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Nat becomes a Movie Star

A while back, I signed on with an extras casting agency. In Hollywood terms, an "extra" is an actor who doesn't have any lines (except as part of crowd noise) or a significant part in the piece. The other guys on the escalator, the lady walking down the street in the background, the audience at the movies: those are extras. Sometimes called "background" or "atmosphere", the extra is more a prop than he is an actor. There are both union and non-union extra jobs (and a movie can be a union film while still using non-union extras). The work is piecemeal.

There are a number of extras casting agencies in Hollywood. Most are scams, taking money from the would-be actor to represent him, but with little actual work to offer. There's one or two large, serious extra agencies which do charge a small fee for taking your photo and information, but that's a cost-offsetter and not how they make their money. I signed with one of those.

Why did I sign on? Well, earning a little extra money wouldn't hurt, but that's not why I did it. (The money's pretty bad; $40 for any shoot lasting under 8 hours, with $7.50 an hour after that.) However, I wanted to see what the film word was like from the inside. I wanted to add appearing in a film or on TV to my list of experiences. And I wanted to have some Degree of Kevin Bacon. (For those unfamiliar with the concept: there is a movie trivia game where you have to see how many links it takes to connect any actor to actor Kevin Bacon through films. For example, Elizabeth McGovern was in She's Having A Baby with Kevin, which makes her One Degree of Kevin Bacon. Mary Tyler Moore was in the movie Ordinary People with Elizabeth McGovern, so she's Two Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Someone who was in a film with Mary Tyler Moore would be Three Degrees, at most. Using this system, the vast majority of actors in the history of Hollywood are Six Degrees or less.)

Once they have your photo and information on file, you can call in each day to hear a recording of jobs they have open for the next day. I have the bad luck of not being much of a type; there is no shortage of 30-something white guys, and I'm not menacing, not attractive, and I don't look military. The few times that I've found something on the recording that I fit, when I call in I learn that the part was already taken.

Primary Colors book cover
Good source

A couple weeks back, a message started cropping up warning that they had a big shoot coming up, requiring thousands of extras. The film would be Primary Colors, which I knew was based on the Joe "Anonymous" Klein political satire of the Clinton presidency. A little net research told me that Mike Nichols and Elaine May (the old Nichols&May comedy team) would be directing and writing, respectively. John Travolta would play the governor running for president (renamed from Clinton to something else), Emma Thompson his wife, with Jack Nicholson, Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney, John Malkovich, Adrian Lester, Diane Ladd, and Kathy Bates in various other roles. All in all, a major picture. (It will make me Two Degrees of Kevin Bacon; I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine how.) (Added later: The reports of Nicholson and Malkovich being in the film proved false, so that removes all of the Two Degrees links from the listed actors, However, there is a more obscure actor in the film who gives me a Bacon Rating of 2.)

When they opened up the lines for calls on Monday, I called in and gave my social secutiry number (which they use to index the information). I was immediately told "you're in", and transfered to a recording of information about the shoot. It was going to be Friday, starting at 6 PM. The recording gave me the location I would have to go to. It also told me that the scene would be outside during winter in Connecticut, so I'd be required to dress with a heavy coat and other appropriate clothing. Plus, all clothing would have to be either black, grey, red, white, or blue. Obviously, this was to be a political rally of some sort, and they wanted to create a real red, white, and blue impression.

Problem was that the only jacket that I had that met that description was a black leather jacket with a big radio station emblem on the back, and I knew that ad clothes were generally discouraged on sets. However, $5 at a local thrift shop bought me a nice and appropriate piece (winter clothing being fairly cheap around here, as demand is low.)

(We did end up lucking out with a cool night, so the heavy clothes weren't too bad. Still, the idea of using summer in L.A. for winter in the northeast seems a bit much.)

The recording made one other point: No cameras were to be brought to the set. Anyone bringing a camera to the set would be immediately thrown off the set, and they would be dropped from the ranks of the agency. This is a fairly common statement. First off, having a camera on set can be distracting, and using a flash can ruin a shot. Additionally, many movies are considered "closed shoots", in order to keep aspects of the filming out of the press. However, in this particular case, this restriction would prove interesting.

Eventually, inevitably, Friday comes. I get my clothes together and head out to the location, leaving hours early so that I can find it, be sure I know where I'm going, and then head into downtown LA for a quick bite (I know they'll be feeding us, but I'm not sure when) and perhasp a bit of shopping. Between traffic getting to the shoot and traffic getting around LA, I only have time for a quick bite from a drive-thru-only McDonalds. (I can hear those who know I should be watching my fat intake quivering in horror.)

I'm directed to a parking lot somewhere in a large Veteran's Administration complex. After parking my car, a school bus takes me not to the shoot, but to another parking lot, which has been turned into a waiting area. I am told that since I was asked to be there at 6 PM, I was part of Group H. In the waiting area are rows and rows of tables, separated by group (A through H and Red, oddly enough). And I quickly learn that the earliest groups, who were told to be there at 2:30 or 3:00, were still in the waiting area. It looks like I have a wait ahead of me.

I notice a line for food at the back. Now, I'd eaten maybe half an hour before, but people who know me know that food is one of my favorite things to eat, and free food is a particularly attractive subcategory. I get in line, grab some fruit, a half a sandwich, an apple fritter, a donut, some tortilla chips, and some iced tea. Grabbing a seat, I start talking with fellow extras, while chomping away.

The conversations largely circulate on the topic of being an extra--who has done it before, who hasn't (a shoot like this has many first-timers; they even advertise in the papers for new people just for this shoot). We exchange info on what we know about this movie. Eventually, I turn to one of the small books I wisely brought with me (The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyberg, by Twain.)

The earliest groups start getting processed for intake. They stand in line to get a work voucher, fill it out, get their hand stamped with their group number, then are sent to lines at wardrobe to have their outfits checked and to be assigned anything that they need. Time passes, and eventually Group H is called as well (Although it is hard to hear the call, as the folks in charge of wrangling people are neither effective shouters nor effective megaphone users.) Along with the voucher, we get a numbered bright green piece of paper with the information on the sweepstakes for the extras--numbers will be picked at random during the shoot, and the first prize winner gets a weekend trip for two to New Orleans. Grand Prize? A used 1982 VW Rabbit convertible. I'm one of the few people who seem to want that more than the trip.

Box lunches are being handed out to the extras, starting with the earliest groups. I see this going on, and while I realize I've eaten too much already, I get philosophical about this: Every meal that I can get a film company to buy for me effectively makes up for some lousy movie I paid to see. I determine that I want that lunch. However, the iced tea I drank, mixing with the soda I drank earlier, gave me a more urgent physical need. I looked around and spotted the sets of portable bathrooms. I get in line, eventually get into one of the washrooms, and find myself faced with both a door that has (and requires) a set of instructions and a toilet with the same. Still, if I can figure out Microsoft PowerPoint, I can hack this. The sink takes a little figuring (no instructions), but I eventually make my sanitary way out of the situation.

The box lunch people have moved through Group H... but they are hitting the folks who are just standing around toward the back. I stand around toward the back, I get a lunch. A 6-inch sub, an almond croissant, some pasta salad, and an apple. That will make up for Rob Reiner's sole bad film, _North_.

The lower-lettered groups have been heading on busses to the shoot location. Soon, groups A through G and Red are gone, each around 2.5 hours after their call time. One of the people herders, wanting to make sure that all of the people already at the shoot are there, megaphones "you people are only H, right?" "ONLY!?!" I roar back in mock defiance. "We're PROUD of being H!" Some laughs are scored.

When the busses return (and there are supposedly as many as a dozen of them in total, although I don't recall seeing more than half that at a time), they cart us off to the shoot location, a UCLA stadium whose default use appears to be tennis. After waiting in line a while (waiting being, ultimately, the main job of an extra), we get inside, where all of the other groups are already filling a tight half of the stands. The stadium and the people inside are all fitted to look like it's a political rally for Governor Fred Picker, with those fake-straw foam hats with a Picker slogan on them, with posterboard signs both printed and hand-painted, with Picker Pins and Picker t-shirts being worn over winter clothing. There's a marching band (The Pasadena City College band with the Pasadena on their outfits covered up with the name of some other city), and on the stage is a bagpipe-and-drum quintet. There are ushers, local dignitaries, and cops (both real and fake--and some of the fake looked more real than some of the real.) It's make-believe being played on a huge scale, with around 3000 make believers working together.

I'm toward the rear of Group H, and by the time they get to us, the seats they have left to fill are the ones on the stadium floor. At first we're seated to the back, until they realize that the band sits there, at which point we're moved forward to row 4. We've scored good seats!

I spot the first known-actor walking in front of the stage: it's comedian Robert Klein, looking quite intelligent in a sharp suit.

They start handing out something additional to perhaps a quarter of the audience extras: disposable flash cameras. I don't have any of the other distributed stuff (I ducked getting a hat, since I want to be seen on screen if at all possible), but I get one of these. All that fuss about not letting cameras in, and they give us cameras. I figure that they'll likely collect them on the way out, although all of us realize it would be easy to sneak one out.

A fellow Picker-backer and I watch the candidate with rapt attention

There's a gajillion little technical details being taken care of. An assistant director takes us through what will happen in the scene--it will start with Governor Picker at the podium, we're all standing and cheering. Through the speech, we sit, we cheer, we laugh, we applaud, etc., at various times. (For fans of the novel: this scene is on pages 288-290 of the hardcover edition.) He then assigns various times for people with cameras to shoot during the speech using birth month as the random seed. People born in April, for example, take their shots slowly paced during the main body of the speech. Everyone is told to take three shots per take, and not to use any shots at other times, because the cameras only take 25 shots apiece, and it's just as important to have the flashes going in later takes as it is in earlier ones. The mathematically minded among us realize that we'll be going through as many as 8 takes this way.

We do one rehearsal of the scene, with the assistant director reading the Governor's part, and with the strict admonition not to use the cameras. The manufactured cheering works out just fine; people are full of energy. There's a camera on a huge crane sweeping down from the back of the stadium towards the stage, ending up behind the Governor. It's a keen crane.

By now, it's about 9:30, and all sorts of little technical things are being taken care of around us. With time to kill, the assistant director starts telling us Man Walks Into A Bar jokes from the podium. I think he realizes he needs to keep people's energy up, since this could be a long night, and we've got to be cheering. Eventually, time does come for the first take. And as we get ready to do it, the "Governor" walks out...

...and it's not John Travolta. This must be some other governor we're rooting for. It is, however, Larry Hagman, best known for his TV work (J.R. Ewing on Dallas, Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie--which no, is not the counterprogramming against My Nightmares of America On-Line). He looks dignified. His eyebrows look a bit pointy.

The take goes well. I cheer, I shout, I jump and point excitedly, both to add the roaring crowd effect and because it increases the chance that I'll be visible on-screen. Hagman seems to enjoy shooting this scene, with all those people screaming for him. After the shot is done, some people start shouting "JR for President".

Then it's time to rearrange things for the next take. The rear of the audience is moved to the side of the stadium, so they can show another angle and make it look like the stadium is completely filled. All sorts of things are done. The director's voice is heard, although he is not much seen. Elaine May is seen wandering about. The assistant director tells another joke. (We've got Robert Klein AND Nichols&May about, and we're getting old 12 inch pianist jokes from some random AD?!? Such is life.) Time passes. The AD announces that they'll be giving away two bills signed by Larry Hagman, a $10,000 and a $50. The $10,000 is a fake, with Hagman's picture on it; the $50 is real. This keeps interest going (particularly during the time between announcing the $10,000 and announcing it's a fake!). Robert Klein is introduced at some point. Since they've opened up a huge flag behind him, he does some Patton shtick, and then does some of his standard stadium shtick. It goes over well.

All told, it takes about an hour between takes. The takes themselves run 4 minutes at most.

The second take is done. This one has the crane camera swooping very close over the heads of folks, pointed towards the stage. They had not properly anticipated the problem of people holding up signs in front of the camera, however. Another take will be needed. Meanwhile, Hagman picks the winners of the bills. He also talks a bit with the bagpipe players. He has broken some ribs recently, so he's not able to do the heavy blowing a bagpipe requires himself. However, he does get to finger the pipe while someone else does the blowing, and it sounds as good as, well, bagpipe music sounds. Billy Bob Thornton (of Sling Blade flame) gives away a $50 bill signed by himself.

Hagman talks to bagpipers between takes

Another hour, another take. With a little practice, they had gotten the sign holders to drop their sign properly synchronized with the camera motion. They also moved some tall people out of the line of the camera, to keep them from being bonked on the head. Instead of shooting my camera straight at the governor, I angle it slightly so I can get the camera in the shot, and then again so I get the odd sight of a bagpipe band backed by a giant US flag.

The next take is going to be a bit different. There's suppose to be a conversation going on at the left of the stage between two other characters. To film this, they will need everything silent at that point of the take, so they tell us that they're going to cut the mike during the midst of Hagman's speech, and we're to go on listening silently, paying rapt attention. They've also changed the audience directions slightly, to reflect some of what we'd been doing, which was more like a real crowd than what they'd anticipated. They also want us to look more moved, so they cut the camera shots during this part--which means my camera parts. I take my shots earlier on, so the flashes don't go to waste.

Problem is, they've misdescribed it to us. They do not cut the audio during Hagman's existing speech, and he still ends it with "Thank You", so we all still react to the thank you with cheering and applauding. It'll have to be done again. That means another hour.

The Rabbit is given away to someone whose most important feature is that she is not me. Ah, well. Poor underpriviledged Nat will have to continue to go convertibleless in SoCal. Hagman talks to the crowd a bit. He does some of what is obviously standard Hagman crowd talk ("To answer the three most common questions I get about I Dream Of Jeannie: 1) Yes, Barbara Eden is that lovely off-screen as well. 2) Yes, she actually does have a navel. 3) No, I never did."), and comments on the prize drawing with the old "second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia" line.

We shoot again. This time, there's no Thank You, the mike cuts off as its supposed to, Hagman cotinues to say things we cannot hear and we listen with rapt attention. The take is deemed successful. That's the last video take they need. They take a few "wild takes", which are isolated takes of individual noises. First is the bagpipes, and then various specific crowd noises (cheering, laughing, clapping, etc.) This way, if they have to do some careful soundwork on the scene later, they have clean raw material to mix together.

The shoot is over, and I have shots left!

The trip to New Orleans is given away, once again showing their prejudice for people who are not me. The director actually surfaces, to thank us all. We are told what to do with various props we were given, such as the signs and specifically the full camera sets given to the people playing press photographers. We are not, however, told to return the campaign t-shirts or the hats... or the disposable cameras. I've been given a hat by one of my seat neighbors, plus I've got a few shots left on the camera. I get a picture or two of myself on location, plus some shots of the whole scene.

It's about 1:30 in the morning now, but there is still a final wait left to go. People have to be bussed from the stadium to the waiting area to turn in their vouchers, and then bussed to the parking lot. They're going in alphabetical order, so I'll be in the last group to go.

The stands are emptying slowly. I don't think that as many busses are running now as were before, and some of them are shuttling people from the waiting area to their cars. Wandering around the stadium, I come to realize that they have food service set up in the back. I grab three half sandwiches and two big cookies. That ought to wash the memory of paying for Independence Day off of my conscience.


It's after 3:00 by the time I get on the bus. Back at the waiting place, I fill out the blank spots on the voucher as instructed. Officially, we're done at 3:30 AM (which allows time for the shuttle back to the car), and they count a half hour of mealtime as our lunch break. In total, that means one hour of overtime, so I should be getting $47.50 for my day's work. Plus a hat, and a mostly-used disposable camera filled with pictures of Larry Hagman. All in all, not a bad day, when one counts in the experience.

Would I do it again? Yup. I admit it--I love the movies, and enjoy being a small part of it and seeing how it's done. Next time, however, I hope that it's not a crowd shoot like this'n.