Schmoozing On Location With Ethan Hawke & Matthew McConaughey, "The Newton Boys"-1998
I worked 3 nights as an extra on location on the little-seen, star-packed film. The un-told story of doing pick-ups with Matthew, and hearing Hawke squawk in the make-up trailer!
It was a memorable, and ultimately tragic, day for more reasons than just having a date with a film company for a wardrobe fitting (not usually a tragedy, unless done during rush hour).
The date was May 27, 1997. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was driving home, heading north through downtown Austin on I-35 (of course during rush hour).
I had just attended my wardrobe fitting, and noticed a massive, nearly-black storm cloud far in the distance, directly in front of me.
I was getting fitted for a 1920s-era train car mailman’s costume for the 20th Century Fox motion picture, The Newton Boys, at exactly the same time the small town of Jarrell, Texas (42 miles away) was getting summarily wiped off the map by an F-5 tornado. The highest wind gust was measured at greater than 260 mph.
Apparently We’re “Background Artists” Now
I had a local agent for such things, and had worked as an extra on several TV movies and other theatrical releases that filmed in and around Austin since 1993. Fourteen years in Hollywood, and never once set foot on location or on a soundstage there!
I was told to show up for three nights in nearby Leander, some 30 miles northwest, sometime in June.
Fellow native Houstonian Richard Linklater directed and co-wrote the film (in fact, Linklater attended Houston’s Bellaire High School during his senior year, about 5 years after this reporter graduated as a proud Cardinal).
His film crew would be shooting, during the summer of 1997, on privately-owned and noticeably rural farm land that had a railroad track running through, or near, the property. The production company had contracted for a 1920s-period train to come up from Galveston to be used in the shoot.
Not Your Regular “Joe”
The film is based on the true story of the Newton Gang, a large cotton-farming family of bank robbers in the early 1920s from Uvalde, Texas (coincidentally, Matthew McConaughey’s hometown).
Their main claim to fame (besides purloining millions from over 80 banks and six trains) was their ability to have done all this robbing without ever killing anyone, at least to hear them tell it. Or, at least to hear Joe Newton (the youngest, played by Skeet Ulrich in the film) tell it in this short clip compilation featuring his 1980 appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and interview clips from a 1975 documentary:
The film stars McConaughey, Austin native Ethan Hawke, Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, and occasional country singer, Dwight Yoakam. It was filmed throughout central Texas, including the towns of Bertram, Bartlett, New Braunfels, San Antonio, and of course, the Austin area.
Upon its March 1998 release, Rotten Tomatoes praised the cast and production design, but that’s about it: “The Newton Boys uses a sharp cast and absorbing period detail to help make up for the frustrations of a story puzzlingly short on dramatic tension.” In fact, the film only made back $10.5 million of its $27 million budget.
The Days of Whine and Noses (Tales From the Make-Up Trailer)
One night prior to filming, I was sent to the make-up trailer. I had to wait my turn, as the make-up gal was busy with one of the principles. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Reality Bites, Dead Poets Society) was about three feet away from me in a foldable, canvas-backed chair seen often on film sets. I joined him in mine, acknowledging him with a pleasant nod.
I wasn’t in my chair ten seconds before Ethan suddenly pipes up, and begins this exchange with the make-up artist (I’ll call her Susie): “Y’know, Susie?” Ethan began. “You know what I hate about makin’ movies?” S: “No, what’s that, Ethan?” E: “That you can’t wear your hair the way you want all the time. No, y’know, you’re always having to grow it or cut it for whatever movie’s coming up next!”
Susie managed to commiserate with the young actor with surprising conviction: “That’s right, Ethan…you’re your own man!” It was at that moment that I demanded to see Susie’s Mensa certificate. In fact, I think I rolled my eyes so hard at Ethan’s notion of a crisis, I knocked my period/costume “granny glasses” off my nose.
I’m sure Susie and I didn’t manage to solve the world’s problems during my time under her eyeliner pencil and powderpuff, but to be honest, I can’t recall.
It was estimated that the gang took more than $2 million, making this the biggest train robbery in US history at the time.
My three nights were all spent filming the mail train robbery at that rural Leander property. My costume, as one of about eight mailmen in the mail car, were period shoes, pants and long sleeve, white shirt with back elastic band around one upper arm. I’m sure I also had a vest and necktie, topped off with a fedora.
From a 2014 article in The Guardian, here’s a brief description of the real-life robbery we were filming, before I follow with how we shot it:
“The Newton gang’s last and greatest heist was the Rondout train robbery, which took place near Chicago on June 12, 1924. It was estimated that the gang took more than $2 million, making this the biggest train robbery in US history at the time. The brothers were all caught and given fairly light sentences, as the film shows.
“The Newton gang ceased to operate in 1924, but it does not appear they entirely learned their lesson. The real Dock [portrayed by D’Onofrio] was arrested in 1968, at the age of 77, in the act of robbing a bank. The real Willis [portrayed by McConaughey] was accused of involvement in another bank robbery in 1973, when he was 84 – but there was not enough evidence to arrest him.”
Linklater: “Back to One…Background…..Action!”
Myself and the other seven extras playing mailmen were herded into the train’s mail car before cameras started rolling. Several “cubby holes” had period-specific leather mail sacks stuffed into them. These sacks, ostensibly, were loaded with cash the Newtons were after.
Of the eight, I was the only mailman given a gun, a rather large, silver, to-period handgun. What happened next was fascinating to me even then, but especially now, considering the recent, sad news from the set of Rust, and a certain acting Baldwin.
Linklater’s weapons master (sometimes credited as the film’s armorer, or weapons coordinator), took the gun, peered into the barrel, turned it around, opened the chamber, and spun it slowly, making sure no bullets had been inserted (I could see through the chamber, too). He then pointed the handle end to my face, and spun the wheel, so he could show me what he saw…nothing. Even then, painstaking care to ensure safety.
So, at Linklater’s “Action!”, smoke canisters were (supposedly) lobbed into our mail car by the Newton gang actors (although likely by the munitions wrangler or other crew; it didn’t have to be a principle, as the bomb-tossing wasn’t being filmed). Also, it’s possible the canisters weren’t actually the source of the “movie smoke,” but was blown in by smoke guns, used to propel smoke over a large area.
A cameraman was placed at the front of our car, dutifully filming our every hack and cough. The smoke was a realistic looking smoke for camera, but was somehow made less toxic to smell (or wasn’t even smoke at all, but a less-toxic white mist maybe). At any rate, we were told to not inhale it any more than necessary.
Meanwhile the Willis character (McConaughey) was yelling at us to come out of the train car, dropping any weapons as we did so. At this point, the camera angle, then, switched to outside the car, and slightly elevated, to photograph the mailmen jumping down about six feet from the bottom step onto the sharply sloping ground littered with small stones on either side of the elevated track.
As instructed, and being a compliant mailman, I tossed my gun onto the ground before making my leap, using the car’s vertical handrail for balance.
We did about half-a-dozen takes of this scene, with each one needing about ten minutes for the “smoke” to clear the car before the next take. Another scene, that night, focused tightly on us tossing our mail bags into a pile near our exit.
I Picked the Wrong Night to Wear a Shirt…Even From Wardrobe!
One night, two extras and I were asked by a PA (production assistant) to participate in “eye-line” pick-up shots. We were instructed to stand on either side of the camera up against a train car. Apparently, they needed to get shots of lines being said while cameras picked up appropriate eyesight distance and focus between McConaughey and (I think) Ulrich.
Why we, exactly, were needed on either side of the camera I can’t recall, except possibly for this: Matthew had to establish his eye-line from a couple steps up the train car (a camera was aimed to pick up his face while he delivered his lines to Skeet, and vice versa).
Again, multiple takes were needed, and each time, Matthew balanced himself, as he climbed up the car steps, by putting his left hand on my right shoulder, rather strongly, as I recall! Of course, he’d do the same when coming down! He did this at least twice!
Not an especially momentous memory for most, I’m guessing, but imagine all the places that hand could’ve been in the 28 years before it grabbed my shirted shoulder!
Plus, it’s not every day that someone can boast about the hand that would eventually hold the Best Actor Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club in 2014 was at one time on any part of their body!
Ladies, how about a rousing chorus of “Alright! Alright! Alright!”