I only write what I don’t care if the world reads. It’s sort of similar to a captain entering information in the captain’s log. Alas, I don’t have great sea battles and sunken treasure to write about, but an occasional anecdote does get entered if I’m feeling up to it. Check it out! Or don’t. I’m easy like that.
Latest Entry: Saturday, June 24, 2017
LET’S GO TO THE MOVIE…SHOOT
Aaaand–ACTION! I took in the spectacular scene: the thick white smoke permeating the air, giving the illusion of countless cigarettes; the crowd cheering or groaning for its champions, waving money and fists alike; the fighters acrobatically sailing through the air, doing their best to nail the moment and become the next champion.
It was downright mesmerizing. This was where magic is made. What was conceived in someone’s mind had been moved to paper, and was now coming to life right in front of me.
And I was a part of it.
I hadn’t been on a movie set in a very long time. Quite a few years in fact. It was exciting to return to where all the magic takes place.
The reason for my sabbatical of course was the “day job.” Previously, I would have to use vacation time to sign up for any background work or any significant acting work for that matter, and I was saving my vacation time for, well, for actually going on vacation, traveling to Europe, or Seattle, or otherwise. Thus, I hadn’t been too keen on doing a lot of extra work. In fact I even discontinued my account at SFCasting.com. It was too painful to see the opportunities and not engage in them.
But time went by, and my work situation changed, resulting in having time to play once more. During Father’s Day dinner, I had learned that my brother Andy and my dad were doing some background work for a current film shoot. To explain: “background work” means “extra work.” Not sure why they went and changed it, or perhaps it’s an interchangeable term now or just a more pleasant word, which means exactly the same thing, but whatever. Sometimes you just got to go with it.
Even though I wasn’t registered on the casting site, it sounded like an open invitation for people to just sign up and show up. Usually that means they’re trying to get as big crowd as possiblewhich means less chance for any significant face time (or moments when people can actually see you and recognize you in a movie or television show). My interest wasn’t terribly high.
But my brother sent me a text message saying that they were also looking for an extra to be a “shirtless fighter.” Oh? Well, that sounded more fun. Mind you, I’m not against cattle calls. It’s just I’ve done them in the past and I now prefer to try something more substantial. We don’t do this for the money. At least not large background scenes. But “shirtless fighter,” you say? I can take off my shirt for money. (I rarely get that request after all, though I certainly welcome it.)
I emailed and expressed my interest in being this so-called shirtless fighter. I had years of martial arts training. My punches and kicks were solid. I could even fight choreograph if need be. Sign me up! I’m so there! (Note: my actual email was not this desperate of pathetic.)
I didn’t receive much response. After a day or so, I tried again. But no luck. I did get an email about the general casting call and finally one saying, “I think you will be a shirtless fighter…” Eh, good enough. It might have been more of way to collect another background person. Eh, so what. There was no big reason not to at least give it a shot. Besides, it would be fun to attend a film shoot with my brother and dad. (Heck, I was the one that once did all this movie stuff before they started. I got Andy his first acting gig and now he does much more than I do. And he’s now SAG!)
The call time was 1pm but one never wants to chance arriving late due to traffic, so we all met at 9:30 am to head up early. As I had the biggest car, I volunteered to drive the Lexus SUV allowing everyone to ride up comfortably. I had gotten almost enough rest to not be sleepy on the ride up. It would have to suffice.
We arrived around 11:30am, still 90 minutes early. At least I thought we arrived. The address was supposed to be 170 Todd Road, but we were in an empty lot (too early?) There was no sign of a movie shoot, so we went back up the road a short ways and voila: a sign about the shoot. From there, we turned and followed a tight road to a large empty parking lot.
THE BACKGROUND WAREHOUSE
The background coordinator or “extras wrangler” was there so we were able to sign in early. In fact, I think we were the first ones. No long line! Wahoo! There were tables and chairs set up. We sat and waited.
It was already fairly warm outside and even warmer in the warehouse. Craft services began bringing water bottles and then large containers of water. People trickled in over the next couple of hours. It was a lot of sitting around. I had brought along a book but it’s hard to read with so much excitement going on. One constantly was looking around to see who was new, how many were arriving, and what sort of competition was present. In actuality, no one is really competing. It’s not an audition. And being seen on camera was more about having the luck or the Irish and the look of a 1981 person who visits illegal fight clubs. Even so, one still looks.
And full disclosure: a lot of beautiful women were showing up toowith very “competitive outfits.” Yes, we all want face time.
Craft services also brought snacks. There were candies, chips, fruit, and granola bars. Shocking news, I’m sure, but I ate almost none of the candy. No sugar rush crashes for me. Too long of a day for that. But an orange? Sure, I could enjoy an orange.
The crowd grew larger over time and by the 1pm call time, over 150 people were there. More arrived in the next half hour and we were soon over 200 extras. I think the final count was close to 240 extras. Well then. The afternoon would be interestingand crowded.
I was still curious about “shirtless fighter.” My dad said he was told I was a backup for that part. That would have to do. I had no information at all. After seeing so many musclebound people arrive, it became clear that there were countless people to choose from. Some of them looked like professional bodybuilders.
They called off about five names and it was then clear that those would be the chosen few. I wasn’t entirely sure what their roles would involve. I think they were then called “shirtless bikers.” Would they be doing anything fancy?
We were all summoned to be in a long line. It’s always a decisive moment then. That line affects where you stand, and where you stand affects how likely you are to be seen in the final film. Again, most are not there for the money. The idea is to make the final cut. Most know they have almost no chance of dialogue (zero chance for this scene if you don’t count being in crowd noise) so getting one’s mug front and center was the chief goal. And if you’re buried five rows deep, that’s probably not going to happen.
But this is more about luck. They don’t look at an actor’s resume for background work and say, “Gee! This guy has a great deal of Shakespearean training. Get him in the first row!” No, it’s more about one’s look at this point.
My look was nothing too standout. I can barely accomplish dressing correctly for the current decade, so needless to say, I had no 1980’s clothing in my wardrobe. I brought a white tank top and shorts (plus a few options of coursealways bring options). Before the line call, a costumer had gone from table to table to approve outfit choices. My only change was going from a white wife beater to a black one. Easy enough. I think that was the only brief moment I was shirtless. And after all those workouts!
After being reminded to keep the talking down, we marched single file over to the sound stage in a large warehouse, and collected either beer bottles or cups as props. At first, I grabbed a cup, though I traded it in for a beer once I became aware of that option. It’s the type of event people would be drinking beers at. Heck, that’s most types of events for me. As it was 1981, there were not big IPA options. Yes, it was fake, but I guess my fight-club character had no idea of the great tasting craft beers that would eventually arrive in decades to come. Oh, woe is he in his blasé beer un-enlightenment.
There was a fighting ring set up in the middle of the warehouse, with lights surrounded it and a large overhanging LED panel to light it from above, giving it a very legit ambiance once the stage smoke was turned on. Around the set were all the equipment pieces you’d expect to find on a film set: cameras, monitors, rigs, and lots of cables. Actually, massive cable bundles have been somewhat reduced to a large degree due to wireless transmitters. But power cords for lights are still necessary. It was a full crew too: director, AD (assistant director who has a megaphone and sort of runs the show according to the director’s whims and wishes), cameramen, sound engineers, makeup personal, costumers, light engineers, screenwriter, fight choreographer. And there were assistants to all these people. Even without a super fancy set, this was an expensive shoot. Hundreds of people were on set this day. One starts to quickly see why those end-of-movie credits roll for so long until the last attendee has exited the theatre and the lights come up leaving the ushers to once again wonder why movie theaters turn normally decent human beings into guiltless slobs.
Another wrangler or production assistant came through the line and collected people in small groups to be placed around the ring. Now “The Ring” was where it was at. Since the principals were doing nearly all their stuff in there, you wanted to be close as possible. “Ringside” was paramount for face time.
Again, forget any training or fancy schooling. Here, it came down only to look. Andy’s friends had show up with solid latino period outfits which displayed a “tough guy” and gritty look. The placement guy knew he wanted them in the first row. Luckily (and perhaps with a little “I’m with them” attitude), I was part of this group so away we all went, right down to the ring section, to the ring, and finally…
Now, aside from having to stand for about eight hours, there was nothing but upside to this staging position. More and more people were set in placearound the ring or up in the three surrounding stands. Those in the stands could at least sit for the most part, but they would be harder to see on camera. The crowd on the “approach” would probably get seen as the main fighter came down to the ring, but then be missed for the rest of the shoot. Tradeoffs. All in all, ringside was the choice spot, pole position, if you will.
At some point, the placement guy asked if someone from the stand behind us could give up a seat to allow an older lady to sit down since the heat was getting to her. A guy volunteered pretty quickly. The crewman then asked where he would like to stand.
“At ringside,” he said without missing a beat. Okay, wish granted. Another lady also asked to be there since there were still openings. The crew guy agreed. I’m surprised everyone didn’t ask at that point, but the room was now limitedand it would soon cause an issue anyway with this lady and guy.
I also noticed that the “shirtless fighter”well, now pluralwere not doing anything extra at all. They were stationed at places around the ring, just minus their shirts. Still, in this heat, that was a bonus. They were also noted as “shirtless bikers,” although perhaps not gritty enough in reality. One extra was fairly young for that, but I suppose he could have been a prospect. No one informed him, though, that wearing pants below the underwear line was just not done then. You’re out of period, son! Kris Kross wouldn’t come on the scene for another decade. (Yes, backwards pants, but still a little senseless.)
So yeah, all the craziness about trying to ensure I was a “shirtless fighter” was completely unnecessary. They had no special extra part in this scene. Somehow I’d even wondered if it was going to mean being in the ring at some point, maybe some choreography. A line or two?
Nah, nothing like that. Ah, the good old delusions of grandeur that amass in our heads. It’s comical if you think about it.
After being in place a while, the lead talent started coming in. I recognized Tommy Flanagan right away. He looked just like he does in “Sons of Anarchy,” but wore a vest and slacks instead of a biker gang outfit with a skull and scythe. He was about the height I’d guessed and certainly had a playful nature about him, keeping the crowd entertained from time to time. The other principals were fairly unknown to me though accomplished actors nevertheless. One young lady entered the ring and posed while someone took photos for her. I then assumed she was a principal. No extra would be so daring and risk ejection from the set.
At first, there were no set cameras in the pit or around it. One was placed high up to get the crowd and ring from afar. Later, the other cameras would be handhelds or Steadicams.
Flanagan would start things off with a speech announcing the fight. Then a choreographed fight would take place and be repeated many times. Since film has different angles and zoom levels, the actors were able to simply pause and restart a fight combination over and over if it wasn’t perfect. They wanted to get it right.
During breaks, the fight choreographer would come in a polish things up and go over the combos. Flanagan would goof around or the “girlfriend” would flirt with the others. It was all fun to watch. They were having a great time, despite the difficult work of putting an intricate fight scene together. The risk level was a bit high as well. Wanting to get it real meant fairly close punches and kicks. One big mistake could have ended the shoot instantly.
Yet no mistakes of that nature were made. These folks trained hard for this.
THE DISSOLUTION OF MAGIC
I try to advise people before taking on extra work of one particular warning. It’s not that there will be a lot of sitting around and waiting. People already can assume that. It’s not about minimum wage either; with over 240 extras, obviously they’re not paying bank.
No, I caution people that working on a film set can effectively destroy the illusion of movies to some extent.
Don’t get me wrong. I can still enjoy a good flick (well, if it’s a good flick) perfectly fine, but I do find myself occasionally pulled from the magic of a scene to start thinking about what is taking place behind the camera (or off to the side). One might start wondering if they’re shooting in 24 or perhaps 48 for potential slow motion. One might think about what he or she would be doing if cast as one of the many extras. Or what the sound stage looks like, or how close the camera is for a particular zoom, or well, many things really.
I can still immerse myself in a movie and if I’m pulled out of it by reality, it’s usually just during a large crowd scene, and not for very long (though if I try NOT to think about it, I only think about it more). It’s part of the price one pays for getting involved. Movies are a type of magic, and once you know exactly how the illusion is pulled off, the trick does lose a bit of its luster.
In short, one starts to know a little too much.
Though it’s not the mafia. You’re not going to get whacked for it.
Though I wonder if a mob movie has different rules.
You probably already know what this word means, but if not, go look it up now. I’ll wait. This section won’t make too much sense otherwise.
1981. That’s the year things are taking place. But wait, not really. It’s 2017 after all. We are merely simulating this past time. And while that means it’s recreating the 1980s, is it really? 1981 likely had a lot of residue from the late 1970s. Hair bands, bright colors, punk clothingcertainly all would come more into play in this showy and glam-filled decade, but much of it towards the middle and latter part.
No, 1981 was the year of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” of “Superman II,” of “Arthur.” People went to concerts of “Journey” or “Genesis.” “Charlie’s Angels” was finishing its run while MTV made its debut. Music, film, and television. Those are society’s fashion trendsetters and effectively its dictators. One simply obeys and follows along, no matter how odd or illogical the choices are.
And this all matters because it’s a tricky year to dress for. Though nothing helps more than actual evidence. When in doubt, look at dated photos from that year. Those will tell you exactly how people dressed. The casting folks had sent a couple of scanned photos and they helped. But would all follow the examples?
In general, yes, with some notable exceptions.
The background men and women seemed to avoid the teased hair (and severe fire hazard with all that Aqua Net) that came along with the later part of the decade. The clothing choices weren’t too out of place, although there were a few flagrant violations of low-hanging pants. If anything, the period suffered from just the opposite: pants tight enough to act as birth control by suffocating any and all sperm count. At some point society just went from one extreme to the other (societies are silly like that). But overall, most of the people who showed up were smart enough to know how to dress. And how many could say precisely just what 1981 apparel consists of?
The other problematic anachronistic giveaway was ink. In 1981, tattoos were more common for sailors and biker gangs. Skin artwork just wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. This is something for any aspiring actor to consider: if you’re hoping to do acting work that includes bygone eras, be conscientious of your artistic choices. It may affect “product placement” or what work you’ll be able to compete for.
THE HEAT IS ON
“Man, it’s hot. It’s like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot.” Eugene, “Biloxi Blues”
We were in a warehouse. And there were over 300 bodies. And lights. And yeah, it was hot. During breaks in shooting, an industrial cooling fan would blow. It might have helped. Hard to say. I had a beer bottle as a prop that had a small amount of liquid which I assumed to be water, but I never actually tested out my theory. Others apparently did, as they would fill their bottles or cups when the “water boy” came around from time to time. I passed on that. I knew my limits; I was a long way from dehydration. I also didn’t want my bladder full.
In fact, that’s something aspiring extras should be aware of: you’re expected to stay in place until break time, and that can often take hours. We were warned of this before going on. It was not unlike a long car ride with one’s parents when little: “Make sure you go before we leave! It’s a long car ride!” I wasn’t going to be the one guy out of hundreds to have to stop everything and ask to pull over so I could find a bush.
Though again, the weather was hot. And that meant drinking lots of water in the waiting area. I took advantage of the “last chance” call at least twice. And then stopping guzzling water, even though I felt pretty darn hot.
For anyone who knows me, that should tell you a lot. If I’m getting too hot, then it’s likely a bad sign for all others. I usually have a high tolerance for the heat. The crowd was sweating as much as the actors doing the fighting.
After four hours, we broke for lunchalthough it was past 6pm then. We returned our bottles and cups to the prop tables and then headed to the background lunch line (equity ate separately). The others did, I should say. I waited for the line to die down. I’d done enough standing for a while. I could afford to sit a few minutes until the line was gone. If the food ran out, I’d improve my diet by that much more. Plus, it irks me to have food on my plate if other people don’t get fed at all. Going long periods without eating won’t cause me to faint or get grumpy, though I know that’s not true for most. Still, I wagered they had brought enough too feed everyone.
And I was right. Okay, most of it was gone, but enough remained for me to get a light lunch. I try not to overeat at events like that (or ever). A small snack would be fine. It was Chinese food for the most part and pretty tasty. Another long line then formed for the dessert: ice creamand many different choices. I passed on that. Again, smart choices. I do love ice cream but I didn’t want to be weighted down literally. A little hunger makes me more energetic and think more clearly.
During this time, the evening air was cooling off to a large degree. The heat would no longer be a problem. Even the “shirtless bikers” were making use of their shirts once again. I was hoping I wouldn’t end up being too cold, though I knew I’d survive either way.
THE RING: PART II
Lunch being done, we returned to the set. Everyone went back to his or her original spot. Almost everyone, I should say. I noticed changes. Some had left. Others “moved up.” Certainly, this would affect continuity in editing, yet at some point, it has to just be good enough. There’s no viable way to make it perfectespecially with so many as essentially volunteer people. The break didn’t help that situation, though the break was legally necessary. Those that left early would likely not get paid at allbut maybe background work wasn’t all they thought it would be. A few seemed like they themselves would excel at the bare-knuckle brawling, appearing to be trained MMA fighters. Yet, this “fight” was for Hollywood actors, not them.
Now came the issue with the two people who had been moved into place. At some point during the “fight,” the girlfriend and a beat-up guy on crutches (my guess is that the character had lost a big fight previously to the villain) arrived and they had to squeeze in. The ringside people had to move over, and this caused some quarreling between the two people who were added there last (the ones from the stands). They were bickering with each other about having enough room to still be ringside, for the addition of the two principals now made this tough. Understandably, no one wanted to be squeezed out of any shots, though it was awkward being next to all this. I suppose it seems trivial to most; however, both of them were there to get in the film. Neither wanted to be edged out. At least it never evolved to the level of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
It’s frowned upon to take photos at a film shootat least outside the background waiting area. Many times, warnings are made that offenders will be asked to leave. We actually got no warning (at least not in my area) until the post-lunch half of the shoot. And truth be told, some just aren’t big on rules. During the action, all certainly obeyedas a smartphone would ruin a shot and result in someone ejected right away. Also, before filming had started, the crew had been savvy enough to tell everyone to keep their phones in their back pockets. (Rectangular squares in front pockets weren’t too common in 1981.) Also, aside from one odd beep (during a pantomime), I didn’t hear any phones go off during the entire time. They didn’t even give repeated warnings or reminders about this one. People were smart enough to remember. I just powered mine down to prevent it from acting up at all. I feared that somehow my iPhone 6 would get a weird bug that would cause it to repeatedly play the theme song from “Mad Men” during a particularly important shot, causing 240 extras, the lead actors, and the film crew to glare at me like I had single-handedly suddenly delayed the “Game of Thrones” season premiere until 2018.
It’s also a given that people don’t ask to take photos with the principals. This makes sense since it prevents the leads from having to sacrifice privacy or come off as rude by declining. That said, many don’t mind (For future reference: know that I will never object to this) and enjoy either the spotlight or giving satisfaction to others (or both). I didn’t notice it happening much at all, except during a break in the fight ring when Andy’s wrestling friend asked the main guy for a photowho happily obliged. It was quick and slowed nothing downand no one objected. And the earth continued spinning on its axis.
In general, the crew played an effective hand with their options. The usual speeches were made, but not obsessed over. And with so many extras, it’s wise not to try and get crazy with enforcing perfect policy. Many present were not regular background workers but just friends of them, or people who heard about the casting call. They probably are not going to all stop using cellphones during long waits.
And as well, yanking someone out of a ringside position could really muck up shots in post productionor kill a shot entirely should they want the optimum continuity for the film.
Side note: “Film” has now become somewhat of a misnomer as so much is shot digitally these days. The look isn’t quite the same, but the cost effectiveness does allow for longer takes and more repeated ones.
We also had the leads taking various photos with each other or the crew at times, so there was that. Things worked out fine. If people are treated respectfully and professionally, more often than not, they will act as such.
And we were all treated great.
After time, the entire main fight had been taped a number of different ways. Closeups were done. Reactions were recorded. The opening monologue was perfected. They were now down to just a few final wide angle shots. About all of the extras were released who were part of the “approach line,” and really, their screen time was likely over in the first 20 minutes of taping.
At some point, the fight choreographer was doing a few stunts of his own, which were pretty impressive, involving some jumping spins and such. The “girlfriend” got in the ring and they had a small bit recorded on her cellphone. The guy recording it was the principal who was on crutches. But before he started, the villain character, Bas, instructed him to turn the camera sideways to record it.
I’m glad it’s not just me. There are others out there who know the importance of horizontal videoespecially considering that an entire film was being recorded with this method. Vertical videos are basically useless outside of a social media update, and those shots are 75% waste anyway (that “blurry area” you always see on the didn’t have to be so). For anyone wanting to ever have a decent chance of advancing in the film industry, you simply must start recording the proper (and logical!) way. Nothing screams “I am an amateur at videography!” like someone recording something vertically.
I did glace over someone’s shoulder to see the how the recording looked.
Finally, they had all their takes. There were other scenes to film and SAG rules cannot be violated (for the talent at least). They wrapped us and we were finally finished around 10pm.
Alas, my first long line of the day. I tried to delay entering it for a while since it meant needlessly standing around for a long period. But the others were already in front and more stragglers seemed to keep coming. Might as well just get it over with. Many of the extras were already dismissed, but with roughly 240 people, the line was still lengthy. I was able to strike up a conversation with the lady next to me, so that helped kill time. I’d say it was well over a half hour in the sign-out line. But no matter; one gets paid at the final moment of sign-out so it was a paid waitjust no longer with any chance of being on camera. (Note: arriving early does not result in extra pay. That’s on you.)
Once I was signed out (11:16pm), we were all free to drive home. As we headed to the car, we noticed a long line of classic automobiles that were lining up for another shoot. The crew was still working away into the night. Film shoots never follow the 9 to 5 myth. At the car, Andy pointed out that this was indeed the same parking lot that we had first turned into when arriving. I had been to the car twice during the day and never realized that the “170 Todd Avenue” was not a mistake and Google Maps was not wrong. We were in the parking lot that we first thought was the wrong location and that long thin street connected the two places.
Pulling up in the driveway, someone said, “Wow. The drive home seemed pretty fast.” Heh. Not to the driver. It was a long and painfully slow drive for me. Being completely exhausted makes long drives just achingly dull. I wasn’t so much tired as just 100% spent. And music or audiobooks weren’t an option as Andy was catching some rest since he would be getting very little rest before returning to work at 5am. So I watched the road and counted down the miles anxiously awaiting the moment I could shut off the engine.
At least there was no traffic. It was soon past midnight. As much as I wanted to open the windows and sunroof during my cross over the Benicia Bridge, I figured others would be sleeping and not really appreciate the cool wind effect of doing such an action. (It really is fun to do!)
Usually, I try to catch a quick episode of something on Netflix or Amazon Prime before bed. This time? No chance. Asleep in perhaps under a minute. And before 2am!
Now all that remains is to wait for the final cut.
For the record, I’ll be wearing a black tank top.