New Zealand: Working on a Movie Set
A Cool Gig working on a Movie in the Nick of Time
By Mike Markoff
My 36-hour ‘island-hop’ from the Caribbean to New Zealand left me unspeakably jet-lagged, culture-shocked, and intimidated.
A far cry from the fantasy-land I envisioned (that’s what you get for trusting hobbits), my hostel in downtown Auckland was sandwiched between to two brothels and contained a slot machine room in the bar. Prostitution and Gambling? Touché, New Zealand (NOT).
I pride myself on not having a plan… but as I shivered in my faulty-heated five-bed dorm room, trying to get the over-priced internet to work so I could check my anemic online bank account, I wondered if I made a mistake.
That empowering feeling that comes with being a lone nomadic traveler seemed to have run out. I had about $1800 in my bank account, a working holiday visa for New Zealand, and absolutely zero friends for thousands of miles (not even a Facebook friend).
Cut to 12 hours later…
I’ve arrived on the set of the epic Starz TV show, Spartacus. I am shuffled into a bright room where I am stripped of my clothes down to my underwear and measured from head to toe while a production assistant snaps pictures of my exposed body.
I stand here in a surreal state of wonderment and nervousness, and could not have been prepared for the epic awesomeness that awaited me.
I am wrapped in a loincloth, fitted with rusty armor, and equipped with weaponry.
The lady hands me a sword, then asks her associate, “shall I fetch him a shield?”
In Mike’s head: Well I certainly hope so.
The other lady smirks and says “No”.
In Mike’s head: They’re going to kill me off quickly, Sh*t.
She gives me a smile,“Give him a second sword”.
In Mike’s head: The best defense is a good offense.
Double wielding short swords and feeling like a proper bad-ass, another two people approach me- a man with a piece of paper, and a lady with a bucket.
In what seemed like too perfect of timing, the lady with the bucket splashes cloyingly thick blood all over me, as the man looks me up and down, gives a nod of approval, and simply states “Welcome to the Rebel Army”.
Here I am, in New Zealand, covered in blood, brandishing roman swords, and fighting in Spartacus’s rebellion against the Romans. The moment is made even sweeter as I am handed my contract to sign: Stunt/ Background day player: 300NZD/day, episodes 8 and 9, shooting for 28 days.
Cut back to 12 hours ago
The overhead fluorescent light in my hostel dorm room begins to flicker in that serial killer-esque fashion, to a background of drunk Irish hooligan dorm mates body painting themselves before a football match.
Reaching a height of hopelessness and vulnerability, the proverbial switch turns on: This ‘scared and alone’ crap isn’t me, I’m not going to sit here and feel bad for myself, I’m not impervious to fear but I’ve always been known to be the person to welcome the opportunity to be courageous.
From here, my God-given instinct to survive and thrive kicks into gear: I hop on the internet, quickly find New Zealand’s answer to craigslist (Trademe.co.nz), and in a span of 30 minutes, send my resume to 20 restaurants in the semi-walking distance to my hostel- in the hopes of grabbing a waiter job (figuring my New York City restaurant experience will get someone’s attention).
I sit back and wait as if I am going to get a call or an email instantaneously for a job prospect. Well, this is silly, I’m not going to hear back from anyone today, I should get my mind off of it. Still feeling pretty on edge, I decided to flick on the first installment of Lord of the Rings… thinking this might relight my fire for the country or some kind of nonsense like that.
WARNING: this gets slightly cheesy.
I get to the part of the movie where they are hanging out in the mines of Moria, with the dialogue between Frodo and Gandolf going something like this:
Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened”.
Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Not that this particularly related to me completely… but I got a little burst of empowerment from the concept of ‘not being a victim of your circumstances’. That is when the idea came to me.
I had been an actor on and off for many years since I was a child, mostly commercials and a handful of terrible Horror Films. I suddenly remembered that The Hobbit was still shooting in New Zealand and that New Zealand has become a hotspot location for the TV/Film industry. On my laptop, I still had a headshot and a resume.
I am not joking or stretching the truth here, I emailed my headshot and resume to EVERY talent agent and casting director in New Zealand that I could find online… which took me maybe 20 minutes max (I am a beast with google).
45 minutes later… everything changed.
I received an email from Celine at KAM talent. Let me see if I can scrounge up the email and copy and paste it..
Awesome! You have a great look! We may be able to get you work on Spartacus straight away, but I will send some of your photos to the casting director first and see what they think.
Episode 8 is starting tomorrow, 23 Aug – 13 Sept 2012. Being a general extra on Spartacus is $240 p/day, stunts background $300 p/day, Partial nudity $500 p/day, Full nudity $750 p/day and Sex scenes $1000 p/day.”
It turns out KAM Talent is an agency that specializes in filling TV shows and Movies with background extras. They supplied almost half of the total background extras and background stunts for Spartacus.
Giddy with excitement, I call Celine over at Kam Talent shortly after receiving the email. She had already spoken to the casting director by then, who happened to be in desperate need for one more person who could do minor stunts with a sword, as someone had pulled out last minute.
She saw my resume, noticed that I had three different styles of sword fighting certifications (I was captain of my high school fencing team) and gave Celine the “OK” not only for me to be in episode 8, but also for episode 9. I would start the following morning at 5 am, and Celine was kind enough to offer to drive me… to which I said…
“That isn’t necessary, you’ve already done so much for me”
She responded, “No, Mike, you don’t understand, it was OUR client that backed out last minute, you are doing our agency and the production a huge favor by jumping in 10 hours before shooting starts”.
And so, apparently, I was doing everyone a huge favor randomly showing up in New Zealand that faithful day. Go figure.
In a matter of an hour or two, I went from the morbid hopelessness of feeling lost and alone in a foreign country to have an epic (pun intended) job that paid $300 a day, for a total of 22 shoot days (that is $6,600 not including the overtime rate of $40/ an hour).
Fast forward: life on the Spartacus set ain’t bad
I’m killing Romans by the dozens, eating great free food, getting paid handsomely, and making friends with the coolest people who walk this earth: Kiwis. This journey was probably a more wildly amazing New Zealand experience than my imagination could have ever conjured up.
It turns out Auckland ain’t so bad after all. Sure prostitution is technically legal, and slot machines make their way into more than a few bars… but in no way does this define the city or country for that matter.
My hostel wound up becoming my dear home for a month, and I normally received a grand entrance each night, walking into that hostel bar… blood-stained and wild-eyed from having fought a brutal historic battle that day. Still kinda pissed the Romans eventually won.
When I called my dad, he was happy about my place in the rebel army, slicing up Romans. he mentioned…
“You know mike, the Romans used to feed our people (the Jews) to the lions”.
Chipping corn-syrup blood off my fingers, I responded…
“Well, I reckon this Jew just got some payback”.
Mike Markoff is a professional nomad and travel hacker currently spanning the globe on various writing assignments. He specializes in throwing himself into destinations all over the world with limited funds- utilizing his hybrid budget method of travel. He is the author of the soon to be released vagabond-handbook: “Leave Home. Go to New Zealand.”