I spent today as an extra on a movie set. I’ve done this before, but it’s been several years.
I remain wowed by the movie-making process. I’ve been in awe of it since I was a little girl, checking out book after book about it and wondering how I could become part of that process, what part I could play.
I’ve been fortunate enough to able to participate in this process about a dozen times. Sporadically, and perhaps not with the big-name stars or big budgets that I dreamed would be part of my life’s work, but I’ve appeared in several low-budget movies myself, a couple of which I actually starred in, and have been part of a few bigger budget things as an extra. I still think it’s a cool thing to do if you have the time, patience and inclination to watch this process unfold. When I lived in Los Angeles, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the sheer volume of neon signs I saw in my neighborhood for shows and movies that were shooting so close to home, and yet I was forbidden to participate in the process in any fashion by the person I was living with. I never felt so close to the action and yet had it so far out of reach. It was cruel.
I came to the set as prepared as I could. I brought snacks and water, and a good book. There’s a lot of waiting on a set. I talked with a lot of newbies who had never done it before and explained as best I could why things took so long, what was happening and about how much of the small slice we were participating in that is a dot on the canvas of the larger picture of the movie we are a part of making.
It was much, much colder than anticipated. We never got near the forecast of party cloudy and 73, and we were out in a big, open area on top of a hill, and it was windy and cloudy, and looked like it might rain. I think it was around 54, and we were outside for hours. At a “summer festival,” so most people had to wear t-shirts. It was brutal, man, brutal.
I was paired up with a young girl for most of the day, and we decided to pal around together in our scenes and try to stick together. Most of the extras were townspeople, who, given the area where and genre of the film, are a genteel, Christian folk, and she and I recognized each other as decidedly neither of those, so we hooked up and had some laughs. At first the only person I had to talk to was a former preacher who worked at Wal-Mart, so my new friend was a decidedly better pairing. She’s young, in college, having taken some classes where I went to school, so we talked a little about that. She’s transferring to another school to focus more on film, and thought this would be a good experience – her first exposure to the process.
We really chewed up the scenery with our silent talk during the shoot (you have to mouth words as an extra, but cannot actually talk). We were placed pretty close together for our scenes and so I started asking her questions – silently – and she would answer, and then she asked me things back. It was good lip reading practice for me, which I’m practicing more and more as I continue to slowly lose my hearing. It was also amazing to me how quickly I wanted to start using my hands to talk – I took a couple of years of ASL in college and it’s like all of a sudden when the mouth is stifled, I go to my hands for communication almost as a reflex, even though my sign is rudimentary at best. Of course I know the girl I was hanging with doesn’t know it, but it’s amazing how the reflex is to show when you can’t talk, and how much of that is intuitive. That alone was a cool acting exercise for me, in a way.
After we got to know each other better during our talk-that-wasn’t-talk, we decided to give ourselves a back story, so that when our scene was taking place, we wouldn’t just sit there empty headed repeating the same phrase, pretending to eat fake food and not looking convincing. We decided we were a romantic couple who was spending the day at the festival trying to decide if we should break up. The irony of being a gay couple in a Christian film wasn’t lost on either of us and we laughed and laughed (quietly!) each time they’d yell “cut!” We had all this dialogue without even voicing our words, about whether or not she was going to leave, and what was wrong with our relationship. When she was directed to cross away from me and I to follow her, we decided she had said something unpleasant and I was following her to finish the argument. We huddled together in between takes because we were both literally shivering so hard we thought we’d break. I wrapped my scarf around both our hands and we laughed at our fake back story, fleshing it out with details in between takes and camera set ups. It was fun to make a new friend just for the day, and made the time pass easily.
When we finally moved indoors for more festival scenes, we were positioned at a corner to make chit-chat, and a 3rd girl was assigned to join us. So we decided the new girl was the reason for our “breakup,” and let her in on our fake back story. She was also game to participate, and we spent all our takes having this really subtle, silent, mouthed conversation about the “younger woman” and my crowe’s feet and stuff. Honestly, it was awesome, like we were having our own movie, though we never lost sight of the main action and what was happening, and kept our gestures and expressions small. We were just background people at a festival, doing our own little thing, playing our own little parts.
In between, everywhere I looked, I saw the magic happening. Panels and lights flying around. Crew and cast everywhere like busy ants, makeup and hair touching up the stars so they looked beautiful, equipment and cables everywhere like black snakes.I felt I was a part of something really, really cool.
This was a great way to spend the day in honor of a former acting professor and director of mine, who died unexpectedly last week, and whose funeral was today. I could not go, as it was too far for me to journey. But I felt engaged in my trained craft all freaking day, and when I finally left at the end of the day, exhausted beyond belief, I felt satisfied in my soul, like I had spent the day doing good work that answered the call of my childhood.
Rest easy, Dr. Alan Benson, and thanks for all the sage advice and gentle guidance.