On Being a Movie Extra

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As you might guess from my longtime interest in pop culture, I've always been an acting geek. My Dad was usually in one or two plays a year, every year while I was growing up. He'd usually take us kids to rehearsals, and when I wasn't spinning myself dizzy on the hardwood floor of the hall, I watched the rehearsals, fascinated. He spent the week I graduated from high school playing Mr. Gibbs in Our Town. He spent the week I got married playing Luther Billis in South Pacific (and, yes, some of my in-laws went to that play!).

I was in a number of plays in high school, playing everything from a clothespin (seriously - in Once Upon a Clothesline) to a murderess (Bull in a China Shop - the female lead in my senior class play) to a usually unnamed townsperson (Rivka, who has a tiny solo that I completely blew one night in Fiddler on a Roof). I sometimes joked I hoped to be a musical comedy star. At the same time, I knew there were always going to be better actresses and better singers than me. Besides, in the '70s, you never saw fat women on TV or in the movies. Especially not young ones.

I got into Carnegie Mellon, and while I took occasional theater classes, I never got into any plays or musical groups. Ditto when I transferred down the hill to the University of Pittsburgh after my freshman year. I didn't lose any sleep about that however; I was more focused on developing my fiction. Also, by then I'd found science fiction fandom and Jim and realized I'd have to get a real job someday. Eventually, I got married, had a child, and stumbled into a high tech job. But that's another story.

I did almost become a movie extra in the late '70s. When Dawn of the Dead was filmed at the Monroeville Mall, a general call went out for people to play zombies. Sadly, we didn't have a car in those days, so I couldn't get to Monroeville for any of the shoot. I was happy to go to the movie the next year, and recognize many local fans slobbering across the screen as Romero zombies.

I never lost my complete fascination for movies or the theater. Years later, when Dogma was being filmed in my neighborhood, I always noticed the large white location trucks. While watching that movie, I recognized many of the locations (sorry, a guy in a cheesehead doesn't make the Pittsburgh International Airport an airport in Wisconsin!). It was wonderful to watch Wonder Boys and know precisely where most of the movie was filmed.

For the last few years, I've had a wretched case of insomnia and am not able to work full time. I found a part-time job that's worked pretty well, and am taking a class. I also rejoined Bach Choir of Pittsburgh. But, as a person with way too much time on my hands, I couldn't help but notice that Pittsburgh was becoming Hollywood East.

A few years ago, I met Carl Kurlander when I worked at the University of Pittsburgh. Carl is a Pittsburgh native who spent years in Hollywood (he wrote St. Elmo's Fire and worked on various TV shows). He had moved back to Pittsburgh, looking for a...a quieter environment to raise his daughter. Carl became a teacher at Pitt and started Steeltown Entertainment, to help encourage more filmmaking in Pittsburgh and Pitt-in-Hollywood to encourage networking between former Pittsburghers in the film industry and film students. He also made a documentary, My Tale of Two Cities, that talks about going home again. I helped out as an unpaid production assistant, from time to time, on the documentary.

I loved doing production assistant work. It was very much like my hobby of 30 years - working on science fiction conventions. Seriously. There's lots of hurry-up-and-wait, the necessity to be very flexible, and to be willing to do almost anything reasonable to get the job done. While I can be very effective in this sort of job for a few days, my insomnia catches up with me soon enough. I can't work 60 hour weeks for more than, well, a week. And, I've learned that movie companies don't want part-time production assistants.

Two years ago, a local casting director was looking for extras for Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I'd loved the book when I read it, and realized there were plenty of chances for middle aged women to get extra jobs in it. I went to my first casting call. I had Jim take some photos of me, in a 20 year old dress (Mysteries is set in the '80s). I enjoyed attending the casting call, but never heard back from them.

When I heard that The Road, a book set somewhere in the south (probably Georgia) was being shot in Western Pennsylvania, I realized how perfect that was. It's cloudy in Pittsburgh; the clouds are almost a character in The Road. I could see that, for the most part, our area would work as a post-apocalyptic landscape (except for the beach scenes at the end). I live a couple of miles from the Beech Hollow Gob Pile, the largest coal waste dump east of the Mississippi. So, I sent location suggestions to the producers, and even drove around and took pictures.

I can't say I heard anything back. They have since filmed on a gob pile, but it was the smaller one, in Nemacolin.


At about the same time, I got a call from the casting agency I'd signed up with in 2006. There was going to be a big call for extras during the spring. Would I have time to be an extra? "Sure!"

In the meantime, I signed up with the other casting agency in Pittsburgh. If I couldn't be a production assistant, maybe I could be an extra? I still sent around resumes, in the off chance of getting a behind-the-scenes job at one of the production offices.

In mid-March, I got a call from one of the production offices. "We'd like you to come in for an interview to be one of the office assistants."

There was a long pause. "Um...um...it's for full-time, right?"

"Yes...probably 40-60 hours a week."

*SHIT!* There was a longer pause. "Oh geesh" (I wished I was a much better liar.) "I would love to come in for the interview...but I have bad insomnia and I know I can't work that many hours per week. I appreciate that you called, and if you need any temporary help, please don't hesitate to call."


A few weeks later, I turned my phone on after having it turned off for most of the day while I was out at class. I got a call asking me to call them back - Shelter was looking for extras. I immediately called back and left a message. A few minutes later, my phone rang again - She's Out of My League was looking for extras! Wow, two calls in one day. Not sure what was happening with Shelter, I jumped at the chance to work on She's Out of My League.

That turned out to be the right thing to do. When I got back to the person who called me for Shelter, he'd filled his extra needs.

Being an extra involves lots of hurry up and wait, but there was a little odd mystery involved.

At first, I was asked to come in on Wednesday and Thursday to film scenes in a bowling alley. The next day, I was called to join the hockey audience scenes on Monday and Tuesday as a featured extra. I agreed (of course) but wondered why would I be a featured extra. I'd never done any extra work before.

Laurie Mann, offstage So when I signed in on Monday at the Mellon Arena, they gave me a special card with my seat location, and said I had to go to wardrobe. It turned out they did a little shooting of She's Out of My League during an actual hockey game on Thursday, March 27th. While most of the people sitting close to the stars of the movie were movie extras, a few were not. A woman who looked an awful lot like me sat two rows behind the stars. I'd been called in to match her. While I'd bought a black Penguins T-shirt over the weekend, Wardrobe gave me a long-sleeve, white Penguins jersey.

But before we shot the scenes in the arena itself, we sat around for a while, then were brought down to a large, dark bar in the basement. For about an hour and a half, we shot a scene where the young stars of the movie meet one another. That was surprisingly tiring, because I was standing out in the middle of the floor "talking" to a guy I'd just met named Dave. We had no place to lean or sit. Most of the action was happening in the far end of the bar, so I doubt we'll be seen in these shots. We were so far away from the action, we couldn't tell (for sure) who the director was. When you have large scenes with lots of extras, the director is surprisingly invisible. The person who directed us was really the assistant director, Richard Fox, and his production assistants. Fox had worked on movies like Breach and Donnie Darko.

By about 3:30, we were on break.

The break lasted until 7:30, but we got paid for most of it. I chatted with other folks in the "core" group, mostly about their other jobs. Many of them had worked on that cable TV show The Kill Point. I was the only person in the featured extras group who was a newbie. Then, a woman pulled me aside and said, "You look very familiar," and we ran through things where we could have met. Turned out she's a fan of The Road Rumors Web site!

Dinner was OK; the cake was delicious. I very carefully ate some lasagna-like casserole, worried that I'd spill some tomato sauce on my white jersey from Wardrobe. Shirley (the Road fan) and I walked around a bit to get a little exercise.

Shirley and Laurie, just outside the Mellon Arena

Eventually, we were led into the arena itself. Since I was so close to the stars (or their stand-ins), I got to hear the director, Jim Field Smith, talk to them. He's British, and this may be his first feature. Apparently, he's mostly known as a comic and even had a small role on the last episode of Coupling. I'm pretty good at knowing movie slang, but during shooting I heard new phrases I hadn't heard before. When he sensed the energy was a bit low from his principals, the director said, "Remember, this one's for the trailer."

That perked everyone up in a hurry!

The male lead, Jay Baruchel, was just in Fanboys, plays a character who is very uncertain of himself. The female lead, Alice Eve, is English, but has a perfect American accent. Turns out she lived in L.A. when she was a teenager and has even done a Broadway play. The female buddy, Krysten Ritter, was in the second season of Veronica Mars. TJ Miller played the guy who held the camera through most of Cloverfield and had some good ad libs which perked up one scene a bit.

The crew was shooting dialogue between the principal actors that was going on during the hockey game. They removed two of the plexiglass panels between the ice and the audience, so the cameras would get a clear view of the actors. There was a large white canopy over the rows beside the ice, probably to help control the light on the principal actors.

While there was plenty of movie crew on the ice, there were only one of two people in skates. They'd skate around and we had to follow them. It was a little confusing, as hockey fans do tend to focus on their goal, and we had no idea which one was our goal.

We were warned to not take photos during the shoot, so I didn't. However, I would love to have taken some shots of the cameras, which were the most fascinating things of the evening.

Finally, after midnight, they wrapped. After getting signed out (and told to invite my friends for the next day's shooting, where they will need more extras), I got home just before 1:30am.

The day before I went to my first shoot, I woke up with a sore throat. By Monday morning, I was coughing some. One of the principals heard me cough and asked for some Airborne. *sigh* I didn't think I had anything catching. I have this every spring. It's like bronchitis but I didn't have a fever. And, usually, I don't feel too sick from this, though I sometimes coughing like a maniac.

So, Tuesday, coughing a little more, I went back to check in as an extra. This time, there was a much bigger line. It didn't seem to matter that I'd already worked as an extra, so I went to the end of the line. I called my friend Diane, and let her know, if she had time, they were looking for more extras (she'd also been an extra on The Kill Point.) I ran into Erin, also there as an extra, who used to work with Jim. While there were about 150 extras the first day, they were looking for about 600 the second. I think they got about 450 all together.

Diane did come for some extra work, but usually wound up in the nosebleed seats of Mellon Arena. Diane and Laurie, offstage
Tuesday, we sat around in the holding area for nearly four hours. The crew was shooting a stunt, and didn't want too many extras in the arena. The cameras were pretty much where our seats were. So, we "hard core extras" sat around and chatted. Extras seated near the principal actors in the arena during the hockey scene, offstage

They had us come in around 4:30 and shot the stunt from some additional angles. Being close to the ice set off my coughing again (though I usually managed to hold it off until they called "CUT!").

I talked a little to Krysten Miller, the dark-haired actress I was sitting two rows behind. She's from eastern Pennsylvania, and actually knew the Pittsburgh area pretty well.

We went out to dinner, but were only out of the arena about an hour. This time, we got lukewarm fried chicken. The chocolate cake was again pretty good!

Back into the arena for more shooting of the game. This time, there were more hockey players to watch on the ice; it was a little more like an actual game. The actors ad-libbed little more. Alice Eve, the English actress with the very good American accent, goofed at one point when she yelled at a hockey player "You wanka!"

Sounds like a cut for the blooper reel to me!

Once the assistant director yelled, "Cut!" a huge number of the extras called back, "You meant to say 'You jagoff!'"

During a small break in the action, I located someone who was on the crew whom I hadn't spoken to in about 25 years. I knew Paul Bucciarelli when he was a cartoonist who also worked at downtown movie theaters. He's been a property master or set dresser on many movies shot in the Pittsburgh area. He didn't recognize me at first, but once he made the connection, he asked if Jim was an extra. "No, he has a regular job."

We chatted a few minutes, mostly about people whom we'd known in the '70s who've since died (a depressing past-time when you're middle-aged or older). I said I'd be around for the bowling scene, and we promised to talk again.

When you're an extra, you have to spend a lot of time being quiet. You have to pantomime a lot. Suddenly, we were told we could spend a few minutes yelling as if we were at a real hockey game. It was a little harder than I'd imagined.

[3/11/2010 - Saw League tonight, and the only scene I saw myself in was the hockey scene. I was in the far background of a bunch of airport scenes.]

We were sent back down into the bar, to shoot a little bit. This time, I was fairly close to the lights and the camera. To stay awake, another extra and I took to swearing about the game (but silently, of course).

I got home closer to 12:30am this time.

I felt like crap Wednesday morning. The annual bronchitis was starting to get to me. I convinced myself I could handle another two days of shooting. This time, we were shooting at the bowling alley in the basement of the Pittsburgh Athletic Association (PAA) in Oakland. Knowing how horrible parking in Oakland is, I was relieved to note that we had free parking in a nearby parking lot both days.

This time, the extras assembled in the Holiday Inn, ate some breakfast (the first meal of the day is always breakfast, even if they're feeding you at noon) and went over to the PAA.

As the wait-around time progressed, I felt more sick. The basement of the PAA was as cold as sitting in the arena. I knew if I left before I started to shoot, it would be bad, but not terrible since I hadn't been on camera in the bowling scene. But I also knew I'd have to pass on Thursday's shooting which required using the same extras who'd been in Wednesday's shooting. And maybe they wouldn't ask me back.

But, if I showed up on camera and then had to leave, it would be worse.

And maybe they wouldn't ask me back.

Finally, I realized I had to go home. So, I went and spoke to the person in charge of the extras, explained my problem, and went home.

I hated doing that.

But they called me back for the next week's extra shooting anyway!

Extra shooting, Week 2