"Welcome to hell," sneers No. 59. "I'm Mr. Rourke, your host."
The football giant stands with several other black-clad players under a sadistic sun on a dirt field baked by the relentless heat and set back a few yards from the barbed-wire entrance. Rising around them are 150-foot stone cliffs.
The sounds of voices screaming, explosions reverberating, shattering glass and groaning machinery bounce across the foundry floor like angry metallic Ping-Pong balls. Smoke slithers through the air. It smells of sulphur. Off to one side of the set, a wrecking ball hangs ominously, a promise of mayhem to come.
Here in the bowels of the Vulcan Materials Co., 25 miles north of Los Angeles in Sun Valley, Calif., 80 people are toiling in 108-degree heat to create a football training camp that Conan would have trouble enduring. It's not a real camp, of course, but the shooting of the first promo spots for the XFL, the pumped-up, smash-mouth new football league that is a joint venture of NBC and the World Wrestling Federation. The first season begins in February.
The spots were created by The NBC Agency, the network's in-house shop and directed by its award-winning commercial director, John Bonito. Also part of the XFL "Extreme Training" shoot team are The NBC Agency president John Miller and executive vice president and creative director Vince Manze; Joe Livecchi, creative director at NBC 2000, the network's in-house production arm; and producer Matt Van Buren. The spots will feature quick-cut montages of the players in XFL training.
The football players are actors (the XFL is recruiting players) portraying XFL hopefuls undergoing training camp in extremis. Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen's brother, portrays an XFL coach. Because The NBC Agency creates promos, not ads, for the network, the work isn't subject to SAG/AFTRA commercial production agreements. Therefore, the shoot isn't affected by the actors' strike against the ad industry.
True to the WWF's notoriously over-the-top cartoon carnage, the XFL training camp prepares its athletes for the "real" thing—they run through a minefield (the explosions), block a truck instead of a dummy (the breaking glass is the truck's window, shattered by the impact of the player hitting it at full speed), catch a kickoff while getting hammered (by the wrecking ball) .
No one has to act much to paint a credible picture of struggling through adversity. In this grueling two-day shoot, life is imitating art with a vengeance. Bonito and his crew will endure choking dust, burning sun and suffocating heat. Like gladiators carried out of the arena on their shields, five people will leave the set due to dehydration, cuts from glass shards and the like.
Bonito later says that many on the set compared the shoot to a war, but with sweat staining his white T-shirt and his eyes in a permanent squint from looking into a camera under a burning glare, the director couldn't be happier.
A high-school player, quarterback of NBC's intramural squad and die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, Bonito is having the time of his life. Manze, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who watches football with Bonito at a bar in Woodland Hills, Calif., every Sunday, says of Bonito, "[The XFL shoot] was his masterpiece ... If I didn't pay him as much as I do, he'd be playing in the league."
Despite the excitement, Bonito isn't taking the challenge lightly. The crew feeds on frenzy. "Everything we do is commando style," he says of the team's hectic schedule. They shoot a new spot almost every two weeks. The NBC Agency created the "Must See TV" branding effort for the network and last year won an Emmy for its Snap.com spot showing a youngster going online to learn sign language so he can communicate with a deaf classmate.
"Today we're blowing stuff up. Two weeks ago, we were shooting beauty shots of Victoria Principal in a mansion," says Bonito of the agency's creative range.
Not surprisingly, not everything goes according to plan in Sun Valley. "We were originally going to shoot this on a dry lake bed. But having to shoot in a quarry with 150-foot walls all around you, we only have the sun for a limited time," says Bonito. "Then there are shots you don't have boarded that you have to get, so you just start adding to an already aggressive schedule."
There are some fortuitous opportunities, though not necessarily for talent. "We also set a guy on fire, which we weren't planning," says Bonito. "It just seemed like the thing to do at the time."
He's kidding. Really. Swarming around the set are team members charged with safety. When all is said and done, nothing important will be seriously hurt, including the humans, although hundreds and maybe thousands of water bottles will meet their maker.
Also on hand is David Sahadi, creative director at WWF Entertainment, who gleefully surveys the mock carnage. This, after all, is vintage WWF—loud, violent, funny and gleefully outrageous. Taking refuge from the heat in the shade of a truck, Sahadi explains that difference extends beyond the players themselves: "The XFL is legitimate football, but it is going to be very different [from the NFL]. There'll be cameras everywhere—in the locker rooms, on helmets, on the field of play, a skycam over the field, cameras in the stands. We make our audience part of our programs and hopefully, we'll have some really colorful regulars."
Neither audience nor "colorful regulars" will play a part in the "Extreme Training" spots. Still, subsequent NBC promos will highlight the difference between the NFL and XFL experiences.
The training camp idea was a natural outgrowth of the XFL's rough-and-tumble positioning. After the shoot is done, Manze, safely back in NBC's air-conditioned Burbank, Calif., studios, says, "The first thing that came to our minds was 'extreme.' It's extreme football. So let's go beyond where the NFL goes. We're going to get hardcore football people, but the idea was to appeal to a younger audience, to make this their alternative much in the way they've made the WWF their own."
Back in Sun Valley, the trial by fire continues. A player runs back and forth smashing a skull for the cameras (in the spots, the bleached head bones represent one who wasn't fast enough to make it through the minefield). A few yards away, another player smacks into the truck, sending slices of glass showering outward in a wide arc.
One player gets a sliver near his eye and is rushed under an awning. The crew wants him to go to the hospital, but he refuses. "I'm all right," he says, laughing. A tough guy on a tough shoot. There isn't an American football coach or wrestler alive who wouldn't beam at his machismo.
Call it extreme acting.