pointed to me, splayed out on the floor reading a book about Vietnam. “You, Marine, follow me,” he said. I quickly got up and followed. The others looked at me jealously.

The on set military advisor fitted me with fake body armor and a fake helmet. They looked real but had none of the weight. He also gave me a fake 9mm pistol which went in a leg holster and a fake M4 rifle which I held.

He gave me a once over once my kit was on. “You were Army, right?” he said in a thick southern drawl, lip full of tobacco. “Yeah,” I said, not wanting to take any shit.

“Don’t make us look bad, roger?”

“Yeah, roger,” I said. I wasn’t in the Army anymore and this wasn’t even the military. This was stupid.

I was whisked onto set and placed in front of a door. My production guidance was to “guard the door” which meant standing in front of it, looking natural – don’t stand completely still, move around a bit, but not too much! Really, it meant me shifting as much as possible to try to get in the shot so that I might see myself on the big screen when the movie comes out.

I stood in that hallway for a couple of hours, shifting, but not too much. It was hot and I began to sweat. The fake body armor wasn’t heavy, but it fit tight against my body. Finally, we were put on break and I walked off set and into a hallway, finding a folding chair to sit down in.

As I sat down, the body armor slid up slightly creating a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that swooped into my nostrils.

Boom.

For an instant I was whisked away from this fake zombie world straight to bright and sunny post-apocalyptic Baghdad, 2003. The smell of body armor, uniform, and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released straight to my nose fucked me up. It’s not that it’s a bad smell. It was just painfully familiar. The smell hits hard and only lasts a second. The air is hot and it smells like me, scared and gross. Primal.

I sat there in the chair for a moment and looked around, suddenly dizzy. I laughed slightly, because of how weird it felt. Here I was, a well-adjusted veteran, in graduate school in London, playing a marine in a movie, suddenly weirded out because of a stupid smell from underneath some fake body armor.

That smell activated feelings inside that were dormant for years. Bio-chemical feelings. Visceral stuff inside of my bones, muscles, and cells that knew just what to do in terrible situations. Feelings that helped me survive in one environment that had no place in this one. My body ached dully for a moment, and then it was gone.

The production assistant came in, “We’re starting in a few minutes, come on in,” he said, waving me forward.

I stood up, adjusted my armor, and stepped back on set and in front of my zombie door. Shifting, but not too much.

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