All is well on the Texan front: Set report from “The Alamo”

A scooper going by the name of “Alamo Asimov,” one man among more than 1,200 extras, was kind enough to drop us a line on the Touchstone picture “The Alamo” which is wrapping up filming in Texas this month.

Directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”), the film will focus on the last stand of the Alamo in 1836. Based on a true story that counted Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie as central figures, an outnumbered garrison defends a besieged fort from an overwhelming force commanded by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna, in a battle lasting 13 days. Starring in the picture are Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric and Billy Bob Thornton.

“Asimov” was kind enough to answer our questions regarding his experiences on the film. Find out some of the key sequences of the film, what it was like working with the actors and who acted like boneheads during filming. How has it been working on the picturer
Alamo Asimov: “Working on the Alamo, or the “MO” as it is known, has been a great experience. I started training back in December, cast as a Mexican soldado. We started filming January 21 and for the most part have been on set since then, usually 12 to 14 hours a day. I’m basically in every scene that the Mexican army is in. I’ve had a few close up shots that I hope don’t end up on the cutting room floor.

As I understand it, John Lee Hancock wants this to be the most historical accurate film about the Alamo. There has been a lot of attention to detail. Wardrobe, the Bexar Village and the Alamo itself are all accurate. The crew has been great also. How many extras are on hand and what has it been like on setr
Asimov: Besides some of the extras being boneheads, no real problems on set. Most of those guys couldn’t hang. I’ve heard they’ve trained as many as 1,200 extras, but the most that have been on set at one time was probably about 500 or 600, including Texan and Tejano defenders. That’s a lot of bodies to work with, but everyone has a sense of what’s trying to be accomplished. Any interaction with the star namesr
Asimov: Both Hancock and Thornton are genuinely nice guys. When we finally had a chance to be on set with Billy Bob, he would crack jokes, hang with the guys and even intentionally try to crack up his co-stars with one-liners during filming. He took time out of his day to sign t-shirts, caps, and take pictures with the guys, even after the extras had been warned not to bring cameras, or ask for autographs by the production assistants. I asked him if it would be o.k. to sign an item of mine, he seemed to be flattered that I asked him first. He made sure that everyone had an autograph for those that wanted one.

John Lee is just awesome. I’ve approached John Lee on several occasions both on and off the set. We’ve talked about the task that it is to be director as well as his affinity to a certain sushi bar in town that happens to be one of my favorites. Turns out he is staying right around the corner from the restaurant in downtown Austin. He was also kind enough to make his way over on set to shake my hand and say “Hi, thanks for being here.” That totally made my day.

I’ve even hung out with a few of the actors at local bars a couple of times. I don’t know if they just acting, but both Hancock and Thornton seem to be genuinely super nice guys. Jason Patric….he’s ok. Dennis Quaid…he’s ok too. Both didn’t seem to be overtly friendly— but then again, I’ve lived in Texas all my life. One person I haven’t met yet and looking forward to come across is Wes Studi. I was bummed to find out he was there the last day we were on the “MO” set. The next shooting location is at the Battle of San Jacinto set. I know that they filmed in downtown Austin in early May at the Driskell Hotel and Paramount Theatre. I believe one of the scenes is with Davy Crockett (played by Thornton) talking with Sam Houston (Quaid), and another with Crockett watching a play about himself. You mentioned the director wants is being so accurate to detail. How is this being done, is there a historical consultant on-set inspecting everythingr
Asimov: I know that Hancock wants to “de-mythologize” the heroes and bring them to life. These were real people with flaws just like the rest of us. I know that the slave trading by Bowie (played by Patric) and his shady business deals will surface, as will as the infidelities of William Barrett Travis (played by Patrick Wilson). The movie will have new details about the battle that weren’t known when John Wayne’s “Waynemo” was filmed back in the 60’s. Over the last 40 years, new historical data and research has surfaced. All of our trainers are re-enactors who live breath and eat this stuff.

The designer of the set has built the entire San Antonio de Bexar village as well as the fortified mission almost to a “T.” You won’t see the signature hump because it didn’t exist at the time of the siege. The Alamo that we know today was rebuilt by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers 20 years after the siege. The historians were on the set the day we started the attack on the north wall. A message was relayed to us from the historians by a 1st assistant director, saying “that’s the best re-enactment of 19th-century style fighting he’s seen.”

The story is told from 3 different points of view: A 13-year-old conscript named Jesus, Travis’s slave Joe, and Juan Sequin, a messenger who left the Alamo to give Houston Travis’s letter. Sequin played a crucial part in Santa Anna’s fall at the Battle of San Jacinto. He is played by Jordi Molla (“Blow,” “Bad Boys II”).

The Jesus POV is taken from the De La Pena diary, which is surrounded by controversy. It was translated into English in the 70s, basically saying that Crockett was captured and executed after the siege, which matches Hancock’s story— but it goes against Alamo legend. So we won’t see Crockett perched o’top the palisade swinging “ol Betsey” with more than a hundred Mexican soldados, or Crockett blowing himself up in the chapel. What you will see is a major attack on the north wall, then west, south and east, then the breach on the north wall. Travis is one of the first defenders killed, accidentally shot in the head by scared Jesus. It took us about 3 weeks to film the attack. All of it is awesome! How is the dialogue of the film, from what you’ve seen—better than some of the Alamo’s filmed cousinsr What is your favorite sequencer
Asimov: Only bit of cheese dialogue I’ve heard is when the Mexican Artillery turns one of the Alamo’s 18-pound canons against the defenders, blasting the chapel where Crockett and his best friend Micajah are situated. Micajah utters, “…They killed me…,” to which Crockett replies, ” I’m real sorry about all this.” I think the latter part is a cheesy line.

After that Crockett and the last few men are seen running in to the chapel as the entire army is running after them. Not sure what happens in the chapel. The closest I got while shooting was to the right of the door. Then they yelled, ” CUT.” Then the stunt team took over. But I do know that there’s a lot of fighting, with Crockett the only survivor.

The next scene has Crockett on his knees in front of the entire army. One of the Mexican officers is translating between Crockett and Generalissimo Antonio Miguel Lopez de Santa Anna (played by Emilio Echevarria). All of de Santa Anna’s dialogue is in Spanish and delivered with arrogance, or anger. de Santa Anna basically says that if Crockett wants his life spared he need to surrender. In response, Crockett looks at him, saying “I thought you were taller.” I couldn’t hear all the dialogue, but Crockett basically says that he’ll consider his offer of surrender and he’ll try to persuade Houston to spare the lives of the Mexican soldiers and de Santa Anna’s as well.

The translator looks at Crockett. Crockett shouts, “Tell ‘em!” de Santa Anna raises his hand motioning the soldiers who are about to bayonet Crockett, when one of the generals steps in and ask de Santa Anna to spare his life. de Danta Anna pauses with hand raised and then motions the soldiers to kill Crockett. Crockett says, “I’m a screamer,” and is bayoneted to death. After that the bodies are burned.

The scenes I liked filming most are the battle scenes. There’s one scene where we sneak up on the Alamo to test their defenses. We sneak up to the southwest wall, Daniel Cloud (played by Nick Kokich) see the army and shouts, “Here they come, here they come!” We fire upon the defenders, who return fire with a canon blast blowing up a Jacale we are using for cover. We retreat and Crockett comes out with his men to burn the Jacales and finds 2 soldados hiding. They fight Crockett, who is shot at, but missed kills the soldado. He takes his weapon and says “Mucho Gracias” and returns to the Alamo. The only stuff I didn’t like doing is all the marching, really.

Sounds pretty good for a production riddled with comings and goings. Ron Howard was originally slated to direct, but dropped out of that role due to frustrations over the many production delays, as well as the budget and the targeted PG-13 MPAA rating. Howard was still involved with the production, receiving a producing credit. Russell Crowe was reported by several outlets as having signed on to the project as well, but walked when Howard departed the project.

As of this writing, “The Alamo” is scheduled to open on Christmas Day 2003.