Movie sets are usually sort of surreal — all that make-believe and artifice wrapped in the mechanics of a high-stakes industry. But this particular set, in the Universal Studios back lot, is even weirder. It was built for Westerns, with an old-timey saloon and hitching posts.
Right now, it's overrun by professional football players dressed up as cowboys or working as crew.
"Jackson, you're on the boom!" someone shouts.
Steven Jackson, star running back of the St. Louis Rams is operating a boom microphone. Defensive end Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals claps the slate before the camera and shouts, "Take one!"
This is part of a three-day boot camp designed to help NFL players envision life beyond the gridiron. For the past few years, the NFL has held similar boot camps in fields such as music and sports broadcasting. Athletes meet executives and get a sense of how the industry works.
Part of the very first Pro Hollywood Boot Camp involves making a short movie. The players are learning to operate equipment, direct and, yes, act. This movie is about a couple who accidentally travels back in time to 1895, the Wild West. Philadelphia Eagles center Jon Dorenbos plays the town sheriff, duded up in a dusty brown cowboy hat, black brocade vest and silver star.
"I tried to bring in the Gene Hackman influence from The Quick and the Dead," he says, just slightly bashfully.
These footballers love movies. More than 150 of them applied for just 20 boot camp slots by writing essays about their favorite films. And they're star-struck by the big-name directors taking part, including Robert Townsend, who wrote and directed Hollywood Shuffle. Now they're working with Roger Bob, who regularly directs for Tyler Perry, one of the biggest names in black entertainment.
"That's the next Denzel right there," Bob observes, motioning to former fullback Ovie Mughelli. The athletes' relentless work ethic and easy charisma make them naturals on screen, says Bob, and he plans to cast Mughelli in his next film.
For his part, Mughelli, whose sizable dimples are clearly more of an asset on camera than on the field, says acting is a total 180 from the NFL.
"We usually hide our emotions. We're pretty stone-faced," he says, with a wide grin.
But Mughelli is quick to add that acting is just one more addition to his career. He's not only an athlete, but a businessman and philanthropist, involved in causes like the environment and education. "Movie star" fits nicely on the resume, too.
Former lineman Karon Riley has acted in two real movies so far. He intends to bring the same discipline to acting that he did to sports.
"I've been working really hard and earning ... respect among other actors that have been doing the craft much longer," he says earnestly. "That was my first goal: Gain their respect, and let them know I respect the craft."
Players sometimes find themselves at a loss after leaving the NFL. What do you do in your 20s or 30s when you've just retired from one of the most lucrative, exciting jobs imaginable? Troy Vincent is a former player turned NFL executive in charge of player development.
"Instead of the abrupt departure, we want you at least to have a minimum of some experience and networking in the area that interests you the most," he says.
To be honest, many of the players are already relatively networked in the movie industry, thanks to Hollywood players who like hanging out with football stars. The names of various movie-star friends and producers are tossed around — well, like footballs. But at this boot camp, Karon Riley is excited to network with a former linebacker, Jon Alston, who left the NFL after suffering four concussions in a year, and who has just finished directing and writing his first film.
"He already has his own production company!" Riley says, impressed. "He's already finished a movie!"
On the other end of the experience spectrum is D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the New York Jets. He's sitting on the wooden saloon steps in the bright Southern California sunshine, all 310 pounds of him, a little overwhelmed.
"I didn't really know about producing and directing before I got here," he quietly confides to 24-year-old Tara Prades, a film student at California State University, Northridge who's helping out for the day.
"Don't worry," she reassures him. "When I first got here, I didn't know what a director of photography was. It's OK. We all learn."
Prades, an international student from Thailand, says she doesn't know anything about American football, so she's not intimidated by working with its star players. But she's of the opinion that they have a future in film.
"If they want to be a camera operator, they definitely all have the bodies for that, because they have to carry a lot of equipment," she observes.
That's not what these guys want to do. But most of them are not interested in becoming movie stars; they're team players. Steven Jackson would prefer to be behind the scenes. Calais Campbell would like to write and direct. And even though D'Brickashaw Ferguson had never heard of cinematography before this boot camp, he's now intrigued by it as a future career.
"You're creating the look," he reflects. "I'm a very visual person. I can accept what the director's telling me and apply it to the world of art — you know, of light, of shades of color."
These guys are experts at making something succeed — without making it all about them. And they're fascinated by the structural differences between the NFL and the movie industry.
"Their product doesn't even have to be good, and they'll still get all their money," points out former Green Bay Packers star Ahman Green during a lunch break, to appreciative laughter.
A reporter asked him to elaborate.
"You know, Will Smith could sign on for $20 million just to do a movie, and it could still be a bomb at the box office — he got his $20 million. Us, we get hurt or something ... that's it. Whatever our signing bonus was, that's all we'll see."
It should be noted that Green's last signing bonus was for $5 million. Now that he's done playing football, he wants to write screenplays.