It almost didn't happen.
When Universal emailed last March asking if we wanted to hop on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa to visit the set of "Death Race 2," the prequel to the 2008 "Death Race," it seemed like a no-brainer. But as is often the case, the devil was in the details. For starters, it was Tuesday evening and Universal wanted us on a plane Sunday morning. Kinda short notice when you're traveling halfway around the world, but still manageable. A much more formidable hurdle, however, was my lack of a valid passport, a problem for which I wasn't sure there would be a solution. Finally, on top of the usual pile of work I'd be leaving behind for the week, I also would be missing my daughter's seventh birthday. A mountain of parental guilt to match my mountain of abandoned work.
"Jamey," my wife said, "it's a free trip to South Africa. She'll have lots of birthdays." Hey, she had a point. Of course, she'd argue that she always has a point, but that's neither here nor there.
So with the home front now in order, I needed to solve the passport dilemma. Fortunately, I did some research and learned that you can, in fact, obtain a passport on very short notice if you apply in person at a regional passport office. One four-hour trip to and from the office in Detroit, followed by an anxious couple of days spent tracking my package and praying the FedEx truck would pull up in front of my house as scheduled Saturday morning, my shiny new passport arrived a mere 24 hours before my plane was set to take off. Whew.
The next day, a little after 2:00 in the afternoon, I boarded my first of three planes and started the initial leg of the 26-hour trip to the Cape Town airport. That's right, 26 hours spent either on a plane or in an airport. Fortunately, I loaded up my iPod with a bunch of new tunes, grabbed a couple of books and some fantasy baseball magazines, and of course, threw several DVDs into my carry-on bag, including the first "Death Race," the 2008 remake starring Jason Statham. I had some homework to do before we touched down in Cape Town.
I enjoyed the Statham-led movie for what it was: a shoot-em-up action romp with plenty of bullets, boobs and blood, a phrase I later picked up while chatting with Danny Trejo on the Cape Town set. As a prequel to the 2008 film, "Death Race 2" shows us the creation of the character known as Frankenstein, AKA Carl "Luke" Lucas, played by Luke Goss. Luke, a convicted cop killer who finds himself in the Terminal Island penitentiary alongside some of the worst human beings on the planet, at first resists the prodding from ruthless TV exec September Jones (Lauren Cohan) to join in the prison's pay-per-view TV sensation, "Death Match." But when "Death Match" loses its luster with its audience, Jones devises a new spectacle: "Death Race," where inmates race around Terminal Island in fully loaded armored cars and trucks, vying for the chance to be freed from prison. And Luke quickly becomes September's star.
My itinerary showed three days worth of visits to the "Death Race 2" set, a schedule that included interviews with just about everybody associated with the movie, most notably Goss and Trejo. It was Trejo that I was particularly excited to speak with. A cult movie icon who's popped up in all sorts of fantastic roles throughout the years, Trejo was someone we'd wanted to interview on our site for years. I'd also looked up info on the film's two leading ladies, Cohan and Tanit Phoenix, and knew as soon as I saw some of their press shots that they'd be a hit with our readers. Then there was Robin Shou, the lone holdover from the 2008 film who'd starred alongside Chris Farley in 1997's "Beverly Hills Ninja," but who was probably best known for his role as Liu Kang in 1995's "Mortal Kombat." Being a longtime Farley fan, I was eager to talk to Shou about his relationship with the former SNL funnyman. Finally, I had been asked if I was interested in showing up as an extra in the movie. Um…hell yes? The wheels were set in motion.
Much to my surprise, the flight into Cape Town was much less grueling than I had expected. Granted, as someone who has always wanted to do some extensive traveling but, as my previously non-existent passport demonstrates, had never found the time or resources to venture any farther than Jamaica on my honeymoon, the anticipation probably kept my adrenaline pumping throughout the whole ordeal. That said, the two-hour layover in Amsterdam bordered on cruelty. That's just enough time to sit on your ass at the gate, lamenting the fact that you're in Amsterdam and the only thing you get to experience is the inside of the airport. But once we boarded for the flight into Cape Town, I left all that behind (until the flight home, anyway) and did my best to stay awake for the final 12-hour leg. We were landing at 11:00 PM local time Monday night, and I knew if I was going to be in any sort of shape to do my job Tuesday morning, I would have to be able to get some sleep once we got to the hotel.
Much like the layover in Amsterdam, those first moments in Cape Town were anticlimactic, beginning with more time spent in a foreign airport, waiting in line to get through customs. Once I found the driver Universal sent to shuttle me to the airport and then met the other writers I'd be spending the next couple of days with, we climbed into a van, pulled out of the airport garage and saw...nothing but a bunch of lights. What would you expect at almost midnight? Site seeing would have to wait until daybreak. We eventually pulled into the New King's Hotel garage, checked in and then found our rooms. I quickly checked in with my family via Gmail video chat (quite handy on this trip, as you can probably imagine) and then, exhausted, I crawled into bed and instantly fell asleep.
After wishing my daughter a happy birthday, we were briefed in the hotel conference room the next morning about the movie and the week's events, and then we all piled back into the van and took the half-hour drive to the set. This was our first real introduction to the city, and we were fortunate to have publicists Helene and Marius as our de facto tour guides for the week. We saw plenty of the downtown cityscape on our way to the set and also got a distant peek of the brand new soccer stadium, which had been built in anticipation of the World Cup later in the year. Eventually, however, the buildings got smaller and smaller, and once we exited the highway, we found ourselves in the middle of a large shanty town, a scene straight out of "District 9." Needless to say, it was pretty depressing stuff, with people washing dishes and clothes in tubs by the side of the road, small children playing in the dirt, and livestock roaming among the shacks, a startling change from the towering beauty we'd left behind 30 minutes earlier in downtown Cape Town.
After a few turns, Terminal Island rose before us. Well, an abandoned concrete factory rose before us, with an army of vans, trailers and tents set up on the surrounding grounds and all sorts of people busy making movie magic. I remember thinking, this is the set? I guess I had been expecting something a little more glamorous, a silly assumption in hindsight. In fact, as we learned firsthand on our forthcoming tour of the set, this decrepit and ancient-looking concrete factory was the perfect setting for Terminal Island.
Our first order of the day was to meet the inorganic stars of the movie: the cars. It's probably more accurate to describe these tricked out hunks of metal as tanks, with each vehicle covered from hood to trunk in all sorts of crazy weaponry. Rocket launchers here, machine guns there, and just about any other form of artillery you can imagine. The cars were all lined up along one wall of the factory, and we were set loose, climbing into each one, blowing up imaginary enemies with our fake bullets and bombs, and snapping pictures along the way. Not a bad way to kick off the day. (Check out a gallery of some of our favorite photos here.)
Once playtime was over, we headed out for the set tour. It was pretty cool to see how the crew used the existing structures of the factory to form the Terminal Island skeleton, while adding all the details to make it more realistic. One tower was turned into a shower room, complete with all the requisite fixtures. Throw two inches of sand over the brick ground in front of the factory, add a bunch of weight benches, some punching bags, a basketball hoop and a barbed-wire fence, and you've got yourself a prison courtyard. And, of course, the wide open space inside the factory was the perfect spot to hold some bloody death matches. When we were standing in the holding cells, it was almost impossible to imagine this place as anything but a prison, which speaks to the excellent work by the film's crew.
With the tour wrapped up, we had the rest of the day and night to ourselves. Time to hit the town, with Helene once again stepping into her tour guide shoes. First, we went up Signal Hill and caught a glimpse of Robben Island about 7km off the coast. Now a World Heritage Site and museum, Robben Island was home to several political prisoners from the 17th to the 20th centuries, including Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years of his 27-year prison sentence on Robben Island. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see the island in person, but it's on the list if I ever make it back to Cape Town.
We also had a good view of both Lion's Head mountain and Table Mountain, and decided we'd conquer Table Mountain before heading to the set the next morning. In the meantime, it was time to grab some authentic South African cuisine, courtesy of Mama Africa restaurant and bar. I was determined to pick something off the menu I'd never had before but couldn't muster the courage to select the crocodile kebabs or the Hunters Game platter, so I chose the ostrich filet. Granted, you can order that Stateside as well but I'd never had it and had heard it was like steak, only better. Turns out, that's an accurate assessment. I haven't had the opportunity to order it since returning from my trip, but I hope to soon. Yum.
We washed the memorable meal down with several bottles of Black Label beer and some fantastic live music before heading out to a few of the bars on Long Street, one of the oldest streets in Cape Town and, as one site describes it, "the party capital of the Mother City." Considering how lively the crowds were for a Tuesday night, I'm not about to disagree. We hit several bars, including The Dubliner and Fiction, all of which had a distinct college-town vibe. Unfortunately, as tempting as it was to act like college kids and party ‘til the break of dawn, we had a long day ahead of us, and there were whispers about making our much-anticipated extras debut, so we called it a night at a mildly respectable 1:30 and headed back to the hotel.
After grabbing some breakfast the next morning, I hopped into a cab with two of my fellow journal-tourists and headed for Table Mountain, the city's most prominent landmark whose highest peak stands 3,563 feet above sea level. Being short on time, we resisted the urge to hike the trail to the top and instead opted for the cable car ride. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day so what is typically a majestic view of the city was a bit cloudy for us. It still was a trip well worth taking, though, and our timing couldn't have been better as a storm blew in just before we stepped back onto the cable car and headed down the mountain.
The rain didn't last long, however, and after a quick shower, we found ourselves back on the set, anxious for the day's events. Early on, though, those events amounted to a whole lot of waiting…and waiting…and waiting. Seems movie folks are busy during the day making movies, but eventually, Luke Goss freed up for a chat. Two of my colleagues joined me in Luke's trailer as we discussed the movie, his driving skills, his real-life driving record, the challenges of playing a convict and a whole bunch of other stuff (find the full transcription here). Luke seemed like a down-to-earth guy who is grateful to be making movies for a living (imagine that), and the interview went off without a hitch.
The waiting resumed for a bit, though I quickly realized there were far worse places to be waiting than Cape Town, South Africa. Then, finally, we got the call we'd all been waiting for: We needed to head to wardrobe to get all gussied up for our roles as Terminal Island inmates. None of us quite knew what to expect, which of course only enhanced the excitement. After signing some waivers, we were given our convict garb – somehow, I wound up with some kind of Members Only knockoff jacket while everyone else had "TERMINAL" blazoned across the backs of their denim shirts – and led to the set.
First, some background info. Terminal Island is ruled by four convict gangs: The Brotherhood, a group of scary white supremacists; The United Blood Nation, a group of scary African-Americans; the Eastern-European gang, a group of…well, scary Eastern-European dudes; and The Triads, a group of scary Asian dudes. How were we going to be placed into this gang structure? Were the convicts going to hold a draft of some kind?
"I'll take the skinny white guy who looks like he doesn't belong here."
Instead, we were just randomly placed in with the unaffiliated gang. Lame. As we walked into the holding cell to join our new brothers in incarceration, I was surprised by how intimidating the whole experience was. You know these are all just actors making a buck, but in that environment and setting, it seemed much more real than I had anticipated. "Eyes down…don't piss anyone off." The funny thing is, there was a buzz throughout the other extras who'd learned that a group of reporters had joined their ranks. Maybe they thought their mugs were going to be splashed across some faraway magazine cover, but we were just along for the ride. However, as soon as we had begun to get acclimated to our surroundings, we were shuffled down the row into a new holding cell with new brethren. We were skinheads now.
Huh, who knew changing gangs in a prison could be so simple?
The funny thing is, for as menacing as these supposed skinheads looked, they were cool as hell to talk to. Werner was a software developer who was doing this for shits and giggles. Then there was Andre, who had been approached by one of the casting directors at a tattoo convention because "you'd make a great skinhead!" How's that for an introduction? "People think I'm a skinhead already," Andre told us, smiling. "I go to a bar and people think I'm the bouncer."
Soon, it was time to punch the clock and get to work. Our holding cells were sitting high above the death match arena, and we were about to watch the Brotherhood leader, Xander, fight the leader of The Triads, 14K (played by Robin Shou). We obviously were rooting for Xander, and we were told that we needed to scream, cuss, rattle fences and be as loud as we could be during the fight. We, of course, obliged, to the point where, after one particular take, the director called "CUT!" and everyone on the set stopped yelling almost simultaneously, except for one of my fellow reporters, whose cry of "KILL THE MOTHERFUCKER!" echoed throughout the arena and drew a collective laugh from everyone on set.
Surprisingly, the Xander/14K battle nearly ended in real bloodshed. During a death match, the fighters step on various pressure plates to unlock weapons around the arena. In this particular fight, 14K steps on a plate early on but, much to his chagrin, the evil September Jones deactivates the plate so that she can rig the fight in Xander's favor. Nothing is supposed to happen. Only, on the very first take, something does happen – the iron gate that wasn't supposed to swing down when Shou stepped on that plate was unexpectedly dropped, and it swung full bore straight down, narrowly missing Robin's head by mere inches before slamming into the ground. And I'm not exaggerating when I say inches. As Robin put it when we spoke to him the next day (read the full transcription here): "I have never been so shaken. Honestly. I mean, I've done a lot of the Hong Kong action movies, jumped off buildings, run over by cars and stuff like that. I've never been so shaken because I have never come this close to death."
Fortunately, the rest of the shoot went off without a hitch, and after bidding farewell to our fellow skinheads, we headed back to the trailer to turn in our gear. Now, nearly 10 months later, if you look hard enough during the Xander/14K fight sequence, you can see me up against the fence, rocking the Members Only jacket, standing next to some of my fellow writers amongst a sea of screaming skinheads. "Look, Ma! I'm in the movies!" Sure, it's only for a split second, but we're there, and we've got some cool photos of the whole experience to boot.
Before the night was over, we had a chance to talk with the lovely Tanit Phoenix – who plays Katrina Banks, Luke's inmate love interest – and the equally as lovely Lauren Cohan. Not a bad way to end a superb day and night. And after stopping to pick up some burgers and fries at Steers ("It's better than McDonald's," Helene promised us, which of course is damning with faint praise), we decided we would take a guided tour around Cape Town and the surrounding area in the morning before heading to the set one final time.
Our guide's first two stops were the costal suburbs of Camp's Bay and Haute Bay. Next up was Chapman's Bay, which was absolutely gorgeous. Of course, as was the case throughout most of the trip, we would have loved to have some extra time to actually stick our toes in the sand for a bit, but the best we could do was stare in awe at the bay's sparkling blue water before climbing back into our van.
We headed out to an ostrich farm in Cape Point next, and considering my dining experience a couple nights earlier, I felt a little guilty looking at the ostriches penned up outside as we walked into the gift shop. My guilt quickly vanished when I saw all the things other people make with ostrich feathers, leather and even eggshells: handbags, wallets, boots, cold-weather gear, dusters, and many purely ornamental items. And none of it cheap.
Next, we drove through the Cape Point Nature Preserve, where we saw all sorts of wild baboons and ostriches roaming the countryside. As we passed through one of the gates, a trio of baboons sat perched on a nearby car, and one of them nonchalantly reached over, snapped the antenna off the car and began chewing on it. Then he looked at our van, lifted his leg and scratched his crotch. No big deal. Later, we saw a baboon rip a package of chips out of a woman's hand near a souvenir stand. We were warned beforehand that, if a baboon wants something you're holding, you're best served to let him have it. "They aren't afraid of people," our guide cautioned. No kidding.
Finally, we snapped some pictures at the Cape of Good Hope (gallery below), which, as the sign we're standing behind says, marks the most south-western point of the African continent, and then saw the Boulders Beach "Jackass Penguins," a name our tour guide said originated from the sound the penguins routinely make, while I contended that it should be because they're penguins and they're in Africa. I still like my explanation better. Guided tour done…time to head back to the set one final time before my 12:50 AM flight takes off.
Upon arriving on the set, I was thrilled to learn that we'd finally have a chance to talk to Danny Trejo. As the week had worn on, the Trejo interview was looking less and less likely, but Helene finally hooked it up. Unfortunately, the 1-on-1 interview I was hoping for didn't come to pass – there were four or five reporters surrounding Trejo during the roundtable – but beggars can't be choosers, right? Check out the full interview here.
We also were able to sneak in a quick chat with Robin Shou. We weren't sure if he'd be willing to recap the previous day's narrow escape, but he opened up right away and, to my delight, we also spoke for a bit about his work with Chris Farley on "Beverly Hills Ninja." Then it was back to the set to watch one more fight scene between Luke and the head of The United Blood Nation, Big Bill (played by Deobia Oparei), before we said our goodbyes, shuttled over to the airport, grabbed some dinner and boarded the plane for what promised to be a looong voyage home.
I found it strange that, throughout the week, I never really felt any symptoms of jetlag. In fact, I hardly had to adjust at all; I woke up Tuesday morning ready for the week ahead, and never really slowed down. Then I walked onto the plane for the flight back to Amsterdam.
I'd say that 12-hour jaunt was the longest flight ever, but I actually think the nine-hour leg into Detroit was even more brutal. I've heard that jetlag hits you the hardest on your way back home. Much like the rumors I had heard about ostrich filet's superiority over steak, I'm willing to back that claim up. Whereas the flight into Cape Town was filled with anticipation, all I wanted to do on the way back was get out of that cramped seat, crawl into my bed and sleep for a day and a half.
Of course, when I finally walked through my front door around 10:00 Friday evening, I had a handful of cool souvenirs for my family and me to go along with an array of unbelievable memories. Although my job is much less glamorous than Luke Goss', I felt a similar sense of appreciation for the experience I'd just had. Would I have made it to Cape Town on my own? Maybe. Will I ever see a movie set quite as unique as the "Death Race 2" location? Perhaps. Will I ever get the chance to pull on some inmate gear and shoot the shit with a bunch of phony skinheads while two guys below me engage in a phony death match? Probably not. And for all of that, not to mention the collection of unique people I'd met while in Cape Town, I was grateful.
Even better, I made it home in time for my daughter's birthday party Saturday afternoon.