Selling Soap – Life On Set

Ah, the glamor, the heady days of wine, women and song! Ah, the grinding tedium and long hours.

My life as a fake lab assistant began in the inky black long before dawn. I wasn’t sure how frequent the metro was that early in the morning, so I gave myself plenty of time to wait for the train and to make my connection. As a result, I was at the designated meeting point long before I needed to be. Better early than late, I figure, proving that I am not Czech. It was raining, so I stood in the shelter of the metro station entrance and waited to be collected.

More folks arrived, and then a production assistant showed up to gather us in. There were perhaps ten or so of us there, and the assistant had with her a list of the people she was expecting. My name was not on the list. “Great,” I thought, “I can go back to sleep.” No such luck; apparently I was a special extra, and those on the list were mere garden-variety extras. Even now I’m not sure what the distinction is, except I probably got paid more than those on the list. It’s good to be special.

At 6:15 we marched over to the empty factory building that housed the set, and shortly I was sent to wardrobe, where I was given slacks to wear instead of jeans, while the other guy in there was given jeans to wear instead of slacks. I was given a different sweater and warned that it would be cold on set. Over to makeup where they did a quick paint job on my face but left my beard scruffy, then breakfast. One thing I’ll say about this production, they had good grub, and plenty of it.

The production manager filled me in on what was going on. “You will be working in a funny mad scientist’s laboratory.” The lab-coated extras huddled in a knot and we were eventually deployed around a large set filled with old electronics and lots and lots of chemistry equipment, dish washers, and various permutations of the dishwasher detergent we were selling. All around were flasks filled with brightly-colored liquids, but as I watched, all but the blue ones were emptied into a bucket. And so began a long, slow pattern. They would set things up according to the plan. The gaffers would set up the lighting, the extras would be given their assignments, and the directior would decide he didn’t like it. An unplanned hour would pass as they redid everything, and then we would go through a series of rehersals to make sure the lab would appear uniformly busy.

The second shot of the day took especially long. The accident-prone scientist is walking through the lab and everyone is avoiding him. I was given a tray of glasses and was quite relieved when a PA taped them down. I was the last one the scientist encountered in the sequence, so my timing was dependent on how all the other encounters went.

“More glasses on the tray,” the director said, “and don’t stick them down.” So now I’m holding a tray full of glasses and dodging the main guy while going down stairs. We did lots and lots of takes, first to get the timing right and then to get isolated shots of the individuals in the sequence. It is a small miracle that I got through the scene without glassware destruction, and I came very, very close a couple of times, but finally we were done. I set down the tray with a sigh of relief. It was about 12:45, and we had about 7 seconds of the commercial in the can. (It was actually a set of similar commercials for a range of the company’s products; I estimate the total time of all the pieces needed was about two minutes.)

After that, is was much like my first day on the James and the Giant Explosive Device shoot. I had been prominently featured moving away from the action, so I wasn’t going to be much use for a while. Sure enough, that was it for me that day. My only tasks for the rest of the day were keeping warm (not easy), reading, and visiting the food tables from time to time. Had it been warmer, it would have been a good way to spend an afternoon, and a guaranteed disaster for any diet. At 8:15 p.m. I was released. Fourteen hours of action-packed fun!

Because of my specialness a van picked me up the next morning, allowing me to sleep another half hour. Special or not, I spent almost no time at all on the set for the sixteen hours I was there. I was released at 11 p.m. The shoot was running late, and they had desperately wanted to not have shots with extras slip into the next day. (Not desperate enough that they didn’t completely redo the set three times for one shot.) They still had some shots with extras for the next day, but I didn’t have to go back.

It is unlikely I will ever see the final result, but for those of you in Europe (and America too, for all I know), if you see an ad for Sun dishwashing detergent, look for a lab assistant with a scruffy beard going to gray. That’s me!

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