'Over There' Creates Iraq Over Here

California desert stands in for war-torn nation

July 24, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Staff

CHATSWORTH, Calif. -- All deserts are not alike, but there is enough sand, dirt and barren ground here, in the hills northwest of Los Angeles, that the place could easily pass for the bleak, dusty plains of war-torn Iraq. At least that is what the makers of Over There, a new wartime television drama, are hoping. Zeroing in on an Army platoon on its first tour of duty fighting the Iraqi insurgency, the show's producers -- Steven Bochco and Chris Gerolmo -- had to simulate the look and conditions of modern-day Iraq for audiences who see the real thing on their living-room screens every day.

Because it would have been prohibitively expensive to film Over There in, say, Morocco, where other desert-themed film and television productions have often landed, the producers and their production designer, Keith Neely, settled on the Hidden Creek Ranch, in the rolling, chaparral-dotted foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains.

They built a small Iraqi village of adobe houses, which are constantly being altered and rebuilt as the needs of each episode become clear. (Filming of the last few episodes continues; the premiere airs on FX Wednesday.)

The village is integral to Episode 3, in which an Iraqi is taken prisoner and interrogated as the platoon guarding him comes under fire from insurgents on rooftops and in the narrow streets.

Other filming for the series, particularly desert scenes that required wide views, like the roadblock setting in Episode 2, was completed near the high-desert town of Lancaster, northeast of here. Interiors, such as the hospital room in which a member of the squad recovers fitfully from losing a leg, were shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles, while some of the home scenes of the soldiers and their families were filmed in the port city of San Pedro, southwest of Los Angeles.

"Ninety percent of the show is exteriors," said David Smith, the show's prop foreman, who spent 10 years on Bochco's NYPD Blue. As he labored in the intense heat of a recent afternoon to finish alterations to the village set, Smith said, "We get a blueprint and try to make it as real as we can."

That was also, of course, the task of the seven-member cast, most of whom had never held a weapon, let alone fired one in a simulated battle. For some, it was tougher than for others, especially the boot-camp training imposed on them by the show's military adviser, Marine Staff Sgt. Sean Thomas Bunch.

Nicki Aycox, the diminutive actress -- she's 5-foot-4 and weighs in at 100 pounds -- who plays a motor-pool driver named Mrs. B, balked at the notion of lugging equipment that amounted to a good share of her own weight and, initially, considered herself ill-suited for the part.

"I don't know if I can buy this, me being a soldier," she recalled thinking. "I'm small, I'm thin. But the more I thought about it, the fact that there are 18- and 19-year-old girls who are small and yet they go out there and do this, I thought, it can be done."

Not easily. The training was arduous, and Aycox -- whose character is supposed to be "completely terrified" as well as "obstinate and pigheaded," according to the production notes -- said she used her frustration with the discomfort and the heat to help motivate Mrs. B's orneriness.

"She's scared to death," Aycox said of her character in an interview last week. "Iraq is not a place she belongs in. She probably went into it not even thinking she'd be in this situation."

In this week's premiere, during a firefight that leaves several insurgents dead, Mrs. B. goes missing, a precursor to troubles with her comrades that put the rest of them in danger. The filming itself has been troublesome, Aycox said.

"In the first couple of weeks, we were playing war heroes, doing mock battles and having fun," she said. "I went through the boot camp, so now I can lift the weapons and drive the trucks, but it's not an easy job, and that's starting to take a toll."

Vince Flaherty, the show's armorer, who is in charge of the 22 weapons used by the cast, said Aycox had struggled with the equipment.

"She doesn't like it," he said, patting an M-16 automatic rifle that weighed 13 pounds. "This thing weighs a tenth of what she weighs. But she does well."

The other woman in the cast, Lizette Carrion, who plays Esmeralda "Doublewide" Del Rio, recalled the weeklong boot camp with something less than fondness.

"We learned how to fire weapons, how to clear houses in urban situations, and we had to do a lot of push-ups," said Carrion, who remembered receiving frequent calls, which she rebuffed, from Army recruiters while growing up in the Bronx. "But we're actors and we thought it would be OK to be a few minutes late in the morning, and we quickly found out it wasn't. On the first day of boot camp, three of us were late and all of us had to do 30 push-ups. I had never done more than two prior to that."

Then there was the heat.

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