I’ve been a professional actor for 36 years, almost all of it on the stage. My agent got me an audition to play John Dillinger’s father in a very major Hollywood film, PUBLIC ENEMIES. Johnny Depp plays Dillinger. Christian Bale plays his FBI nemesis, Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup plays J. Edgar Hoover. The audition was a very nice speech in a fine scene as John and his gang hide out for a break at Dad’s farm. In the scene, I would have to walk through a field of winter wheat talking to Marion Cotillard, who plays John’s girlfriend. Ms. Cotillard is very beautiful and had recently won the Oscar for best actress. The audition was in a small room in downtown Chicago with a local agent manning the video and his young assistant reading Ms. Cotillard’s lines. Afterwards, as I ate lunch in my car, the agent called and told me that the father scene had been cut from the script, but could I hang out and later read some other roles for the film’s casting director in another small room across town. I did, and I got one.
Shooting Public Enemies
Monday, June 16th, 2008.
On a cool sunny dawn, I park my car three miles north of Joliet, Illinois and am ferried up Route 53 to Stateville Prison. The parking lot in front of it is filled with thirty white trailers and a few tents. A cop waves us in and I climb off the shuttle and am directed to “Mousie”, who shows me to one of the trailers with my name on the door. I did not expect this. Mousie introduces me to an AD (Assistant Director) and goes to get me some breakfast. My costume arrives. 1933 Indiana State Prison Guard uniform with matching overcoat, all of it black wool. I have to wear vintage long johns, because I’ll be shedding clothes with a gun in my face and the scene takes place in January. It’s going to be 80 degrees today and sunny. Mousie brings food and tells me a haircut’s up next and I’m in the queue.
Mid-haircut, I’m called out on the concrete, along with the other guards, to be scanned by Michael Mann. He’s the director, producer and co-writer of PUBLIC ENEMIES as he was for THE INSIDER, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, ALI, MIAMI VICE, HEAT and other films. He’s been nominated for an Oscar 4 times. We are inspected and soon shipped up to the shooting site outside the south wall of the prison.
The south wall is 1800’ long and 33’ high and the crew has built a guard tower atop the wall above the sally port. ‘Sally port’ derives from the Latin words sallir (to jump) and portus (opening). Its modern meaning is a small controlled space with two doors. One must enter the space and close the first door before opening the second to proceed. Here, it is the passage through the prison wall, from captivity to freedom, and the space between those two doors is a guard room. This sally port at Stateville has a large old cage attached to the outside wall where the door is. This allows trucks to be pulled in and unloaded after the cage doors are locked. Forty feet left of it is a structure, equal in size, wrapped entirely in blue-screen material. I learn this is the real sally port. It’s too new and the computer will make it disappear. The old one I see is fake. I walk up within 5 feet. It’s just like the wall. These people are very good.
I am told to go sit under a canopy and wait. Across a broad expanse from the wall is a dusty road with a 1920’s gas station and 400 feet of fence painted with old ads. There are about 150 people preparing to begin this day’s shooting…crew for lighting, set, costume, props, weapons, vehicles, camera, sound, security, visitors and the AD’s. I learn here that there is one 1st AD named Bob and many 2nd AD’s. There are also 12 other actors here to shoot the prison break that opens the film as Dillinger and Red Hamilton scam their way into the guard room to meet the rest of their gang, who are breaking out. I meet and talk with some of them. John Judd plays the turnkey, the guard with the keys, and we share a trailer below. Most of these guys are Chicago actors, though one, David Wenham, is an Aussie. Chris, who plays one of the gang, gives us a tip.
“If you want to do something in a scene, don’t ever ask. Wait until just before you start shooting, call an AD over and say, ‘I’m smoking in this scene, right?’ and the AD doesn’t have time to check if he should say no.”
Judd and I watch many takes as Dillinger and Red pull up in a gorgeous four door ’31 Nash. Red hauls Dillinger into the sally port in fake cuffs. We break for lunch down at the food tent, a sumptuous spread, and then back up to the wall to wait. Judd shoots a few close-ups as he opens the outside door to Dillinger and Red Hamilton, then he returns and we spend the rest of the day waiting, talking and watching as the whole gang escapes out that same prison gate and shoots it out with the guards in the tower above. There are many takes with machine guns and .45s blazing and tower windows breaking. Judd and I have a long rambling talk as the afternoon turns and then an AD tells us we’re done for the day. We’re released.
Tuesday June 17th
I am called up to the site early this second day to shoot the film’s opening inside a locked down Stateville Prison. It’s a maximum security facility and 2800 captured felons live there. I’m ID’d and searched coming through the sally port and walk a quarter mile to the large central field. 30 actors, dressed as convicts, march there in lockstep in the June sun with fake snow in the background and a blue-screen lining the fence. Surrounding it is this concrete fortress. Faint calls of real inmates float in on the wind. I walk around the edge of the open field in the center of this institutional hell, fully clad in the black regalia of a 1933 prison guard. For the seventh time I hear, “Rolling…..Action”. I turn and walk back toward it. The sun is high as the wind picks up and gulls swoop and squawk. Then faint, but clear, “Hellllp meeee”, from a dark hole in the distance. A real Stateville guard orders a couple of inmate lunches to show us what the cons eat. We get a taste of soft spaghetti with a pale red sauce and white bread as we laugh and talk smart. After four hours without a shot, I exit the Sally port into milling humanity and an old car rigged with a camera to shoot a dragging, dying escapee. The dust floats from the shuttle’s constant cycling of bodies between base and shooting sites and AD’s slice through pods of crew, visitors and actors, all waiting or preparing for the next thing. They’re in the 5th month of shooting. Is this what Napoleon’s field camp felt like?
I ponder that and turn to face Dillinger, Johnny Depp, who walked up behind me and now talks with the visiting family of another actor. He greets them with smiles. They all pose for snapshots. The two young women are too pleased to flirt. A crew armorer stands waiting to drape him with a Thompson submachine gun on a sling and a .45 pistol for his shoulder holster. Depp spends many minutes with the visiting family and talks a bit about his stepfather having served time. He is engaged and kind. Polite. Almost shy. The young women smile and gaze at him as the marching convicts pass by, looking for a shuttle to take them to freedom.
I find an AD who says he’ll check the schedule and then I go to the canopy near the wall to wait. No shots again today and I am released. Milwaukee’s own Spencer Tracy made 78 films, was nominated for an Oscar 9 times and won twice.
He said, “I act for free. They pay me to wait.” So far, I don’t even act.
Wed: June 18th
Joliet Prison sits East, across the Des Plaines River from Stateville. Built in 1858 from local limestone, it is a Gothic talisman, an icon of the criminal seduction of American culture. Leopold and Loeb were sent up for life there after thrill killing Bobby Franks in the crime of the Century, and Elwood gathered up brother Jake from this prison’s gate in that old Plymouth cop car, patching out on a Mission from God to open the iconic film, The Blues Brothers. The rising sun kisses the turrets. It will be hot today.
All those trailers scooted across the river in the night and sit outside the old rear gate, which is open since the prison shut down 6 years ago. As it heats up, I search the screenplay carefully for justification so that Guard Dainard (me) will not be wearing the heavy wool overcoat and gloves.
“If Dainard is waiting inside the shirt factory for the other guards to march the cons in, he runs the place, right? Would he have an overcoat on if he’s already there?”
The costumers see my point, but must check with an AD, who seems open to the thought. The 1st AD makes some decisions. 2nd AD’s might make a decision. It is a potential minefield since the Director may disagree, even erupt for unknowable reasons. No one wants to be there. I wait and talk with a couple of Dillinger’s escaping gang who will manhandle me and stick a gun in my face an hour from now, and then we’re called to the set.
The shirt factory is a century old shop room set up with sixteen working vintage sewing machines on one side and cutting tables covered with white cotton shirt pieces. Old electric irons sit on other tables and boxes of thread are stacked on a pallet. The wall paint peels behind a raised platform with steps and a small desktop built into it; old, green, with a stool on it. That’s my stool. The light beams angling down from the windows that straddle it look like guardian death rays. There’s 30,000 watts out there. The crew sets up for the first shots of the day, preparing to roll when Michael Mann arrives.
I walk the room amid clamor, taking in all that I can - the light slashing the cloth on the machine tables and splitting the stained floor - the escape routes and passages through my domain. Other than my wooden perch on the wall, where can I stand and cover my back? Look for positions of power. Own the room. Rule it. The action of the scene I am about to shoot is the violent overthrow of that rule by acutely alert armed killers, bent on escape. If I am to be any good at this, the camera will see real surprise, fear, confusion and calculation on my face in seconds. So will the audience, if the director leaves it in his final cut. I must react truly to it all with a camera six feet away. It’s the camera thing that’s new to me. In a play, an actor controls the stage, takes hold of the audience’s eye. In a film, the director and the camera rule. If I can own this room and then have it ripped from my grasp, there’s a chance for the truth that his lens craves. AD’s invade the old floor and the schedule said ‘shoot’ half an hour ago.
Michael Mann enters laughing, talks to a cameraman, and begins striding about the factory set, pivoting his head like a raptor seeking prey. AD’s hover, courting rank, in range to respond but not to get in the way of creation. It’s an art, this hovering. Decisions come thick and fast as he blocks out the scene, giving actions to actors as he moves. I ask him something I should have deduced from the blocking. He points me an answer as he pivots, talking to the next actor. Mann builds the scene as I watch, trying to read him. The more I know about how he communicates, the better my chance of creating a Guard Dainard that fuels his vision of this shirt factory scene in his movie.
Twenty questions later, when he’s made twice that many decisions, we prepare to rehearse the scene. Mann disappears into the portable black hole housing the video feeds from the cameras. The AD yells ‘Picture …Sound …Rolling…..Action’ and the other guards march 30 convicts into the room, who take their stations to begin work as I migrate toward the center of the floor. Then the two guards and I are taken hostage by six of them, armed with .45’s smuggled inside a thread box. David Wenham, the Aussie, is grabbing me and sticking a .45 in my nose as he spins me around and shoves me up the aisle. The cons yank us toward the door, to be marched across the yard to the sally port with guns in our backs. That’s the scene.
We shoot that, or parts of it, 9 or 10 times during the next four hours, breaking to shift camera setups, re-block, do close ups and fix buttons ripped from my jacket by the wired Wenham. When the AD yells ‘Cut’, there’s a silence while everyone waits for Michael Mann’s word. Is he pleased or must we do another take? When the AD yells, ‘New deal,’ it means a new scene and a new set up and he’s got what he wants.
They tell me to grab lunch and report to the set of the guard room. A half hour later, I walk up to a tall canvas cube attached to the side of an old prison building. Inside, I find a barred gate set into the building wall and a blue screen opposite with real grass in between. Beyond the barred gate is the guard room, maybe 20 feet wide and 30 feet to the steel door which leads to the sally port and freedom. I walk into crew dressing and lighting this space and see a holding cell to one side and a counter opposite with an alcove behind it. Veteran that I am, it only takes me about 5 minutes to find out this room was built from scratch inside a larger room. I had to exit through the steel door to freedom to see the blue screen hanging there with wood supports out of sight on each side. Somewhere a wide hose blows cold air since it’s now 85 degrees outside.
The other actors filter in with costumers, make up people, gaffers setting up a poker table for the guards and more. AD’s appear, followed by Michael Mann and then Depp, with his assistant and make-up person. Mann begins to describe the action, the raptor working the room. Three of us hijacked guards will march across the grass to the gate, as though leading the six cons who have guns in our backs. I unlock the gate and the cons burst through, shoving us into the room. In that moment, Dillinger and Red are let in through the steel door from the outside and get the drop on the turnkey and other guards in the room. Nine prison guards and nine armed felons in a nice little room. I am shoved stumbling to the counter by Homer Van Meter, played by Stephen Dorff, who is screaming at me to take off my clothes so he can don them for the sprint to the car. The poker table is upended as one of those guards is thrown to the floor to have his head caved in by a crazed con with a big pipe. Dillinger, having stepped out to check for a clear trip to the Nash, returns to find his brood charged and venting, one of them making mash of the guard’s brain on the floor. A moment later, I lunge for Homer’s gun and he drills me in the sternum from three feet away.
We run the action and then break while the cameras set up for the first takes. I am directed to the grassy area beyond the barred gates to be rigged with my first shirt by the special effects people. 6 shirts have been rigged to explode, front and back, for the entrance and exit wounds from the .45 bullet that is to cause my demise. A squib is a small explosive charge centered in a flat pack of fake blood and attached to the inside of the front and back cloth of the shirt. A thin wire from the squib runs down the leg of my pants to a receiver strapped above my ankle. The special effects guy will push his button as Homer squeezes off his shot and my back will explode in dying color. Since the cameras are on my side of the room, with one right behind me, they only wire the back squib. My torso has been heavily wrapped with a bandage to insulate my flesh from the explosion. They tell me I’ll hardly feel it. Then they show me Homer’s .45 as they load the blank cartridge. This seems to be standard protocol. I haven’t heard of any casualties and thank them politely. Then I turn to see the cameraman behind me donning a large plastic garbage bag with armholes as a crewman wraps the camera in plastic. I think they think it will get wet back there. This will be interesting.
A few minutes later, Mann disappears into monitorland and the AD goes through the last checks before I hear,
“OK, we’re going… Picture……..Sound……… Rolling……Action,” and we march with foreshortened steps across the grass to the barred gate and run through the scene as staged. I am shot, sink to the floor and die as the gang exits through the steel door to the sound of sirens and then, “Cut.”
Rising, we are quickly told to reset for take two. I repair to the grassy knoll beyond the gates for shirt # 2. I hardly felt the exploding squib through the bandage, or else it was adrenaline. It takes an hour to re-set everything and wire me up before beginning again. We run and rerun sequences for various camera angles and close-ups. I begin to lose sense of time.
Homer Van Meter had anger management issues. Before each take, I watch Dorff, the actor, check his position with the cameraman, who is shooting him in close-up over my shoulder. Then he starts agitating himself, becoming Homer, cursing me and my forebears. During these close ups, we do many takes of a move where Homer shoves me to the counter and screams at me to remove my uniform, knocking my hat off to show our reversal of fortunes. He clips my head 3 times out 6, always being sorry afterwards. On the 7th take, we are to pick it up again from the same place and I stare as Homer again begins to frenzy himself. Just before the 2nd AD calls for action, I bark at Homer to sodomize himself and tag him with a fecal title. He shuts up and his eyes widen and then he is inspired to blow me away again. After the take, the AD calls for cameras to be reset to the opposite side of the room. I rise and turn to survey the carnage behind me. The cameraman, the camera and everything near it are covered in blood. I turn and Homer is looking at me quizzically.
“Thanks, copper” he smiles.
“Anytime,” I reply as I pick up my hat and head out for another shirt.
It’s now after 7 and pizza has arrived on the set, but it disappears by the time I’m wired up again. The cameras are all in front of me now, so only the front squib is connected…only the entrance wound. Time has faded out as the cameras are re-set and tweaked. We rehearse the moves like old hands now, muttering portions of lines. I watch Dillinger re-enter the guard room with his .45 drawn as all hell is breaking loose around him. He slides gracefully through the mayhem and, passing behind the churning Van Meter, whom he hasn’t seen for awhile, Dillinger quietly greets him with “Homer,” and an ever so slight smile and nod. He doesn’t even turn his head as he cruises past. The greeting is so incongruous in that angry little room. It’s not in the script. I laugh. Mann smiles. It’s a simple, elegant gesture that speaks volumes about this bandit he inhabits. It snags us into Dillinger’s life, into the next few hours of film until he, too, must die. It is an actor who has done all his homework and is free to react to everything around him in the moment. We learn Dillinger is the leader, that he’s cool under pressure, that he’s charming and funny and very dangerous and we want to know what makes him tick. Depp does it with one word. I see it now. How this works. Why Depp is as good as he is.
Mann has the cameras where he wants them. One is in the far corner, shooting a wide shot of the action. A second is in the holding cell across the room shooting a tight shot of the guard’s head being clobbered as he lies on the floor. The third is across to my left and aimed over Homer’s shoulder at me. We seem ready to go as Mann strides and aims and sets. I know it’s late. Mann turns and walks up to me, close, speaking quickly.
“Ok. We need some real acting here. You’re the head guard and you’ve just been hijacked by killers with .45’s and marched over here and tossed into this room. You see Dillinger and Red, and one of your guards is over there on the floor getting his brains beaten out. Homer’s screaming at you to strip. I need to see you afraid and confused and assessing it all… and horrified. I need to see your decision to grab Homer’s gun, knowing you’ll probably die. I’ve got you in a tight shot and I need to see it all on your face. Got it?”
I stare at him. “I got it.”
He turns on his heel and barks a few more commands as he heads for the monitors. The AD tells us, that when he yells ‘Freeze’, we should do just that. We began shooting 12 hours ago. There is tension. Mann disappears. ‘Picture…Sound…Rolling…Action.’
We reach the point where Dillinger has re-entered and my hat is gone and I’m to go for the gun on Dillinger’s cueline. We hear, ‘FREEZE. Camera’s still rolling.’ Two big prop guys run in hauling a dummy in a guard suit that is a dead ringer for the actor on the floor getting his head creamed. The actor jumps up and runs out as the prop guys place the dummy in the exact position the actor held. One of the guys pulls a huge syringe filled with stage blood out of his pouch and attaches it to a tube running from under the dummy’s head. He empties the syringe into the dummy’s skull and hides the tube and trots out of the scene.
‘Still rolling. We’ll pick it up three lines back. Ready? Action.’
The pipe beating resumes as blood pours over the floor and I sweep the room with my eyes. When Homer turns away on Dillinger’s cueline, I lunge for the .45. Homer shoves me back to the counter and blows a hole in my sternum and I collapse and die as they sling on our coats and run out. Sirens wail.
‘ Cut.’ I rise and look at the little explosive hole near the 3rd button of my shirt. Cool. The dummy’s a mess. Everyone waits for the verdict, quiet and tired. Bob, the 1st AD calls out,
“We got it. New deal.”
That’s it. He’s got what he wants. I’m told to prepare to do close-ups of my hands unlocking the gate with Wenham sticking a gun in my back. The 1st AD will direct this as Mann and Depp and others will go on to get some night shots in the car. We shoot for another half hour and Wenham and I talk about our families and Australia between takes. The AD tells us to go get some air while he checks what we just shot. The night is warm as we banter a bit under the stars. The prison is beautiful in the light. A woman tells us we’re released. I return to my trailer and shed the soaked clothing and dress and gather my things. I step out and Mousie arrives with vouchers to sign and an envelope full of per diem cash. She leaves and I stand and try to remember if I have all I brought. The door of the next trailer down opens and Dorff, also changed out of costume, descends the stair and turns my way. He looks up as he approaches and smiles and says,
“Thanks. You too.” I reply.
“Take it easy,” he says as he moves on.
It’s after 10 when I start the car and wind north out of Joliet, stopping for directions to the Interstate. A few minutes later I see it and turn onto the entrance ramp north. There is a toll booth. Unmanned, it states that I have to deposit 85 cents. I search and find only a quarter and a nickel and curse as I throw them in. I see it now. How this works… and I accelerate down the ramp and begin to laugh. The air cools my face. I’m a criminal on the run and it’s two hours home.