I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!

I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement with a company called Casino Royale Productions, so I am not at liberty to discuss details of the film, James and the Giant Explosive Device, where today I served as an extra. I am, however, at liberty to discuss the life of a movie extra. And what a life is is!

It was dark when the alarm clock went off at 4:50 this morning, brutally yanking me from the lingering warmth of the land of Nod. Alarm clocks are infernal items that I have managed to almost, but not quite, purge from my life. When I get up, it’s because I want to. I was looking forward to this day, however, so it was with only a moderate amount of cursing that I shuffled through the darkness to the shower. Half an hour later Soup Boy and I were waiting in the darkest before the dawn, wet snow gently falling, waiting for a cab.

The Taxi was the first to make tracks down our quiet street, but at more than one house older men were already diligently at work clearing the sidewalks. Now that’s crazy.

The shoot was in a secure location at the top of a hill not too far away. It is not a place easily accessible by vehicles at the best of times, and the taxi could not even begin the ascent before wheels spun and we slid gently back down. Soup and I got out and started climbing. We had been instructed to find a man we will call Zoltan the Bald Serbian when we got there, and he would tell us what to do. We drifted, aimless, confused, semi-literate, but no Zoltan the Bald Serbian was to be found. We were not the only ones looking for him, but no one knew where he was. We were directed to a tent to wait for him.

Many of the tents were cold and dark. The heaters would start up, the lights would flicker to reluctant life, and then everything would shut down again, to the anguished cries of the crews trying to prepare for the day. Zoltan the Bald Serbian, we finally overheard, was stuck in a taxi somewhere. Now, I’m not calling the man a liar, but in the time it took him to get there, he could have walked from almost anywhere in Prague.

So, before Zoltan the Bald Serbian even showed up, we were advised to head for wardrobe, then makeup, then breakfast, and worry about the rest later. Which is what we did. I changed into shorts, a tropical print shirt, and shoes with no socks, and struck back out into the bitter cold, looking like a flasher huddled under my trench coat. “You must be cold,” a lot of people said. At the time I was doing all right. Makeup added some color to my Pragueified complexion, giving me a sunburn, more or less. The makeup crew was English, so the idea of being brown from the sun was likely foreign to them. Breakfast was plentiful and edible, and then it was up to the set. At some point Soup Boy spotted Zoltan the Bald Serbian.

In the big marble building, boomy and chilly despite the fierce gas-powered heaters roaring away, we were herded around for a bit, down some stairs and into the chamber that housed the set. I will not describe the set, not only because of the confidentiality agreement, but also because I’m lazy, and it would take a lot of words to convey. I found myself standing next to what I call “Dead man Beating a Dead Horse” (that is not the official title). There were probably a couple hundred of us extras, maybe more, and we were instructed in the correct milling around techniques. A few rehearsals, and then we stood around while they got ready for the actual shot.

All that milling practice, hundreds of people working to perfect the milling while assistant directors rushed about with specific milling instructions, was for less than a second of film time as the camera turned from the multitude to the key characters. Or so I’m told. Then the characters do some acting and stuff; the actual shot lasts perhaps ten seconds. Of course those roaring heaters were not running, and the chamber was rapidly cooling off. Why do all those Miami residents have gooseflesh? Yes, it got downright chilly. The cold was nothing compared to the boredom; we finally had a keeper after two hours.

Soup Boy and I, separated during the first shot by aesthetically-inclined assistants who didn’t like the violent reaction between the very different floral patterns of our shirts, drifted back together while the lighting and cameras were being reconfigured for the next shot. At one point another assistant, a swift and competent British guy who had been trying to load the shot with people who looked Floridian, snatched us from our appointed stations to move us closer to the action.

Much closer. After some figuring and a bit of practice, the shot started with yours truly and Soup Boy moving one direction around an object while the camera moved behind the object, tracking us as the Interesting People came into view. They packed in the extras to fill the frame; It was not easy to get us all through that little zone, but here’s the cool part: every time they adjusted something, they made sure that “The Lads” (Soup Boy and I) kept doing the same thing, because it was working so well. After each take they would talk to other actors, extras, cameramen, and whatnot, then turn to us and say, “You Lads were perfect.” (OK, sure, it wasn’t that challenging—really damn easy, to be honest—and a couple of times we weren’t perfect, but it still felt pretty cool.) The entire shot depended on the speed I set moving through. No, not rocket science, not at all, but responsibility, and when things got crowded at the end of the shot Soup Boy and I had to be low-grade acrobats as well. It was easily the most enjoyable part of the day. (At least, as far as shooting was concerned; there’s also the lovely and talented Belladonna…)

It is likely that Soup Boy and I will be quite easily spotted on the Big Screen. Unless the shot doesn’t fit right, or unless the first part of the shot has to be cut to keep the flow (even then, the German Guy and the Killer both come very close to us as the Boy and I inspect the odd, vaguely disturbing object), or unless I’m obscured by the object the whole time, or unless…

On the other hand, in that shot we were quite obviously moving in the direction opposite that of the main characters. So, as the action proceeded through the setting, our reappearance would have been jarring. Bottom line, there was no more work for us this day. Not that anyone said, “Right Lads, looking ahead, I’d say you’re done.” At eleven thirty we left the set, never to return, but we were not released to go home until seven in the evening. Zoltan the Bald Serbian was nowhere to be found to tell us what the deal would be the next day, so we had to ask around among extras working for other agencies. We go back tomorrow, and there’s no guarantee they will be able to use us, ever. With gutsy performances filled with Raw Truth as ours were, well, the moviegoing public is just not ready for more than a few seconds of us. I can accept that.


4 thoughts on “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille!

  1. Hah! great story. Someday you’ll have to tell us exactly how “milling around” is done.

    A reintroduction to soup boy and his connections would be nice. I know you’ve talked about him before, but I don’t remember it, and I’m too lazy to search.

  2. I have to disagree with you on the ‘it wasn’t that challenging’ line. Working with ‘actors’ can be terribly gruelling. For instance, I know a guy who was recently an extra for the filming of Charlottes Web. All he had to do was stand next to the pig. After the first couple of rehearsals, he looked sideways at the pig. The pig was staring at him, he stared back, the pig stared some more, he kept staring, thinking ‘I ain’t gonna be stared down by some pig’, the director called ‘action!’, and immediately the pig went berserk; screeching and kicking. Needless to say, my friend (who also goes by the moniker of ‘Jerry’) was relegated to the milling masses.

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