Extra, Take Two

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Last Wednesday, I got called by the casting company to go be a part of Friday Night Lights filming on Thursday. Of course, I went.

Now, I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that before I was even off the phone with the casting assistant, I was mentally preparing exactly what I would wear, how I would do my hair, and what I would bring with me to read/do ("Oh hi, Connie. Teach you how to knit? Sure!"). So on Thursday I stuffed my Lopi Lace Scarf, my latest New Yorker, and about a gazillion changes of clothing into my teeny little backpack and headed north to the set.

Parking was a breeze. I pulled into the Arbor parking lot a little before 4:15. I parked, hoisted my "backpack" out of my trunk and meandered in the direction of a large white trailer that looked official. No one else, however, was meandering with me. Still, just beyond the trailer was a big white tent with tables set up and about ten people milling about, filling out their vouchers and talking shop. I knew that this was going to be a small shoot, but I began to worry that this was going to be smaller than I anticipated. You see, as much as I love being an extra, two things scare me to death: 1) cameras and 2) acting. Needless to say, my Hollywood career is safely limited blurry person in crowd scene. I sat down at one of the tables, breezed through my pay voucher like an old hand. By the time I finished, another 20 people had arrived and it looked like more were on their way.

Then it was off to wardrobe and here is where I felt woefully unprepared. The directions for being an extra involve bringing several changes of fall clothing. I thought long and hard about both the outfit I was wearing (dark jeans, black camisole, wool Abercrombie and Fitch sweater) and what I had brought (long sleeved button down blouse in muted pink, a bright purple cowl neck sweater, a standard long sleeved t-shirt and another pair of jeans - lighter in color in case what I was wearing was "too dark"). I left the house feeling well equipt, but my fellow extras were pulling rolling suitcases full of clothing. I swear, women had brought their entire winter wardrobes with them.

I arrived at the front of the line, prepared to plead my case that layers are the ultimate fall wear and I had several sweaters in my bag and please don't send me home.[1] The very nice wardrobe assistant glanced at me, told me I looked fine. I shoved my sweaters back into my bag and headed back into the tent.

The extras kept trickling in, and, in total, there were about 100 of us. I listened to several rounds of "If you have filled out your voucher, but have been approved by wardrobe, please step outside and get in line." I took out my scarf and worked a few rows, realized that I'd forgotten a yarn over in the first row, back knitted some. Worked another row and got distracted by another announcement (final call for wardrobe), and messed up again. Put away my knitting and pulled out my New Yorker. And thus, the sitting and waiting began.

It was during this time that I realized that there is a whole culture of extras, people who know the production assistants by name, who recount war stories of 'the night they ran out of food,' who refer to the principles by their first names and as if they had just had them over for dinner the night before. One in particular had seated herself at our table and she chatted constantly about the last gig, the 6 a.m. call time, being down on the field during the last game. I nodded politely and tried not to take my eyes off my magazine.

After about an hour, the PAs began to move through crowd and picking out youngish looking guys and "hot" girls. This group was taken out to wardrobe and most of the men returned in fairly thugish looking clothing. They were told to sit in a corner near the front of the tent. Another PA stood on a chair and instructed us that we were going to go to the theater soon. He explained that we were to look like we were watching a movie and that at times we would be expected to pantomime. He demonstrated what this meant by pantomiming the rest of his speech, to which he received a wry chuckle from the crowd.

It looked like we weren't going to get a real meal, so I meandered up to the front of the tent to check out the nourishments. There was a tub full of animal crackers, a bowl of Tootsie Rolls, and a cooler of Gatorade, none of which are on the South Beach Diet food list. I meandered away from the food table and outside the tent. I fiddled with my cell phone and talked to another regular about how to get cast again (call them every week and see what work they have).

Finally, we were off to the theater. We lined up against the outer wall while two different PAs gave us more instructions -- be quiet, do not touch the light balloon, look out for wires, do not chnage your seats, and for God's sake do not touch the light balloon. We filed into the theater. As we entered the doors, we some of us were handed props. I selected a styrofoam cup in hopes it was filled with water, but no such luck. Sprite. Also not on the SBD food list.

Once in the theater, a PA assigned me an aisle seat next to another girl. Two rows in front of me, Gaius Charles ("Smash" Williams) was talking with someone who looked vaguely directorial. Behind him sat Neiko Mann (who plays Smash's little sister). They were going over some choreography for a fight. I tried to act uber-cool and not watch, but I failed. I am, by nature, a gawker and I found myself mesmerized by everything that was going on. There was, indeed, a gigantic light balloon being maneuvered by four PAs. The unit director was going through stage direction with four young men in front of me. Tony was moving people from one seat to another to fill out the theater.

Once we were all settled, the unit director gave us some instructions about the shoot. We were all from the Dillon's north side and we are racists. Okay, he didn't say racists. He said that we were not used to seeing an African American in our movie theater. He said that we might even be a little uncomfortable with it. So, yeah. Racists.

After that, we went through the shoot, stopping at specific places in the scene. The gist of the scene is that Smash's sister is getting heckled by the one of the guys in front of me. Smash is going to come up and tell him to knock it off. The heckler is going to mutter a derogatory racial remark and Smash is going to beat the tar out of him. Right in front of me.

For the first couple of takes, the audience didn't do anything. However, for the takes that would include the fight, we were told to react naturally. Tony explained that for me that meant whispering to the girl next to me. Uh huh. My natural reaction to a fight breaking out in front of me would be to get the hell out of there. That wasn't an option, though. Other extras were told to stand, to look at a certain person, to put their feet in the seat, etc. We rolled again, this time with the fight.

Now, for this take, camera "C" was positioned right next to my temple so when I looked up at the movie screen, in my peripheral vision I could see the camera. I spent most of the take telling myself to not sneeze on the camera.

After the next take, the director decided we needed blood. This turned out to be a fairly controversial decision as there was no good way for the actor to actually get the blood. There was discussion about securing a cup of it to the back of the seat. About having a little package on him to begin with. Finally it was decided to cut the bottom off one of the cups and rest it in the drink holder in the row behind the heckler. The makeup artist expressed some concern about getting blood on the extras and I thought, as cool as this is, I really like my sweater and I don't want blood on it. The director instructed the actor not to spill the blood, and viola! Crisis averted.

We did the fight (with blood) a two times more and then the crew switched to the back of the theater and we did it all over again. Finally, the director declared a wrap on that scene and all the principles headed out to the lobby to film the next scene. Tony and another PA picked out a smaller group to be lobby patrons and the rest of us were dismissed.

It was fun. I feel like I got to experience what John did when he was a Dillon assistant coach: getting to see the action up close and even more interesting, experiencing some of the behind the scenes goings on. That said, I'm glad I did the football game first. It gave me a little more understanding of what my role was (sit and don't do anything until they tell you to) and I felt a lot more comfortable having a camera merely centimeters from my face.

Also, it was a lot of fun to work in a group this small. There was a lot of camaraderie among the extras and the crew. Lots of joking. Lots of laughter. After every take, there was almost a collective sigh from the actors. You could tell that they were really experiencing the tension of the moment, but then letting it go almost the minute that the cameras weren't rolling. The PAs would talk to us, tell us about movies they'd done or seen.

So, I'd like to do this again. I'll definitely go to the next games, but, writer's strike willing, I'd really love to work on a smaller set again. You know, with Tony. . . and Kyle. . . and remember that one time that we shot that fight scene. . .

[1] I found out later that very rarely do people get sent home for wearing inappropriate clothing. Instead, wardrobe assigns them clothing, takes their voucher and they don't get it back until they turn in their clothing at the end of the night, pretty much making sure they are the last people in line. On a night like the football game from hell, I'm pretty sure being sent home would be a much better option.