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Sunday, November 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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On the set of Public Enemies with Michael Mann and Johnny Depp in Oshkosh
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Credit:Rod Melotte

Nearly two weeks ago, I was sitting inside the New Moon Café in Oshkosh waiting for a call to jump in an antique car and get to work on the set of Public Enemies. This historical gangster epic directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp as the infamous bank-robber John Dillinger was in the midst of a week-long shoot in the small Fox Valley city, the latest stop by the Universal Pictures production at numerous locations around the Badger State. There I witnessed a rookie extra -- in the opportunity of a lifetime -- display her dedication to getting it right.

Several blocks of downtown Oshkosh served as the exterior set for two historical bank robberies, one in Racine and another in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is best known for the Dillinger gang's staging of a movie shoot to pull off the heist. The Café was in the middle of the set for the latter scene, and was an excellent vantage point for watching the shoot and shooting unfold as the massive cast and crew worked to coordinate the sequence.

One portion of the scene opened with Depp and other actors taking off from the robbery in their getaway car with guns blaring while dozens of extras in the role of pedestrians took cover, each in an assigned and rehearsed manner. This particular extra's job was to run half-a-block through the pandemonium before entering the Café, which was redone both inside and out to serve as Skalsa Restaurant on set.

Time and time again, the car drives around the block and the sequence is shot anew. On the seventh take, the extra thinks she has everything timed, and takes a quick bathroom break. Then Depp and his gang round the corner, and once again open fire, only this time with no extra. All of a sudden you see a blur of brown as the bathroom door bursts open and with superhuman speed she runs the length of the Café, zig-zagging tables and out the door before hitting her mark and running back inside right on queue. Perfect!

She received a round of applause for that one.

Bathroom breaks on a Hollywood movie set? Not that I know of. Being an extra is mind-numbingly boring, followed by periods of intense stress. Some loved it and others hated it.

I was lucky enough to watch it all up close, as have been hundreds of other Wisconsinites.

Following the film's production on my blog Public Enemies -- Columbus since early February, I paid particular attention when it shot in my hometown of Columbus over four days in mid-March. It even attracted the attention of Bryan Burrough, the writer of the book Public Enemies from which the film is adapted. On March 20, he commented on the attention and excitement throughout Wisconsin for his Vanity Fair blog. He wrote:

...the Internet has empowered hundreds of ordinary people, turning them into little Diane Sawyers and Anderson Coopers as they snap and blog away. There's a fellow named Rod Melotte in Columbus, Wisconsin, where they're filming most of this week, who, I swear, has forsaken his day job to post around the clock.

That wasn't the case back then, but barely a month later, I actually would forsake my day job for a week to actually be involved in the making of Public Enemies. Publishing daily updates about the film's production to a growing readership of movie fans had a bonus I was not expecting.

A Minnesotan who owns a 1933 Graham was hired to drive the vintage car for the shoot. He needed a passenger, though, and his first choice after his wife was me! Who better to spend time with on set than someone who knew so many details about the movie. So two weeks back I met up with him the night before the shoot began in Oshkosh.

The next five days were a whirlwind of exciting tedium as I joined the ranks of the "Picture Car Drivers" group for Public Enemies.The cars are the real stars of the movie, we were told. Without period vehicles from the early '30s there would be no movie, and there are very, very few authentic and still-running models available.

We had to be at the garage at 5:30 a.m. on the first day of shooting in Oshkosh -- on Monday, April 15 -- and the first order of business was to get the car dirty. Vinnie the dirt dude sprayed a cloud of dust over every inch of the '33 Graham, and then followed with a layer of mist to make the dirt hold. Some car owners who had spent the last eight hours cleaning one door with a toothbrush looked like they were going to be sick, but we were assured it would all come off with ease.

The next order of business was to drive the cars into town, park them, and get some breakfast. Mmm... breakfast. I have heard about Hollywood "location" food and was looking forward to seeing how wonderful it really was. As advertised, it looked great. One small problem, though; it was served outdoors and the thermometer read 25 degrees.

A line of steam trays were piled high with eggs, bacon, biscuits, different kinds of potatoes, and some of the best sticky buns you can imagine. It went on and on, and was like a Las Vegas buffet... outside, in the cold. Did I mention that there were no chairs? Or that once our plates were full we were told to walk two blocks to get in our costumes?

Wardrobe also served as the location for make-up. As I entered the building I got this surreal feeling -- I'm in the middle of a hundred million dollar action blockbuster movie! Hundreds of extras were walking around, with the women under hair dryers getting made over in high '30s fashion. The place was buzzing, and it blew my mind.

Heading back to our cars, we encountered the crowds of onlookers that have gathered to watch and snap pictures at every Public Enemies shooting location around Wisconsin.

Back on set, our one big rule was to always be near our car. You never know when you'll get called into action. However, the one thing we got used to was doing nothing. One thing I quickly learned was just how active the productions is through the day. I swear the crew was in constant motion for over 15 hours each day in Oshkosh. Yeah, 15, that is how long the day was and they have one half-hour lunch break... maybe.

Picture Car Drivers? We stand around for fourteen hours spend the other hour driving to a new location. Park the car, get out and just don't get in the way! Some were selected to drive in the scenes, but we were not because the Graham was active in the Columbus shoot. Sioux Falls, South Dakota is certainly not Greenpoint, Indiana, of course, and continuity is an essential element in the production's selection of cars and extras.

Sound boring? Not in the least. We watched major sequences literally explode all around us. We were ten yards away from Michael Mann and first assistant director Bob Wagner when they would yell ACTION!, following which the tommy guns would start rattling. We were 20 yards from extras who would fall to the ground as part of the action in take after take. We watched as more extras would run across a field followed by exploding squibs that sprayed them with dirt -- over and over and over again until they were exhausted.

I'll never forget one scene played right in front of us.

The extras, probably about 40 placed around the two-block area of the set, in position at the same spots they had been rehearsing in time and time again for the last three hours. Meanwhile, Mann was giving his final direction on his vision for the scene, accompanied by Wagner filling in innumerable tiny details. Then we hear over the walkie-talkies that all is ready, and see everyone get quiet and a little more stressed.

All of the rehearsals are over; this is for real.

PICTURE UP! The call goes out as all unit cameras are in position and have a picture. Once heard the phrase is repeated across the set. (This is so cool.)

FIRE IN THE HOLE! Everybody is warned that there will be real gun fire.

CAMERAS ROLLING All is tense and a four-block radius is dead quiet. How do they do that?

BACKGROUND! All the extras start moving like a backswing before the club hits the ball.

ACTION!!! The call goes out and it's all for real now.

We hear the principal actors -- Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Stephen Dorff as Homer Van Meter, Lost's Emilie de Ravin as their hostage Anna Patzke and others -- yelling about a block away and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. Squibs start exploding, some extras start running, others hit deck and start hugging the sidewalk, and grass in the park starts flying. The sound is deafening.

CUT! RESET. We hear the crowds of onlookers start cheering in the distance.

The production does it all over again a half-hour later, and so it goes through the whole week-long shoot in Oshkosh. The final three days of the week are spent filming only a single scene. It's a success if they can get three minutes of movie per day.

And all the while the people with the wheels are sipping the "Star Water"-branded bottled H2O and watching the action while "not being in the way." Ahh... the life of a Picture Car Driver.

After each day's shooting in Oshkosh, I wrote a little bit about my experiences -- see my updates for the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday shoots for more details. If you are interested in continuing to follow the production, feel free to check back as we try to keep things up to date.

The thrill of being involved with something that big was worth it all, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

This shoot in Oshkosh was followed with another last week at the historic Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, the site of an infamous gunfight between the Dillinger gang and the FBI. It's also the location for what looks to be one of the centerpiece sequences in the movie, and was one of the major reasons that brought Mann and Universal Pictures to shoot in Wisconsin in the first place. And though the set was closed, more crowds gathered outside the driveway to the still-operating resort to catch a glimpse of the film's star Depp, who continued to meet the throngs of fans as he did in Oshkosh, Darlington, and Columbus.

Public Enemies will continue to shoot for another couple of months around the Midwest. Coming up next are shoots in Beaver Dam and another in Columbus, as well as more in Madison and Milwaukee, among other places.

You may never see another movie of this size and scope filmed 98% on location, and it's a pretty exciting to see this cinematic rarity take place in Wisconsin. Stay tuned.

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