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Godsmack take to the woods

By Carly Carioli

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Midnight. Our SUV dips down a blind, winding dirt path, then another, and still another. We descend into a gully on a back road skirting Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle, headbeams dancing before us in the pitch black of the witching hour. A white glow hangs above the trees to our right -- this must be the way. We roll past a catering tent, ignoring the inquiring faces, and up a narrow clay path. The 25-foot-high pine woods give way to a recently cleared cornfield; yellowed stalks, butchered down to ankle height, run off in long neat rows to the horizon. In the distance, sparks leap off a bonfire as its flames arch 10 feet in the air; the field slopes down toward us, to more trailers and floodlights and a film crew bundled flimsily against autumn's first frost. Two luminescent globes the size of small weather balloons hover a dozen feet in the air, casting a weary, waxen glow. A camera perched on a long boom swings out to bisect the bonfire and focus on three figures at the crest of the slope. The three are dressed like recently disinterred minstrels -- black men with mossy graybeards clutching rusty dirt-bike frames, faces smeared with death's-mask whiteface and topped off with tattered stovepipe hats, like some lost regiment of a skate-punk apocalypse. Perforated tubes snake out into the cornrows, giving off a foggy mist that smudges the fringes where the clearing meets the forest's edge.

My photographer and I have been invited to watch Godsmack shoot the second day of a two-day shoot for "Voodoo," the third single/video off their homonymous, platinum-selling debut. The budget for the clip is rumored to be about $250,000. They've hired director Dean Karr, whose credits include videos for Marilyn Manson's cover of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," Dave Matthews's "Don't Drink the Water," and most recently, Ozzy Osbourne and Coal Chamber's cover of Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey." Last night, the crew filmed at Gloucester's Hammond Castle, where the cameras captured singer Sully Erna -- who describes himself as a devout wiccan -- participating in a full witch ceremony helmed by his pal Lori Cabot, the head witch of Salem. The ceremony also included between 20 and 30 other wiccan babes -- at least one of whom appears in the video mostly naked, with a snake. Sully also turned himself into a human candle and lit his head on fire.

Tonight they're shooting exteriors at a remote agricultural park stashed away in the woods. The video doesn't seem to have a plot, but then again the entire notion of plot seems altogether precious on MTV. There is, however, a "concept," and it's fairly obvious to anyone on the set with two eyes -- as a publicist explains, "It's Children of the Corn meets The Blair Witch Project."

Godsmack manager Paul Geary, who in a previous life was the drummer for hair-metal stars Extreme but now appears business-like and bookish, wanders over. "The Phoenix, huh? The last time the Phoenix wrote about us they really ripped us apart. Was that you?"

Yep. That would be me.

He grabs me by the lapels and gives me a playful shake. "Why I oughta . . . ," he laughs. "Well, we'll give you one more chance."

No hard feelings. He seems like a nice guy, and seeing as he took a band with maybe one song on a crappy record and has gone three-deep and platinum, he's gotta be some sort of mad tactical genius. "We knew eventually we'd get to 'Voodoo,' because the song lends itself to a conceptual-type video," he says. "We wanted to wait until we had a few core tracks behind us. We dropped 'Whatever' first, and 'Keep Away' is at number four right now. My vision for the band is more about turning people on to the act as a whole, not just to any one song -- based on the sound, and who they are. Mainly through touring."

But if ever there was a time to play Sully's wiccan card, this is it: Blair Witch fever in full bloom and the film about to be given a boost by a Halloween home-video release, with no rock band as yet savvy (or shameless) enough to capitalize on the craze. Until now.

The day had been pleasant enough, but in the woods after midnight it's cold enough for the crew members and assorted hangers-on to see their breath. Shivering in the darkness on the walk through the woods to the catering trailer, crew members warm themselves by making Blair Witch jokes. A girl screams, "Where's the map?!" A guy sobs, "I'm SO SORRY!" At least everyone's got his or her motivation straight.

At food services, we meet a knot of 20 or so extras with towels hanging around their necks. They're being paid the princely sum of $100 each for the night's work, which, they've recently discovered, will require them to strip naked, be slathered head-to-toe in gray talc-based mud, and jump in an algae-choked pond. Until yesterday they had been told only that they would be naked, mud-covered, and running through the woods. Even yesterday the water had not seemed like such a bad idea, but tonight the temperature is somewhere in the 30s. And my photographer keeps insisting he saw a turtle or a raccoon in the pond. Steve Dunker, 22, from Andover, just prays the water shot is one-take. "Someone explain the storyline to me," he says. "Shit, just explain the bicycles to me. Can anybody explain that?"

As the rumor about the turtle in the water spreads, it gets passed along as snakes. "Great," says one extra. "In a couple of years you'll see it on Pop-Up Video: 'During the filming of this scene, 15 extras were bitten by snakes.' "

First assistant director Joe Osborne gathers the extras and plots their evening. They're going up to the cornfield set to get made up while the rest of the crew shoots a few scenes in a clearing near the pond. While they're waiting, he tells them, they can grab a chair and sit around the abandoned bonfire, which is slowly burning itself out. "Marshmallows are on food services," he says, "but you gotta bring your own stick."

As they're gathered around the bonfire 20 minutes later, looking at a wait of a couple of hours, one of the extras asks for a ghost story. "Once upon a time 24 extras ventured into the woods," says one wag. "A year later, their footage was found."

Music-video sets, like movie sets, are static scenes. They involve long stretches of waiting followed by, if you're lucky, a moment or two of magic. Dean Karr is waiting for magic. In the meantime he sings snippets of "Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)" by Wham! while curled up in a too-small blanket, lying in the dirt in the middle of the clearing. The crew stands around in a circle awaiting instruction. An aide brings cappuccino and trays of shrimp.

The two glowing, weather-balloon-looking spheres cast a sepia glow over the stark clearing, turning the tall, skinny pines a pale shade of lonely and lost. Behind the clearing sits an abandoned, boarded-up red shack, like a scale model of the one in Blair Witch's final scene -- except there aren't any plans to use it other than as a platform for the sound engineer. It seems they don't want to go overboard on the witch thing. Across from the shack is the mossy pond, perhaps with turtles in it, on the bank of which sits an old, rusted MDC rowboat. Karr spots the boat and, in a wink, has shoved off in it, to the dismay of Joe Osborne. "Are there oars in that thing?" he asks as Karr drifts out into the middle of the pond. There are not. Osborne considers his possibilities for a second, then settles on chucking golf-ball-sized chunks of deer feces at the boat. Karr uses a branch to measure the water's depth -- it is considerably more than waist-deep.

Techies transform two trees in the clearing into an altar, stringing up a gorgeous antique steeple-sized stained-glass window depicting a saint of some stripe -- likely Francis or Ignatius -- with a baby in its arms. Floodlights illuminate the scene from behind, and when the smoke machine coughs to life, the light breaks through the holes in the ancient glass window and casts angular beams into the foreground. It's a little bit of magic, the sudden apparition of an open-air cathedral in the woods.

Karr, safely returned to shore, turns to Sully. "Whaddya think?"

"It's, uh, very Christian," Sully says.

Eventually, a tree branch is used to obscure the face of the saint, perhaps to sublimate its Christian-ness. Barefoot and shivering, with his shirt open, Sully mounts a makeshift mound of apple boxes covered in moss and stone situated beneath the stained-glass window. Karr wants Sully to lip-synch while doing He-Man moves -- to crouch, then slowly stand and shake his fists above his head like a prizefighter or Glenn Danzig. Sully objects. The plan is to shoot another scene after this one in which a wolf jumps off the rock, and then to combine both scenes so that the wolf appears to jump through Sully. If Sully's standing, the wolf will end up seeming to come, roughly, out of his crotch. Sully says he'd prefer to kneel and slowly arch his back with his hands in a supplicating position, palms raised. "I thought it was gonna be like a losing-consciousness kind of thing," he says, "and then the wolf was gonna emerge from my chi."

Several pairs of eyes roll, but Sully wins out. Chi it is. Meanwhile, back in the cornfield, the extras have been transformed. Clad only in scant loincloths and smeared with rapidly drying gray mud, they look like a papier-mâché project gone wrong, or as one observer puts it, "a bleached Blue Man Group." The Mudmen, as they have been named, stand stiffly around the dying embers of the bonfire, shivering and turning every now and then, rotisserie-style, to keep warm. The heated tent that was to have housed them is too small, and in any case one of the heaters has died. They have been shivering, naked, around the campfire for about half an hour, and here is what they have learned about being Mudmen: mud is clumpy. As the mud dries like a plaster cast, the Mudman is frozen in one position, because even the smallest shift, or the bending of a joint, sets off a paroxysm of agony as every body hair in the general vicinity of the movement feels as if it were being ripped out at the root, which in fact it is. Between the mud and the cold, the movement of the Mudmen becomes quite stiff, which only adds to their bizarre, zombie-ish appearance. "So this is what rigor mortis feels like," cracks one Mudman, attempting an ill-advised squat to take the weight off his legs.

The Blair Witch Project was about an hour and a half long and was filmed for around $30,000. "Voodoo" is, unedited, a little over four and a half minutes long, and the video will cost eight times as much. Then again, there weren't any wolves in The Blair Witch Project.

"Call Little Red Riding Hood and tell her to bring the big bad wolf," says Karr. "Actually, strike that. I'm not ready for the dog yet, but I wanna talk to the dog lady."

While the dog lady is fetched, I corner Joe Osborne: "Where in the hell do you go to get a wolf?"

"Jersey," he says. "For real. I'm not kidding."

The Jersey wolf, it turns out, is a bit precious. We watch from a distance as the mangy beast is brought out of its cage. It appears listless. As you will remember, it is supposed to jump out of Sully's chi, which is apparently somewhere near his chest. This requires the wolf to leap forward into the air. The wolf has other ideas, though, and it lies down on the rock. The trainer tries every trick in the book -- she cajoles, yelps, parries, thrusts, lunges, gestures animatedly, feeds it. The wolf looks unimpressed, perhaps a little perplexed, and ambles delicately off the rock. Cut.

The wolf is taken aside several times for impromptu retraining, but each time it returns to the rock, the result is the same: the trainer yells "Jump!", the wolf looks bored, the wolf eventually steps politely off the rock. Sully's chi is in for a major disappointment.

After an hour of this, maybe longer, they give up. "It snarled like a real animal," says one observer. "But it jumped like a girl."

It's after four in the morning, and even though I'm in a leather jacket and thermals, my joints are starting to tighten. Imagine, then, the Mudmen, who have now been huddled around the fire, naked but for a loincloth, for several hours. Some of them have been at the site since 7:30 this evening. Conversation is kept to a minimum. They have received as their divine inspiration the Frankenstein character from Saturday Night Live and have taken his trademark utterance as their own. "Urrrnnnrrhh!" a Mudman grunts through his teeth. "Frankenstein bored!"

As the night has dragged on, the plight of the Mudmen has become something of a charitable cause. Word of them has trickled down to the camp filming in the clearing, though as yet almost none of the crew has actually seen them. Finally, a publicist takes up their welfare and pleads with Sully. "They're naked! They're standing around a campfire! They've been up there for hours! It's so wrong!" she giggles.

Sully leaves his heated tent on the set and clambers up to the cornfield, his jaw dropping as he comes upon the Mudmen, who have just made the mistake of trying to feed the dying fire with cornstalks and are jumping to avoid a shower of hot sparks. "Look at this!" cries Sully, unable to believe his eyes. They are quite a sight. "You're so naked! You're so lovely!"

"We're not naked," says one Mudman, peering down at his loincloth.

"We're not lovely," pouts another.

Still another simply growls. "Urrrnnnrrhh!"

Sully promises to have his manager get all the Mudmen tickets to Godsmack's New Year's Eve show at the Bayside Expo Center. This seems to placate several of the Mudmen, though for most of them, the task of Mudman has become less about acting than, well, some sort of physical test. They have been cast into the woods, naked and alone. They are hunkered down, determined to triumph over the elements and the crew and the night. They came for a rock-and-roll Blair Witch Project and ended up getting Iron John or something.

The directors still aren't anywhere near ready for the Mudmen, but Sully invites them down to the set in the clearing, where there's a heated tent that actually works. As the Mudmen arrive in twos and threes, trudging down the path into the tent like the tail end of a decathlon of the damned, the assembled crew stares at them, a bit in awe, snickering in part because the Mudmen look perfect and in part because anyone who would let this be done to him must be nuts.

As the crew shoots tracking shots of the band in the dead pines, a few Mudmen emerge from the tent -- which is now too hot. The crew chuckles at the sight of them. "Hey -- what are you lookin' at?" snaps one of the Mudmen, then, seeming to come to some profound realization of his current condition, shakes his head and mutters to himself, "This is it. This is what it feels like to be crazy."

At 5:15 A.M. the Mudmen have yet to be shot. The sky is beginning to lighten ever so slightly. Finally, around 6 a.m., as the sky is fading from purple to a Mudman-like shade of gray, Dean Karr wraps the band shots and calls out, "Mudmen -- are you ready?"

There is, eerily, no response from the Mudmen, who have once again taken refuge in the heated tent. Again Karr yells, "Mudmen! Let's go!"

Silence. Rustling in the tent. Then a response, chanted in unison:

"Two hundred! Two hundred! Two hundred!"

They get a round of applause and a few guffaws. But union shoot or no, they're not getting a raise.

Shooting is, at first, choppy going. The Mudmen are directed to run back and forth en masse across the forest clearing as a camera mounted on a length of track follows a parallel path. After a few passes, they discover the downside of running barefoot in the forest: sticks, twigs, branches, mulch, and pine needles slice Mudmen feet to ribbons. A couple of them are bleeding. "Hey, I got an idea," shouts one irate Mudman. "Why don't you throw down some coals and some glass?"

Some assistants attempt to clear the path, carting several large branches out of the frame. "So much for continuity," sighs a Mudman. Karr eggs them on. "Chaos!" he shouts. "Run from tree to tree! Hide! Hide! Run! Mosh pit!" He sends them back into the uncleared brush and has them run directly at the camera, has them drop to the ground and rise again, ducking behind trees and rocks and shrubs. In the flesh it looks merely disorganized, a mass of tired, gray bodies in paranoid flux. But the lens transmogrifies it; through the monitor, with the tungsten light soaking the clearing in a sepia glow and the camera gliding alongside on the forest floor, the Mudmen lope silently like a ghostly lost tribe, sinister and beautiful.

The sun is coming up, and with perhaps a half-hour to pull off the final shot before daybreak, Karr addresses the Mudmen. "Look, this is the big hero shot," he says. "This is probably gonna be the last shot in the finished video. You guys will be heroes. But I'm not gonna make anyone do it who doesn't want to do it."

The shot is this: the Mudmen are required to walk backward from the camera, through the mudbank, and into the water, then continue walking backward (without slipping or falling on the pond slime, or tripping over several large boulders that poke through the surface of the water like icebergs) until the water reaches their necks. They must do this while keeping an expressionless, zombie-like face, even though the water is quite cold and the Mudmen have been standing, naked, in the forest all night. Then, once all of them are up to their necks in swamp water, they must simultaneously, on the director's cue, duck their heads into the water. Afterward, the film will be reversed and the Mudmen will appear to emerge from the lake completely dry, a phantom posse of lost souls.

Seven Mudmen decide they have had enough.

The 13 or so who remain execute the shot perfectly.

An assistant sitting at the monitor, watching as the Mudmen heads disappear below the pond's surface, turns around and grins: "Holy shit." Joe Osborne, worried somewhat belatedly that the Mudmen might catch pneumonia, orders them out of the water. But several, with victorious and somewhat dazed looks on their faces, wade defiantly back in. Eventually, most of the Mudmen return to the water -- if nothing else, it's the quickest way to get out of make-up.

"Call it -- 6:30 a.m.," Osborne shouts, smiling at the Mudmen's victory bath. "That's a wrap! Come on people, let's move it. We've got planes to catch."

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