A call to arms

‘Alamo’ filmmakers need a bigger Mexican armyof smaller guys

Jan. 11, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

The Mexican army needs a few good men.

Make that a few thin men.

Too many potential soldiers are waddling instead of marching. They boast chins, not chivalry. The proudly authentic uniforms will never button over their bellies. These ragtag warriors are fighting the battle of the bulge.

It’s their ranks that are thin. There are not enough Mexican soldiers to fight the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto for the big-budget Disney film “Alamo,” which begins a five-month shoot Jan. 20 near Dripping Springs.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”), the long-planned, $75 million epic stars Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston and Jason Patric as James Bowie. They will be on the set beginning Monday to train in the ways of war and weaponry.

Historical accuracy is paramount to the filmmakers. Problem is, Santa Anna led an army of roughly 6,000 men to the Alamo, and the movie’s producers can barely scratch up 500.

Getting enough Hispanic men who fit the part has been its own battle. Bulk is being blamed.

“A lot of guys who come out are huge,” says Billy Dowd, the movie’s extras casting coordinator. “What am I going to do? Have them lose 200 pounds and call me in a couple weeks? They’re either right or they’re not. You can’t work with huge people when you do a period film.”

On this warm, windy day in the hills north of Dripping Springs, about 350 men are training to play Santa Anna’s army. Cameras aren’t rolling yet; this is just rehearsal. The movie has 500 uniforms to fill — the remaining numbers will be faked with movie magic — but the dropout and expulsion rates of the extras are so drastic that the film direly needs more men.

Not for want of trying. Since October, Dowd has papered Austin with fliers (“Hispanic Men Wanted . . . $$”) and hit media outlets across the state.

“I’ve scoured the whole area,” Dowd says. “I’ve done the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Work Force Commission, Spanish television, Spanish radio. I took ads in all the Spanish newspapers. I went to the Dia de los Muertos festival. I went to the east side to bodegas and all the Spanish churches.”

Hundreds of men have applied, but they don’t always know what they’re in for. For each eight-hour day of training, extras make $15 —basically gas money — and they are fed. If they make the cut or don’t quit first, they will make $100 a day during filming and must be on call for the entire shoot. The days will be long, up to 15 hours, and can run all night.

There are strict criteria for would-be extras, says Dowd. “You have to be legal. You have to be 18 or older. You have to be local. You have to be available whenever we need you from now until the end of June. And you have to fit the uniform.”

That last one has become a weighty sticking point.

First assistant director K.C. Hodenfield is evaluating a line of wannabe soldiers, who shoulder muskets and wear supremely casual civilian clothes slathered in name brands. Hodenfield sounds slightly exasperated as he lectures the troops.

“OK, we’re not going to see you on camera for three weeks. In that time, you need to stop eating desserts, stop eating bread and potatoes and rice. That’s starch. If you can try that I would greatly appreciate it,” Hodenfield says. “I don’t want to have anybody in the back of the crowd the whole time. You’ve worked hard, and I want to be able to see you throughout the movie. Think about it. Don’t eat those french fries. Say no to that super size.”

Hodenfield walks off and huddles with his assistants in a nearby tent. He crosses extras’ names off a list with a fat orange marker. “I don’t want to see that guy ever again,” he says, making a long mark. “He thinks he’s God’s gift.”

Moments later he says, “It’s been such a challenge to find a fighting machine to be Santa Anna’s army. Of course I feel bad when I have to tell people to change their dietary situation. Unfortunately, my Mexican army lives on rice and beans and tortillas and everything else.

“I’ve stressed to these guys from day one that because Santa Anna led them on a forced march from Mexico City to San Antonio they were lean and mean,” Hodenfield continues. “They were freezing to death along the way. They were being drafted out of their villages as the army moved north. We’re going to be working in the rain and the cold and everything else as if it was the winter of 1836. But some of these guys need a little bit of help on the lean portion of the program.”

Hodenfield points to a motley battalion on the horizon that’s in its first day of training.

“Look at the back of them. Those are some big fellas. I told them this morning, ‘You haven’t walked 900 feet without wanting a cigarette let alone 900 miles.’ I hate to be so cutting about it, but doggone it.”

It’s the third day of training for most of the extras, who are being led, taught and barked at by 40 professional war re-enactors sporting their own authentic Mexican army uniforms. About a dozen battalions are marching and drilling through the grounds, a scrub of stones, scraggly trees and cacti brambles. Here, fired muskets make a clackety boom and spray smoke; there, men stomp in formation, prohibited to smile. Death falls are practiced on large black mats. Military commands are hollered all around in English and Spanish.

On a hillside, a group of trainees surrounds a prop cannon rigged with explosives. They perform an elaborate choreography preparing to set it off.

As the men fumble into formation at the cannon, an artillery expert shouts, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! Come on, number four! Run that sucker. Let’s go, let’s go. Where’s your head, number two? Get in next to him. Don’t make him wait!”

The training is rough and real. “It’s not easy work,” Dowd says. “We tell them it’s basically boot camp. You’re learning to march, shoot black powder rifles, load and fire cannons. But we have to be very up front, because we want to weed out people right away.

“All it takes is one guy looking at the camera or a guy running by who looks like he couldn’t care less and it ruins the whole illusion. We have to take you to Texas in 1836 and make you believe it.”

One of the extras, Lionel Rodriguez, is learning how to collapse after being shot. Rodriguez is 42 and wants to be in “Alamo” for personal reasons. He claims two survivors of the Alamo are his distant cousins, “so I had to be involved.”

Rodriguez looks worn after a long day of boot camp. “We’re on our feet almost constantly. Even when we take a break they make us stand three abreast,” he says. “It’s difficult. This type of work is not for everybody. It’s much like someone who’s a long-distance truck haul driver. If you can’t be out here marching and carrying muskets and falling on mats and climbing ladders, you might as well stay home.”

Potential extras first go through a day of orientation where they are told the rigors of the shoot. Four-hundred men came to a recent orientation, but only 250 returned the next day for training. After each day of training, Dowd says, about 50 men quit or are cut.

Hodenfield thinks he has enough of a standing army to begin filming, but he will need more as things roll on.

“Once they start working the 15-hour days that will be needed of them, from the minute they step into wardrobe to the minute they’re out of wardrobe, I’m worried about the attrition rate,” he says.

The irony is that while the movie needs more Mexican soldiers, Hodenfield still excuses about 15 percent of the extras after each day of training.

“These guys have worked really hard,” Hodenfield says. “I can see the progress they’ve made from day one to day three. The majority of guys have been here three days, and in an hour I’m going to tell them if they graduate. That decides if they go into wardrobe fittings next week or go home.

“There will be a lot of broken hearts today.”

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