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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Players in the NFL say you never stop playing football, football stops playing you. And for many players, retirement is an incredibly difficult transition, very few get to go on to high-profile careers in television, like Terry Bradshaw; or politics, like the late Jack Kemp. So the NFL has started helping its athletes envision new careers by holding three-day boot camps in fields like music and sports broadcasting.
The former players are introduced to executives and taught the basics of everything from negotiating recording deals to the art of how to do play-by-play. This year, the NFL added a new boot camp that teaches players about working in Hollywood.
NPR's Neda Ulaby attended the first NFL Pro Hollywood Boot Camp on a Studio City back lot in California.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, we're still rolling, guys.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Movie sets are usually sort of surreal, all that make believe wrapped in the mechanics of a high stakes industry. But this set is even weirder. It was built for Westerns, with an old-timey saloon and hitching posts. Right now, it's overrun by football players dressed as cowboys or working as crew.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, Jackson, you're on the boom.
ULABY: Star running back Steven Jackson of the St Louis Rams is operating a boom microphone, while defensive end Calais Campbell is learning to work the slate board that gets clapped before the camera at the start of every scene.
CALAIS CAMPBELL: So what do I push?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do Delta, take one.
CAMPBELL: And I just push it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And then you just press it.
CAMPBELL: Weren't there enough to...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK? That's it.
ULABY: The players are making their own short movie - it's a little strange, about a couple who accidentally travels back in time to the Wild West.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Eighteen-ninety-five?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How did we get here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I don't know but we got to get out of here.
ULABY: To play the town sheriff, Philadelphia Eagles center John Dorenbos is duded up in a dusty brown cowboy hat, brocade vest and silver star.
JOHN DORENBOS: I tried to bring in the Gene Hackman influence, you know, from "The Quick and the Dead."
ULABY: These guys love movies. Over 150 of them competed for 20 slots at the NFL Hollywood Boot Camp by writing essays about their favorite films. And they're completely star struck by the directors working with them. Yesterday, Robert Townsend, who wrote and directed "Hollywood Shuffle;" Today, Roger Bob, who regularly directs for Tyler Perry's, one of the biggest names in black entertainment.
ROGER BOB: Feed him the line: How. OK, here we go.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Shhh. Quiet on set.
BOB: From how - and action.
ULABY: Bob says the football players with their relentless work ethic and easy charisma are naturals. He's especially taken with Ovie Mughelli, a former fullback, whose dimples are more of an asset on camera than on the field.
BOB: And I'm definitely going to use him in my next film. That's the man, right there. The next Denzel. Denzel better watch out, Ovie is coming.
ULABY: For his part, Mughelli says acting is a total 180 from the NFL.
OVIE MUGHELLI: We usually hide our emotions. We're pretty stone-faced. We're told never too low, never too high by our coaches. But, you know, a lot of guys - that muscle is never exercised. It's never worked.
ULABY: Mughelli is more than muscles. He does not defined by being an athlete. He's deeply involved in causes like the environment and education. And he's already balancing multiple careers.
MUGHELLI: You know, everything from philanthropist to businessman. I've always wanted to do more than just football. So...
ULABY: Movie star fits nicely on the resume too. Lineman Karon Riley's acted in two real movies so far. He wanted to bring the same discipline to acting that he did to sports.
, CLEVELAND GLADIATORS: I've been working really hard and earning my respect amongst other actors that have been doing the craft much longer than me. And that was my first goal: gain their respect and let them know that I respect the craft and I've been working at it.
ULABY: After leaving the NFL, players sometimes find themselves at a loss. What do you do when you're only in your 20's or 30's and you're done with one of the most lucrative, exciting jobs imaginable? Troy Vincent's a former player who now works in NFL management. He oversees boot camps like this one. Vincent says it's a myth that players often suffer financial hardships after retiring. But he says it's good for the NFL to help them find new careers.
TROY VINCENT: Instead of the abrupt departure, we want you to at least to have a minimum of some experience and the networking in an area that interests you the most.
ULABY: To be honest, football stars already have an in. Movie industry players like hanging out with football stars. But at this boot camp, Karon Riley's networking with a former linebacker. Jon Alston left the NFL after suffering four concussions in a year. Riley is impressed by the Hollywood success Alston's already found.
, CLEVELAND GLADIATORS: He already has his own production company. He's already finished a movie.
JON HENRI ALSTON: Loving the business right now. Loving the business.
ULABY: Still, Jon Henri Alston is taking the boot camp, although he just finished shooting an artsy crime thriller he wrote and directed. On the other end of the experience spectrum, D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the New York Jets.
D'BRICKASHAW FERGUSON: I didn't really know about producing and directing.
ULABY: Ferguson's feeling a little overwhelmed. He's sitting on the saloon steps with a film student from Cal State Northridge who's here helping out.
TARA PRADIS: Yeah. No, don't worry. When I first got here, I didn't know what a director of photography was.
FERGUSON: Oh, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PRADIS: It's OK, we all learn.
ULABY: The student, 24-year-old Tara Pradis comes from Thailand. She doesn't know anything about American football, so she's not intimidated by these NFL stars. But she does think they have a future in film.
PRADIS: If they want to be a camera operator, they definitely all have the bodies for that - because they have to carry, you know, a lot of equipment.
ULABY: That's not what these guys want to do. But most of them, like Steven Jackson and Calais Campbell, are not interested in becoming movie stars.
STEVEN JACKSON: I would actually prefer to be behind the scenes.
CAMPBELL: I want to write and I want to direct.
ULABY: 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.
FERGUSON: You're creating the look. 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, light, of shades, of color.
ULABY: These guys are team players expert 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.
AHMAN GREEN: Their product doesn't even have to be good and they'll still get all their money.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: That's former Packer's star Ahman Green during a lunch break.
GREEN: You know, will smith could sign on for 20 million just to do a movie and it could be a bomb in the box office. He got his 20 million. Us, we get hurt or something will come happen, that's it. I mean whatever our signing bonus was that's all we'll see.
ULABY: Ahman Green's last signing bonus was for $5 million. Now he's done playing football. He wants to write screenplays.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.