The year was 1998.
The place was a bend in the Yellow River, just south of Porterdale, about 40 miles east of Atlanta.
The movie was False River, a film best viewed while intoxicated, being savaged by weasels or in the throes of a malarial fever dream.
We had just returned to work after a weekend of torrential rain and the river was high. Really, really high.
Dark shapes keep appearing along the top of the churning, rock-strewn rapids then slipping below again.
Those were turtle heads.
Snapping Turtle heads to be precise…. and they were everywhere.
Dozens of them covered the width of the wide bend in the river where we’d be filming that day.
By our fifth trip across the stupid river, it hadn’t gotten any easier to navigate the twisted jumble of rocks that lined the riverbottom from shore to shore. Two steps forward, you were up to your knees, two steps forward, you were up to your neck. Every five feet you hit a hidden rock shelf, bashing and bruising what you’d once proudly claimed as your shins. I didn’t check with any of the others who were making the crossing, but my anticipation of being bitten by a snapping turtle was running higher than the river and it didn’t help that I was pulling along an old-fashioned water-heater/barrel the scenics had made to look like some sort of giant corroded “nuclear” battery.
Finally we were ready to shoot.
The cameras and most of the crew were all back on the bank where we first started, more than 50 yards away, but it was out here on the rocks where the action was set to occur. All I had to do was stay hidden in the rapids behind a rock out-cropping and release the “nuclear battery barrel” into the current on cue, so that it coincided with our actors Salvator Xuereb and George Faughnan as they dove into the river to escape their fictional pursuers. Tied to the barrel was a safety line, which I was supposed to use to pull the boys back to the rock when Director Rex Hauck called ‘cut’.
I knew this, and the actors knew this. We all knew this.
With radio confirmations back to shore that YES, we fully understand the plan, the actors were instructed to go to their start marks inland from the bank, at which point I moved 20 feet upriver and dropped down onto a slippery shelf behind one of the big rocks in the whirling rapids, all the while running through a mental rehearsal of the timing of the barrel push. I really want to get my part right.
At the last-minute an order arrived from the far shore that we would not, repeat would not, be using the barrel on this take.
“Do NOT release the barrel, Drew…. got that?”
This was an important piece of information, and I assumed that the actors heard the update wherever they were back amongst the trees.
Not so much.
Cameras rolled, ‘Action!’ was called and the actors came running out of the woods and hit the water……first one…. SPLASH!! …..then the other…. SPLASH!!
They started to splash around (George’s character had been shot in the neck, so Salvator was forced to play the lifeguard and keep George afloat).
From my vantage point I could see the boys sloshing around in the current, and suddenly I realized that Salvator was operating with old information. I could tell that he still thought that he would be getting the barrel because he started glaring in my direction, obviously wondering why I’d missed my cue.
I couldn’t very well yell at him that they’d told me not to send it, partly because there was probably a microphone on the bank, but mostly because they couldn’t possibly hear me over the sound of the churning water and bobbing turtle heads…
So I did the only logical thing a person in my situation could do: I pointedly began to ignore him.
Instead of watching our actors flop around in the water, I allowed myself to become completely engrossed with a leaf floating past, hoping that the actors might forget about me and pay attention to not drowning. I studied the spider webs in the crevices along the water line. I watched some clouds drifting by overhead. After a moment I cut a glance over toward them and could plainly see that not only had they not forgotten me, they were both now convinced that I’d forgotten the entire reason that we’d been sent out into the rapids in the first place. I could feel their eyes on me, filled with anger and a certain horrible retribution to come. They’d also started to look waterlogged.
“This had better be looking really, really good on camera,” I thought.
Salvator finally managed to splutter a command…. “Drew, give me the barrel”.
But….. but….. the Assistant Director had plainly instructed me NOT to send the BARREL to the actors, so I kind of shook my head at Salvator with a tiny, desperate “go away” grimace on my face, never quite looking him in the eye… the equivalent of saying “I’m not here, you can’t see me, please stop looking at me”.
Salvator’s eyes kind of bugged out when I did that, which was embarrassing because it was such a funny expression that I nearly busted out laughing when he made it…… if he could only see his own face!! I mean, surely we’d all get a laugh out of this one at the end of the day!!
Of course, at this particular moment, as he was flailing around in the strong current, Salvator didn’t have comedy on his mind.
He wanted a barrel, and he wanted it now.
So again he commanded (this time with a little more force (and gurgle) in his voice), “GIVE me the BARREL!!!“.
Nope, nope, can’t do it.
I just shook my head some more, hoping he’d give up at this point. I mean, honestly… my attempt at getting the actors to ignore me hadn’t helped the first time around so this time I just gave them a blank stare. Surely one of them might take the hint.
Convinced that I was the stupidest prop guy he’d ever worked with, Sal now bellowed, “DREW, GIVE ME THE GODDAMN BARREL (glug) OR I’LL KILL YOU!!!!!!!!!!”
Sal was clearly building a convincing case for me to send the barrel in his direction.
Just at that moment, picoseconds into a daydream where I was explaining to the police why I hadn’t saved two actors from drowning, someone barked a command over the radio.
Finally, my cue!
I jammed the barrel into the channel between two rocks, giving it a special twirl to make sure that it caught the current and curved directly to Sal and George, who then climbed aboard and drifted down river a ways.
After Rex called CUT I found out that the cue I’d heard wasn’t a cue to release the barrel, it was just some sort of random remark on channel 1… that maybe somebody had slipped and triggered their radio… it seemed pretty weird to me. Maybe it was my little voice, maybe it was God, maybe it was Lloyd Bridges of Sea Hunt fame (who did die that year). Regardless, whatever happened that day, it very likely saved me, Drewprops, from becoming the infamous prop guy who drowned two actors.