The desert can be a scary place. If you heard of Indio, California, the name probably brings to mind Coachella and its teeming crowds of X’d out music freaks. The town also happens to be near the Cabazon Indian Reservation, a hotbed for CIA mischief and mayhem back in the 80s. Some people got killed. Others talk of biological weapons testing. But I’ll leave it to the conspiracy theorists to figure out who whacked Danny Casolero.
Instead, a friend has another tale from the badlands and it’s all on tape. This is not black helicopter nonsense. It’s a documentary called “Scrapper” that hopefully will be playing at a theatre near you.
I met the director Stephan Wassmann on the ride back to LA from Park City, Utah. We both presented films at Slamdance 2011. A third passenger rode shotgun. He used to work Special Ops. He had stories. He had other stories but did not divulge details. Things got a little crazy after we crossed the California state line. Our voyage involved a case of beer and a midnight trek along a winding dirt road in the Mojave. I’ll leave it to the reader to extrapolate the results.
I kept in touch with Stephan post-Slamdance. We talked old times. Both of us did stretches on “The Farm” (Stanford U.). I found Wassmann to be an interesting cat. Here was a guy fluent in Noam Chomsky who also could slam Budweisers with the toughest hombres in the military. He had the two qualities I appreciate in my associates: guts and brains.
Anyway, I am very excited to publish my interview with him. He has some stories…
For those who haven’t seen “Scrapper,” give us a description in 100 words or less.
“Scrapper” takes you on a psychedelic journey into a US bombing range in Southern California’s low desert near the Mexican border where the most powerful military in history has been honing the tools of empire for over 70 years. Groups of outlaw survivalists risk life and limb infiltrating its lethal impact areas to carry off small mountains of lucrative aluminum bomb casings and brass shells. Some use their expertise in this no-man’s land to smuggle illegal immigrants north for Mexican crime families. Driven by grit and greed, adrenaline and hunger, crystal meth and scripture, these desperados have rewritten society’s rules and turned this bombing range into their own free enterprise zone.
How did you find out about the phenomenon of “scrapping” and meet the subjects in the film?
My partner Mike DiGregorio, a seasoned journalist with a passion for Wild West desert tales, dug up this story for a book he was writing. He also wrote an article that was published in the LA Times Sunday magazine, called “The Ethical Outlaw”.
My own interest in the Chocolate Mountains bombing range was sparked back in the late 90s when I had the chance to work in this weird landscape on different film projects and experienced the fighter jets screaming overhead and dropping bombs which could suck the air out of your lungs. The place left such an urgent impression on me I spent several years writing an action-adventure screenplay set in and around the bombing range.
Olivier Hermitant, my partner and a co-director on “Scrapper,” really dug Mike’s exciting research as well as my script and brought the three of us together to talk about making a documentary.
But it was our very first encounter with two scrapper brothers four months after 9/11 — at their desolate ranch near the edge of the bombing range — that blew the lid off the story for me. As we pulled into the driveway past a half dozen barking dogs, we came up to a pickup truck loaded down with freshly exploded casings of cluster bombs, one of the most deadly and controversial weapons in the conventional arsenal. Once dropped from a jet, cluster bombs split open in mid-air and release hundreds of smaller bomblets over an area the size of a football field.
The brothers were leery enough of intruders to keep a surveillance camera trained on the driveway and a shotgun within easy reach. But they were pumped up by the uninterrupted “shock and awe” being rehearsed just beyond the canal for the invasion of Afghanistan. Maybe it was the meth that got them to talking about what scrapping was about. And boy did they talk…late into the night. Olivier and I ended up crashing on their floor, trying to sleep with one eye open. When their meth wore off, would they awaken us at gunpoint and demand the tapes back? Or worse? But we survived the night and rode along with them the next day into the bombing range. Those experiences seared themselves into our retinas and left us with a raging case of “range fever” that dogged us for years.
Tell us about a typical day in the life of a scrapper.
Scrappers spend a lot time figuring out ways to put the grab on as much bomb detritus as they can in the kill zones, right under the noses of the military.
But just getting into those impact areas means they’ve already eluded Sheriffs, Military Police, Border Patrol and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents, all of whom monitor the edges of the bombing range.
Once inside a scrapper will crisscross the charred moonscape on foot or ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) and drag the cleanest aluminum bomb fins or cluster bomb casings back to the truck. But a loaded down truck is more likely to set off buried ordnance on the way out of the kill zone and jets, helicopters, Military Police, EOD patrols might still show up at any moment and spoil the party.
When pickings are rich, scrappers will often work around the clock for days without rest, as long as their vehicles and meth hold up, to collect as much scrap as they can while the gettin’s good. They’ll haul a load to some hideout, usually in an isolated wash, then head straight back for more. To protect their stash they’ll lay nail boards under the sand of the approaches to take out all four tires of any nosy rival.
Next its time to clean the scrap; this is a very arduous process that can often take days. Aluminum containing steel rivets or bolts is considered “dirty” and worth cents on the dollar at the recycler. So scrappers “bake” casings on a bonfire to loosen up the locktight sealant holding the rivets in place and separate the pieces using sledgehammers and crowbars. Some scrap has been so badly twisted in explosions it can only be cleaned using a blowtorch or skillsaw.
Finally they’ve got to transport their bomb detritus undetected through civilian areas to a recycling center willing to take stolen government property and not get ripped off in the transaction.
Because the range is spread across 670 square miles of unforgiving wilderness, experienced scrappers always pay close attention to which kill zones the jets and helicopters are attacking so they can head straight to them as soon as there’s a lull.
When large scale maneuvers are taking place or EOD (Explosive Ordnance Details) are deployed to detonate unexploded ordnance the range will be in a lockdown mode and scrappers might be shut out of the impact areas for weeks or months at a time.
When they’re not handling scrap, they’re likely repairing their rigs after the beating they inevitably take on the range. A reliable rig is the key to making money and not getting busted: it has to be ready to handle chase speeds across miles of rocks and sand, even when loaded down with tons of metal.
All other essential tools also need to be maintained. Tires are always getting slashed by shrapnel and need to be mended. Scrappers frequently use washes to stay off roads and will usually let air out of their tires for better traction in the sand. But once the rig is back on solid ground tires need to be reinflated so a reliable air pump is essential.
A good score on the range tends to fuel even wilder meth intake which soon spurs the need to go right back out and score another load. And so goes the vicious cycle.
Did you ever have difficulty penetrating the scrapping “subculture”? Did they have a problem with being in a documentary?
Scrapping a military bombing range without government permission is illegal, so gaining the trust of experienced scrappers in order to document their activities was one of our biggest challenges. Back in the Bush years, when you were “either with us or with the terrorists,” the last thing these guys wanted was some outsider poking around their business, let alone filming them.
So why did they eventually let us do just that? Maybe because they figured out we weren’t undercover feds, just a couple camera-wielding comedians who’d caught the range fever and were willing to face the same risks they were. As always with documentaries, a lot had to do with timing.
Other scrappers were so down on their luck, all we represented to them was a free case of beer or a meal at one of the three restaurants in town. Others had been in and out of jail so many times they didn’t see what difference we could make. In time other scrappers saw our cameras as an opportunity to vent their frustrations at the government.
The most dangerous criminal scrappers in town kept their distance and deliberately avoided us. Mike had guns pointed at him several times when he got too close to them.
In the case of our veteran scrapper JR, it took four attempts over a period of months just to locate his compound on the eastern edge of the bombing range, and that was only through bad luck. Our vehicle had gotten stuck on a narrow sandy road in the middle of nowhere, when a jeep came along, the first vehicle we’d encountered in three hours, and was forced to stop. Two hunters (in full camo attire) didn’t like the looks of us one bit, but they knew JR and called him up. Whatever he told them made them grin evilly but their directions led us right to him. But that was just the beginning of a long process of trust building that lasted many months.
The most elusive piece of the puzzle was persuading our scrappers to sign releases. But dogged persistence, creative negotiation tactics, well-timed gifts of food, booze, tools, and other inducements finally paid off.
How did you feel the first time you entered the bombing range? What were some of the risks involved?
It felt like we’d stepped into a parallel universe where the sane and the insane, the forbidden and the free were tightly wound up in psychedelic harmony. We rode along with two scrapper brothers jacked up on meth, in a beat-up old Suburban with no muffler, no windows, no gasoline (which we siphoned from my car) and was hotwired to start up with a screwdriver.
As we roared toward the range, our driver guzzled beer and yeehawed as he ran through stop signs. I was afraid he was going to miss a turn and careen us into the canal and we’d all drown before we ever set foot on the bombing range. Dust blasted in through holes in the floor and did considerable damage to our cameras. Mine was never the same after that.
In the beginning we weren’t too clued in to how many ways you could get in trouble. Here’s a few: you might run over unexploded ordnance or buried shrapnel and get stuck in an impact area when jets or helicopters fly in to do live fire training; you could accidentally cross paths with Navy Seals out on a training mission; you could have a hostile run-in with rival scrappers, drug smugglers, coyotes smuggling illegal immigrants who frequently transit through the range. You also could be spotted by Military Police, Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who might decide to run you down and drag your a*s to jail. The list gets quite a bit longer.
What was the scariest moment you experienced during the filming of the documentary?
There were quite a few scary moments. One that jumps to mind is a drive we took on the bombing range in the 120-degree summer heat with two methed-out scrappers in a very sketchy two-wheel drive pickup truck with a broken motor-mount. We’d made it safely across a huge runway target shaped like an X, used by jets to practice bombing airfields. Months before, my partner Mike and another scrapper had run over razor-sharp shrapnel dead center in that “X” and been sitting ducks for many tense hours till they were rescued by other scrappers.
On this day, we were headed for richer grounds deeper in the bombing range up a very rocky road when two low-flying Apache helicopters appeared out of nowhere and began strafing a nearby tank target. With mind-blowing cool our driver veered us into a rocky wash, found some shelter behind some scrawny trees and threw a tarp over the windshield to cover any glare off the glass. I was amazed the pilots hadn’t already spotted us with their bare eyes, let alone with their sophisticated sensors. After a very tense half-hour we pushed on up only to get stuck a couple miles farther up the wash in deep, blazing hot sand, sticking out like sore thumbs less than a hundred yards from another tank target. We were stuck there for hours, less than a mile from a notorious impact area where cluster bombs are dropped.
What was the most interesting episode or event you were not able to capture on film?
Scrappers didn’t allow us to film them removing the stabilizer fins from live bombs that hit the ground without exploding. But they were even touchier about episodes involving illegal immigration. More and more of them have gotten into the highly lucrative business of transporting illegal immigrants across the range to different drop off points. They know all the back roads and can make a lot more money this way than by scrapping. But they face the added risk of pissing off the Mexican crime families who tend to be very unforgiving about screw-ups on the range.
Other episodes I wish we’d been able to film were scenes between Mel, the owner of the town’s recycling center, and his son Downey, one of the most active scrappers on the range. But Mel didn’t want us anywhere near his recycling center with cameras.
There was something tragic in that father-son relationship. Mel openly scorned Downey’s lifestyle yet would taunt him mercilessly if he hauled in a less than adequate load of scrap. Either way, Mel always gave his son rock bottom prices. On the other hand, he liked to give top dollar to Downey’s main rival JR, an old timer like Mel. When Mel got robbed at gunpoint, everyone in town took it for granted that Downey had arranged the hit on his dad. The final blow came when Mel passed away and didn’t leave a cent to his son.
On a lighter note I wish we’d been able to film our comical rendez-vous with Sean Penn in the Anza Borego desert where he was filming scenes for “Into The Wild.” We were on a mission to raise money for our documentary and wanted to enlist his support. Weeks before, Penn had filmed a sequence near the bombing range and used some of our scrappers as background extras, so we thought we’d be a shoe-in. Once we tracked down his base camp we hung around till we spotted Sean Penn returning with his posse for lunch. We sidled up to him and in front of much of his crew delivered our well-rehearsed pitch and a DVD of our trailer. I thought I detected a glint in his very intense gaze, but couldn’t tell if it was interest in our project or the urge to beat us senseless. He just handed the DVD to an assistant and walked away. At least we tried. I still think Penn did pretty darn good job on “Into The Wild.” And the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder is one of my favorites.
You were able to get many scrappers on tape but the U.S. military proved somewhat more evasive. Can you tell us about some of your experiences with trying to interview them?
Early on I contacted the Marine Corps and asked if we could fly along on their helicopter operations in the hopes of filming a scrapper pursuit. It didn’t take them long to shoot down that idea.
Then for months my partner Mike and I tried to secure an interview with the commander of the Flying Nightmares, a flamboyant Harrier jet squad based out of Yuma, Arizona that flies many training missions over the Chocolate Mountains bombing range. I had to submit all our questions ahead of time and they quickly bumped off all the ones pertaining to scrappers or civilian trespassers on the range.
My sanitized request was kicked around some more, then up to a general who wanted to know who the hell were these nosy civilians. We were eventually granted a videotape interview with a fighter pilot, a Major, who was not at all comfortable answering even our most innocuous questions. When Mike brought up the subject of scrapping with him, a Public Affairs officer monitoring the interview stepped in and cut him off.
Since our film also deals with illegal immigration through the bombing range we went after and secured interviews with two Border Patrol agents from the El Centro station. Our request had to be vetted by the newly formed Department of Homeland Security first. To our dismay at the end of the interview, they decided to postpone signing any releases until we showed them a cut of the film.
On a more positive note, The Pentagon was kind enough to grant us access to the DVIC (Defense Visual Information Center) stock footage library at March Air Force Base. We went there on three separate occasions to look through hours of footage for our film. Although we purchased a lot of great footage from them we ended up using very little of it in the film.