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Roger Corman my excuse to reminisce the time I was an extra on a monster movie

More people die than I feel I can properly memorialize in this blog, so not every famous person gets an obituary here. But for Roger Corman I’m making an exception.

in 1978 my parents, sister, and me lived at 70 6th Street in New Manila, Quezon City on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. We’d been there for a year and a half, making a life there. My father, having been denied entry to US medical schools because he was too old (at 30) was going his own way along with other expat Americans in similar situations. He enrolled at the University of the East in Manila.

We subsisted–I think–on money loaned to my parents from his parents and siblings. But along the way, my mom, incredibly beautiful woman always, had somehow come to do some modeling. I remember seeing her, and her bottom, modeling for “Mac Jeans” there. I leave it as an exercise for you, dear reader, to consider why the Philippines needed white ladies to be in commercials intended to be viewed in Asia and Oceania , but it was money that made a difference in our lives.

I think through the US embassy in Manila–where I played T-Ball and could buy issues of Cracked and MAD Magazine–that she had met someone who hired models. And I think it was that same person who let my mom know that they needed Americans to be extras in a movie like Jaws. And that is how it came to be that Roger Corman—through his company New World Pictures—changed my life and the life of my family.

The movie was to be called Up From The Depths and was to be set in Hawaii. The opening scene if I remember does a swish-pan to the backsides of women doing a vigorous hula dance. You may think to yourself–“Hawaii is not an island in the Philippines”–but now, as then, it is expensive to shoot a movie in Hawaii. The ethos of Roger Corman, detailed even in the title of his book How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime–was thrift.

That book is amazing. I read it when I was still going to school for respiratory therapy. And it was the draw of making movies that got me to move from Charlottesville, Virginia to Los Angeles in 1995. I just had to take a stab at filmmaking. I got sidetracked making web pages and that’s what I’ve done as a profession since then.

Back in 1978, My mother and I were to be extras in a B-movie about a killer prehistoric fish awakened from millennia of sleep or some other very silly premise.

It was an amazing experience. Dozens of expatriate Americans and Australians on a bus from Manila to Batangas—-60 miles (100km)—but the roads were primitive and bumpy enough that I remember having to hold on tight on that school bus.

Manila to Batangas
Manila to Batangas

I made $70 for those few days working as an extra. My mother and I walked around in backgrounds. We sat on beach chairs and did nothing or pretended to talk. I swam around in the water. I lingered around in the water with a cheap inflatable ring and Charles Howerton repeated walking up to us and then suddenly tripping and emerging from the water covered in some sort of animal flesh. I had a line: “OOOH–What is it?!” I think my mom made a few hundred dollars. She is in scenes in the lobby of the “Hawaiian hotel” and in a nightclub scene, dancing. I was never far away, looking on.

My memories are vivid, impressionistic, and positive. It’s also possible some of them are incorrect. Sorry, my mom’t no longer around to tell her experience of it.

It was all amazing. I remember the “stars” telling jokes to us kids on the beach. I remember the elaborate camera set up. People with equipment and walkie talkies. I remember watching boats do runs back and forth between points out in the water. I remember the fake monster fish fins being towed behind a boat. (The prehistoric fish had two telltale dorsal fins–double the number of fins in Jaws).

The fish props were huge and impressive in size, but also mundane. They reminded me of surfboards. Fiberglass and painted and pretty. But really fake too. I think I was somehow both easy to impress and hard to impress at that age.

That was where I first got to read pages in a screenplay. Me and a few other boys ages 8-10 in a glass-bottomed boat. The boat is in the movie, but the scene doesn’t.

I had a mask but no snorkel. We could swim out to the wooden platform that appears in the movie. What was under the water was amazing. Right at the water’s edge it was like being inside a fancy aquarium. Colorful and slightly menacing fish, shells and coral, very gently swaying plants in the small bay.

These are the shells I collected during our stay in Batangas. They are specific and special enough to me that I’ve kept them separate from every other thing I’ve collected in my life for the last 45 years.

If you watch the film, which I can’t possibly recommend, you will note a young kid with messy black hair in a scene with 2 other boys. That’s me, pretending to be a kid vacationing in Hawaii and looking confused.

From an early scene in Up From The Depths. I didn’t like having a ring around my neck. Even then I was proud to be a good swimmer and I’d never use a useless toy like that. But on a movie set, you do what you’re told.

The movie is not great. Here’s a scene that happens to be on YouTube, depicting the reaction of a Hawaiian resort to a sea monster. I am one of the shadowy figures running to shore. You would have to ask the producers how they justify everyone on shore being scared of a monster that can’t leave the water.

My aunt somehow bought the poster in the 1980s, way before eBay and the web, and I’ve kept it safe, and usually on the wall in my living room, ever since.

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