Hellbenders

My good friend J.T. Petty’s latest film Hellbenders hits theaters and VOD today! Any new film by J.T. is a reason to celebrate, but I’m especially excited to tell you about this one because I’m in it. Sort of.

Let’s rewind to March 2011, when principal photography on Hellbenders began. Knowing J.T. was filming around New York City, I asked if I could come visit the set as part of a feature article I was pitching. But J.T. did me one better. Not only did he let me visit the set, he put me in the movie as a background actor. I play one of the “acolytes of the demon” in the final, climactic battle!

The pitch didn’t get any bites, unfortunately, and the article never materialized. (My fault, not the movie’s.) But that doesn’t mean I can’t share some photos and memories with you here on my blog!

My involvement didn’t get off to a great start. I was late to arrive at holding — located at the aptly named Most Precious Blood church in the equally aptly named Gravesend, Brooklyn — due to a subway problem. Still, I should have allowed extra time. Every New Yorker knows if you need to be somewhere by a certain time, the subway will do its best to prevent it. Anyway, as soon as I arrived, I saw Clancy Brown having a cigarette outside the church and knew I was in the right place. Inside, Soren Miltich, the key second assistant director, told me the background actors had already left for the location. Luckily, I got a ride to set from stunt actor Chazz Menendez and his fellow stunt actors, all of whom were very friendly.

The location was a field right by the water near Coney Island. The first thing I saw when I got there was the makeup tent. I walked right in and told them, “Fuck me up.” And they did. Boy did they ever!

Nick makeup 1

That’s me covered in what’s supposed to be ash and blood. Fuck yeah! (I actually had no idea just how messed up I looked until later, when we broke for “lunch” around midnight and caught my reflection in a mirror at the church!)

I’d barely left the makeup tent when J.T. called me over to help practice a fight scene with Clancy Brown. I got to grapple with the Kurgan! Is J.T. a great friend or what? Anyway, I don’t know if they ever filmed that particular fight. If they did, it wasn’t with me, which is probably for the best since I’m not an actual stunt actor. But I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to rehearse something with Clancy Brown!

What I remember most about my time on set was it being fucking freezing. It was a twelve-hour, overnight shoot with most of my scenes being shot between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Much of my on-camera time was spent lying on the ground and pretending to be dead, but my body was shivering so hard I was sure the camera, several yards away, would pick it up. The ground was cold, wet, and covered in goose shit. The things we do for our friends! My other on-camera duties included running around in the background with a big stick during the climactic fight, getting up off the ground and stumbling away as though I were injured, and shuffling around a fake bonfire. Covered in so much gross makeup, I kind of went into an automatic zombie impersonation, lurching stiffly as if I’d just risen from the grave.  This resulted in what I believe to be the greatest directorial comment in the history of cinema, as J.T. stopped filming at one point and said, “Nick — less zombie, more homeless!”

The other thing I remember most is a lot of waiting around. Filmmaking, I discovered, involves a whole lot more setting up than actual filming. A thirty-second scene in a film can take hours to get right. Luckily, there was a heated tent where the background actors got to hang out while we waited for Alex Scricco, the very friendly and patient set production assistant, to come wrangle us. It turned out my fellow background actors all knew each other from other sets. Many of them had worked just the week before on Gary Marshall’s New Year’s Eve and were sharing stories about their experiences on that film. They also passed the time trading star-struck tales of celebrity encounters, or funny stories about other background actors they knew who were hams. There was a real sense of camaraderie among them. It reminded me of old friends getting together and picking up where they left off, as if no time had passed at all. I took a few pictures of them with, unfortunately, my then-crappy cell phone camera:

extras 5

These two took me under their wing immediately and showed me the ropes of being a background actor. They were very, very nice.

Extras 6

These two I remember being very funny. When you’re waiting for long periods of time with nothing to do, it helps to be surrounded by interesting people.

Extras 2

This young woman was like my background actor buddy. We hung out a lot. She was nervous because she was slated to perform topless for the very first time that night. I did my best to help keep her calm and distracted from her worries.

Other fun memories from that night are mostly celebrity-based. I remember sitting in the warming van with Andre Royo and getting the chance to tell him how amazing he was as Bubbles on The Wire. I remember another scene where I was supposed to run directly at the camera but nearly ran right into Balls of Fury‘s Dan Fogler instead. And of course, every second with Clancy Brown!

When filming was finished around 7 a.m., we went back to holding to wash off our makeup. By the time I got to the sink, though, there were no paper towels left. So I rode home on the subway in pretty much full makeup — during morning rush hour! I got a lot of looks and had to explain to my fellow commuters that I’d just come from filming a movie and it was makeup. “Oh, thank God!” one man said. “I’m an EMT and thought you’d been hit by a car!” Another man said I looked like I’d “just crawled out of the tunnels.” As soon as I got home, I took a picture of what I looked like:

how I looked on the subway home

Yikes! Anyway, I hopped in the shower and went right to bed. Unfortunately, I was covered with so much makeup that a shower just wasn’t enough. That night, Alexa had to clean makeup out of my ears with a Q-Tip!

The whole thing was an amazing, if exhausting, experience. I was so happy to be a part of J.T.’s movie! I don’t know how much of my “performance” made it into the final cut. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet. I did see a rough cut a while back, though, and saw myself running around in the background in one scene. In another, the back of my head is quite visible as I get up off the ground and stumble away, I’m sure much too zombielike. Hopefully, I made it to the final cut, too. But even if I didn’t, I’m so glad I got to be a part of it.

So go see Hellbenders now that it’s in theaters and on VOD! Maybe you’ll see me in the background and maybe you won’t, but I guarantee you’ll have a good time. The New York Times called it “a charming throwback to 1980s films, like ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Police Academy!'” How can you go wrong with that?

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