I worked the past week as an extra in a movie to be titled “Southpaw,” directed by Antwon Fuqua and, as I mentioned the other day, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forrest Whittaker, and 50 Cent. Arriving on set last night was another star, Rachel McAdams. I have no designs on a career as an actor, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. While Pennsylvania’s fantastic Film Tax Credit brings a lot of Hollywood to western Pennsylvania, like The Fault In Our Stars, The Dark Knight Rises, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Jack Reacher, Promised Land, and The Road, to just name a few, it is not common for a major motion picture to be filmed ten blocks from my home. So, I rearranged my life and signed up.
It was a lot of fun. I met some cool people, and a lot of weird people–some the kind of weird you expect when folks are mass-hired for temporary, low-wage jobs. Others just weird in the way that doesn’t necessarily show until we’re thrust together in close proximity, in a situation with lots of down time and a lot of external stimuli to react to. You’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with people, waiting to watch millionaires play pretend, and it’s pretty natural to look to one side and say, “Hey.” Or “having fun?” Or “sandwiches again for lunch?” The next thing you know, you’ve got a fleeting friendship–you’ve got, um, maybe the best word for it is “buddies.”
There was the guy who sat down beside me and said “Explain String Theory to me real quickly….” Uh yeh, right. Or the pudgy bald guy who blurted out, “the last time I bedded an 18-year old I was 36,” as a non-sequitur, as if he’d been holding that line in reserve all week, waiting for a good moment to let if fly. For his trouble he got awkward, nervous laughter and some wincing. Finally–and most famously, the haggard, 90 pound older woman with the unnaturally black dyed hair, homestyle tattoos, and witchy poo face who rasped in her cigarette-scathed voice about her career in musical theater and all the professional wrestlers she’s bedded. One of the extras told me later that she’d shown up at his yard sale last summer and loudly told similar stories until he gave her the stuff she wanted for free and begged her to leave because she was scaring off the other browsers.
But I’ll get back to the people. The process–hundreds of us worked for a week to create what can’t end up being much more than 15 minutes of film, and even that feels long. The costs are astounding. Extras salaries alone, not counting overtime and the bounty of food they provided, cost somewhere around $60/minute for 14 hours or more a day (I worked 56 hours last week). Scenes are filmed multiple times from multiple angles, with long waits for “reversals” when the cameras are flipped from one side of the shot to the other. Yesterday, for example, this was my day:
- Stand In Line To Check In and Receive Pay Voucher
- Stand In Line For Wardrobe Check (I looked “great”) after a cursory glance.
- Stand In Line For Hair and Make-Up. If nothing else, “Southpaw” has provided me with a lifetime first: hairspray. I have worn hairspray 5 days straight.
- Get a pass from Make-Up (I looked “perfect,” of course).
- Have my somewhat undisciplined hair brushed and sprayed into a helmet suitable for the amphibious invasion of a hostile nation.
- Browse the breakfast buffet (bagel, banana, donut holes and coffee)
- Sit and wait…for the next 2.5 hours. Talked a little, tried to read, mostly slept.
- File onto set (along with 300 others–it’s a large scene), take seats, and wait.
- Filming begins, 3.5 hours after arriving, lasts about 4 hours
- Sent on break for about 40 minutes, told not to eat “lunch” (it’s 530 pm) because it’s not lunch time yet. It’s break time.
- Told to eat “lunch”–it’s been sitting there on the tables all this time.
- Told to wait. Some people sent home.
- Assembled in a group for my scene, stand around in that group for half an hour.
- Costume change. Predictibly, I look “great.”
- Stand around in the same group of people, in a different place, for a breakdown of the scene.
- Led inside for scene–it’s a really cool one, lots of conflict. Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendous and Miguel Gomez brings tons of charisma–he’s almost a scene stealer. One of the extras, a guy I’ve talked to all week, gets a bump to a speaking role–just one line, but he’s building a film career so it’s a big deal.
- Break. We’re led off the set for a short break while the crew arranges things for the reversal–some people lose their places, but I just have to slouch so a camera can shoot over my head: this may be my big moment to get my face on the film in a way that I’m actually recognizable, and I’m slouching! Ugh. It’s karma for a lifetime of arrogance about my above-average height.
- The scene is just fantastic–the best part of a long week–and we’re dismissed. It’s 11:45 pm.
- Stand in line to have pay voucher signed and verified.