(LIFE OF A MOVIE EXTRA…… er, I mean…. BACKGROUND ARTIST)
As I left the house, I glanced at the outdoor thermometer. It read five below. Thankfully the car started. Once on the road, as I approached my destination, in the still-morning darkness, I turned off the main road and followed the line of red tail lights up the hill’s dirt track toward the well-lit tents above. Through the frozen tundra, I walk from the car to the first tent, greeted by warm smiles and friendly exchanges as I checked in, thankful that the changing room was amply heated.
After six prior workdays, the changeover from civilian to period western clothes was old hat now; long johns first, quickly adding shirt, pants, each with numerous buttons, suspenders, boots, jacket, work gloves and hat, all the while chatting with my fellow comrades. Next, stand in line to get grubby, as hair and makeup girls dirty you up. I look in the mirror, wondering who that desperado is that’s staring back at me.
Finished, I throw my civilian jacket over wardrobe, and walk back outside into the frigid air, trying not to slip on snow, ice and cables as I slowly venture toward the dining tent for some quick breakfast and necessary hot coffee. People are mostly subdued inside, something to do with the numbing cold.
A heavily jacketed girl with a headset steps into the tent and yells to us “The van is here!” Begrudgingly we step back out into the cold, slide into the vans and travel toward the western town that’s just beginning to emerge in the dawning light. Crawl out of the van. If the temperature rises above freezing, the snow we’re trekking through will become a muddy mess later. Somebody yells “I see Props” and we go and outfit ourselves with our guns and holsters. More salutations from bundled crew members as you stroll toward the holding facility hoping for one last cup of coffee which of course is not brewed yet. Too late anyway, you’re needed for the first shot of the day. It’s time to play make-believe. You find solace thinking at least Russell Crowe and Christian Bale look cold as well.
You glance around at your surroundings and say. “Hey, here I am, standing in the middle of a Hollywood movie, ready to play a gunman in an Old West town.” There’s only one person I know who would be silly enough to put up with these conditions for so little pay…I MUST BE A MOVIE EXTRA (or background artist as we in the business prefer to be called). Forget about my close-up shot, I thought. Just place me in the warmth of the sun!
And so begins another day as a movie extra on a movie production set. Usually the weather conditions aren’t so extreme as this particular New Mexico January day was on the set of “3:10 To Yuma”, but when they are…well, that just adds to the story.
Given these conditions, why would one want to be an Extra? Is it for the money…hardly, although for many it is a paying job which people are finding harder to come by these days. Is it for the chance to see your face on the silver screen, if only for a second? There’s the carrot on a stick enticement, the possibility of getting a speaking part, which immediately catapults you to a higher pay scale, and a cooler pair of shades. The rumor whisperers proclaim, “You know so-and-so big name actor started his career as an extra”.
How about the opportunity for a departure from the everyday routine, playing a character that’s quite different from your normal self?
Other reasons could be the social benefit the extended family bond offers that develops among fellow extras who have worked together on previous movie productions; the ability to observe moviemaking firsthand; and the ego boost you feel when you receive a friendly nod or salutation from a major movie star. And yes, there’s also a reasonable paycheck and complimentary food.
For me, it’s all these reasons, and most assuredly for the stories.
In recent years, Hollywood has arrived with a vengeance in New Mexico, a state with a moviemaking history as long as the industry itself. When I first moved here in ’94 several movie and TV productions were ongoing. A lady friend of mine told me about a casting call. I stood in line in the hotel lobby until someone in casting took my Polaroid and asked if I was available in two weeks. One surprise phone call later, I was trying on my new western wardrobe for the TV mini-series “Buffalo Girls”. I’ve been mostly available ever since.
Movie activity quickly lapsed into a lull during the late 90s; however, new tax incentives for the film industry (and our much cheaper labor force) created a resurgence in moviemaking within the past five years.
Today, while the tediously long casting call lines and Polaroid headshots have given way to new methods like Internet announcements, digital pictures and e-mailed resumes, life as an extra has remained relatively the same. One moment hasn’t changed; the way you feel after a long twelve-hour workday, having worked since before dawn to sunset; you’re cold and tired, standing in line in the dark waiting to return your wardrobe so you can check out and go home…all at once exhausted and gratified.
If you’re looking to pursue background extra work as a full-time profession, my advice would be best to keep your day job. A flexible work schedule (unemployed being the best) is a prerequisite for working as an extra. The nature of the business is to be ready to work at a moment’s notice which is near impossible if you work a regularly scheduled job.
It’s no wonder Hollywood enjoys working with us New Mexicans, and many production people will gladly state this fact. The majority of extras I’ve worked with are a very courteous, amiable, uncomplaining, cooperative, tolerant lot, far different we’re told from our “big city” cousins back in LA. Of course, even within this fine group of New Mexico extras there are always those exceptions, the annoying standouts: The Braggart, whose alleged credentials are easily challenged; the Movie Star Wannabee Schmoozer who is desperate for the big chance, willing to cling and cajole anyone who they think will help move them up the stardom ladder; and of course, every large group has at least one chronic complainer. Fortunately, these individuals get weeded out pretty fast.
I appreciate the eclectic, independent, iconoclastic type individuals who often gravitate to this flexible creative line of work: the creative, independent individuals (artisans, rock band roadies, jack of all trades); the worldly iconoclasts (hippies, travelers, philosophers); the hard-working, generous blue-collar souls who love the chance to act out different roles in the movies; the future film makers; the unemployed; the curious; those looking for a loving, caring family; musicians between gigs; ex-veteran pensioners; those people who come from unhappy homes and financial situations looking for escapism and happiness; the real cowboys; those pursuing film production careers; the good souls whose honesty and general kindness has hurt them in the cruel, real world of business; and those individuals stepping out of their habitual routines.
Learning the Hollywood lingo is part of the job’s charm: phrases such as “back to one”, “that was awesome— let’s do one more”, “martini shot”, “checking the gate”‘ “that’s a wrap”, “silence on the set”‘ “checking sound”, and “Action!” For a veteran background artist, this movie jargon coats you in a mantle that’s fun to wear.
What is a typical day on the set? Days are long. While on some productions you’re working a good portion of the day on set, often you’re waiting in some holding room or tent, perhaps hours in duration, nine hours my record, before you’re called for a scene. During these off camera moments, it’s up to you whether to make the most of the waiting situation either through social conversations or by quietly reading a book, playing cards or chess, eating snacks, or, as what happened after nine hours of waiting on the “Beerfest” movie set holding area, breakdancing and lap dancing. Otherwise, you can choose to whine, pout and be generally bored with the experience. That person can always go back to work at the exciting vocation of bank clerk.
Regretfully, as an extra you are kept mostly in the dark as to the storyline and how your small contribution applies to the context of the film. Very little is told to you about the scene or what type of character you’re playing, so often as an extra you tend to create your own character story. You hear “Action!” yelled so you begin to pantomime your imaginary dialogue with others as you sit at a table or walk down a street. Suddenly the director yells, “Great…that was awesome, everybody” and the scene is over. This means your cognitive instincts for the scene were spot on brilliant, or your presence wasn’t even on camera so it didn’t matter what the heck you were doing. I tested this theory out on “Into The West” by performing Monty Python style backward funny walks during my background crossings, and the scene was perfect; just as I thought, not on camera.
A given certainty however is when you are visible on camera, and you’re not doing what the director wants, to your knowledge or otherwise; a director’s tongue-lashing can occur, much to your humiliated chagrin.
On the rare occasion a director, AD, AAD (assistant, assistant director) or casting director actually enlightens us movie extras as to the context of the scene we’re about to film and its relevance to the screenplay, it’s greatly appreciated and helps us get motivated and enthusiastic about our role.
We’re the background color, an integral role in the scene’s final outcome. We complete the scene’s environment by bringing “the set” to life, providing the social ambiance from which the principle actors play off of, instead of forcing them to work in a vacuum.
Sometimes one’s first-time extra experience can be difficult. One poor lady on the set for “Wild, Wild West” fainted hard after succumbing to the combined effects of August heat and suffocating corset. Stoically, she tried again the next day, only to be nearly trampled by horses during the chaos scene. Never saw her again after that.
There’s an art to getting on camera without being too pushy or obvious. Get caught mugging the camera, and, like what happened to a dear friend of ours, you’re fired on the spot, which of course now provides an opportunity for someone else. The old standby, the casting couch, or trailer, or tent, can still work, at least temporarily. I have also observed that one’s chances are greatly enhanced if they work on a comedy, for there are definitely better screen opportunities for extras on comedies than in dramas. Mostly, however, the best way, which is totally out of your control, is having “the right look” that a director wants. Before you know it, you’re placed in a scene ready to confront Pierce Brosnan or Liam Neeson. Suddenly, the director yells “and…action!
Sometimes your camera time might include some interesting special effects and makeup. If you’ve been painstakingly, grotesquely rearranged by makeup artists to play a zombie, augmented with scary prosthetics, it may only be you that recognizes yourself when your scary face debuts on the screen.
I did a definite double-take on the “Unspeakable” movie prison set when I walked past Dennis Hopper’s head sitting on a table, and then Dennis Hopper himself passed me by in the corridor.
You may not sense the dramatic scene you’re participating in, when standing in front of a special effects “blue screen”; however, your jaw-dropping aghast response could measure your acting skills since you’re supposedly responding to a robotic monster reaching toward you, not a scraggly droopy-pants crew member.
On the “Beerfest” movie set, the emphasis was anything but real beer in our mugs. First, production tried an ineffective vacuum system designed to suck near-beer out of our mugs, often with hilarious results. Next procedure was to digitize the beer into our empty mugs. We as the Irish beer drinking team took mild offense at these methods since first, in reality, we would have out drank the Germans, and second, we could have easily drunk real beers in record competitive time!
And with set design it’s best not to look too closely, for during those dramatic funeral scenes, the somber cinematic mood might be broken if the audience knew who’s really written on those movie styrofoam cemetery tombstones like Yo Mama, Three Stooges and Jethro Tull.
In some instances the story behind the movie is more entertaining than the movie itself. The town of Madrid was chosen by Disney to represent the all-American town equipped with white-picket fences, flowers, lace curtains, warm local diner, and Chili festival. However, there are no white picket fences here in real life; more accurately associated with black picket teeth, gauged by some of the locals’ abusive usage of crack. The town’s decor is more raw and funky, than homespun, since its origin as a coal mining town and later, a hippie haven. The diner, now a tourist attraction, was built specifically for the movie and any true local would say, “We don’t need no stinkin’ Chile festival!”
There is the symmetry connection with Disney that is also fascinating. Flying over Madrid, an old coal mining town in the late 20s, Walt Disney was so captivated by the town’s twinkling display of Christmas lights, the scene inspired him to years later create the Disney World Parade of Lights. Disney, the corporation, had returned to pay their respects to Madrid, in their own warped corporate way.
On a number of movies our old prison has been used for multiple sets, sometimes even as an old prison such as on the movie “Unspeakable”. Over twenty years ago, the old prison had been witness to a macabre, deadly prison riot massacre and siege. Even today blood stains are still visible from that horrible event and stories ran rampant on the set about crew member’s individual experiences with ghost sightings and other eerie sensations.
I’ll often hear people ask “How do big actors behave— are the rumors true?” I know our tabloid-driven inquisitive minds want to believe the tales of prima donnas, spoiled brat temper tantrums and privileged treatments; however, in truth, the actors I’ve seen behave in a professional, conscientious manner on the set. They listen attentively to the director’s advice and vice versa. Some actors may be very personable with the extras, other more distant, staying in character or reviewing their lines. Some actors are very at ease, taking the off camera moment to ride their horses or ride their motorcycles between scenes.
Sometimes you overhear the actor’s occasional disgruntled tone which some production member tried to quickly assuage. Heck, you hear those tones from us all the time. It was difficult however to restrain from giggling or yelling “Martin, come on!” when Martin consistently arrived on the “Wild Hogs” Madrid set with his bodyguard entourage, driven in a Mercedes golfcart for the arduous three blocks from his triple-decker luxury bus while a beautiful assistant carried a mini-fan to keep him cool.
The film and TV industry has been so prolific throughout the Santa Fe/Albuquerque/Las Vegas region, your daily distinctions between fiction and reality begin to blur. The moment felt surreal when, after having watched “Swing Vote”, I left the movie theater only to pass the same grandstand featured in the movie on Rodeo Road just ten minutes later. Blink, look again, and there’s “Astronaut Farmer’s” country fair.
South of town there’s one rural stretch where I expect to come across the simultaneous convergence of “Wild Hogs” bikers, Billy Bob Thorton’s rocketship, and a rough-looking Colorado Volunteers marching regiment.
Even a street crossing on downtown Albuquerque’s Central Ave. takes on a new dimension when you have to be wary of giant Transformer robots stepping on you!
Not discounting the enormous recent successes of so many diverse movie and TV contemporary project themes made in this state, New Mexico’s core essence still embodies the classic American Western. Once you’re fully outfitted in western garb, and you take the moment to fully embrace your surroundings, a dusty, windswept street in the middle of a western town, a very special feeling envelops you. Your mind may flashback to childhood fantasies, playing a cowboy or gunfighter, remembering reading tales of the Old West or seeing your first wild west TV show or movie. On western sets the background artists really look like our pioneer ancestors, a period of history which was really just a few generations ago.
Pierce Brosnan was fascinated by how much our motley group actually sported long hair and beards, wore cowboy hats, chewed tobacco, demonstrated knowledge of horses and guns, and who still slept in tents.
While on the set, kids quickly adjust and revert to simpler pleasures. Townsmen tip their hats to ladies in bonnets while the gunslingers practice twirling their plastic guns, hoping to be issued real guns for the shootout scene.
Western films tend to have the most difficult weather conditions, either blistering hot in the summer, blow-dried dusty in the spring, and brutally cold during the winter months, which perversely is the favorite season for most productions.
The western set can also be the most hazardous. A well-skilled choreographer and horse wrangler coordinator is mandatory for, if ill-prepared, tragedy may strike. Such were the cases on the first day of shooting on “3:10 to Yuma” where a horse was mortally wounded and rider severely injured, or the first day of filming the Sand Creek Massacre reenactment on “Into The West” where numerous horse accidents occurred.
And, during the filming of “Wild, Wild West”, there are careless acts such as the lack of notification to some forgotten extras that they needed to clear the western set before production blew it up. Fortunately, no extras were blown up! And they worry about animal mistreatment.
With the recent proliferation of movie activity, many new faces have arrived in the business, whereas many of the players of just ten years ago have left the area or gone on to other endeavors. Sometimes you have to let family members leave the nest. Except for the few envious ones, the majority of us extras are thrilled when someone from our extended family gets a speaking part.
It’s a profession where one minute you’re ready to retire, especially after a grueling fourteen hour day, but then you get the itch to get back into it, for another shot at stardom, for another interesting story, and primarily because you miss your friends.
That’s a wrap!