My Glorious Life as a Hollywood Extra
November 21, 2005
Due to security- and confidentiality-related issues, I cannot discuss specific individuals by name nor can I refer to specifics regarding the movie. Once the project has been made public, I can write more freely about it. For now, it’s kind of hush-hush. That said, here’s a brief overview of my afternoon as a Hollywood extra…
I’m not an actor nor do I aspire to be an actor. However, a friend of mine recently asked me to help him out by working as an extra in a film he is currently developing. We’ll call this fellow Tim, though as I said, I’m not using anyone’s real name or credentials here. Tim has worked on a variety of big-budget films including a few of the top-grossing action/adventure films of recent years. He is an established sculptor and model maker by profession and also works extensively in costuming and design. It’s been quite a treat knowing Tim because his home is a fascinating array of props, miniatures, and masks, and Tim, himself, is an eclectic mix understated mystery coupled with a limitless imagination.
Like everything, there’s a back story to this project: A little over a year ago Tim designed a latex mask for an idea that had been brewing in his overly imaginative mind. It was more a headpiece than a mask, really, and was the basis for a horror-related idea he’d been contemplating. He showed the prop off at a party whose guest list included several well-known Hollywood directors and producers and other industry folk. Eventually Tim decided to expand upon his idea and was able to garner some interest by a few industry personnel who are well-established in the horror genre. He and a colleague or two began writing a treatment and the idea has been blossoming ever since.
Of course nothing is ever made in Hollywood without funding, and Tim’s project is no different. To that end he decided to shoot some live footage (enough to produce a film trailer) and cut it in hopes of garnering investors to bankroll the project. Tim enlisted the services of a film editor who has done some really phenomenal work including several big-budget horror films, so I have little doubt the trailer will be stellar. When Tim phoned me and asked if I could help out by being an extra, I was reluctant because, well, as I’ve stated, I’m not an actor. But Di reminded me that friends do things for friends, and of course she is right, so I agreed to help.
The plan involved meeting on Sunday morning and caravanning from Venice north past Valencia. My neighbor (we’ll call him Chris) is a director who has collaborated with Tim before. Chris also signed on as an extra, so we rode together in the 405 caravan. The drive from Venice took nearly 90 minutes, so we reached the shoot (on a remote farm, far from civilization) just past noon. This, Chris noted about the time, was going to be a problem because we would only have about 4 to 5 hours of daylight for the outdoor shoot. Indeed, it was a frantic afternoon. Tim was responsible for the wardrobe and costuming. As such, he had to attend to each of us (about 12 persons) as well as his own costuming needs. We changed into our wardrobes and Tim busily applied blood and make up while his wife applied fake tattoos to our palms, wrists, and forearms. We then put on our latex masks, each of which had been hand-crafted by Tim with exquisite attention to detail. Unfortunately, it was difficult to breathe in the masks and the hot, dry air only added to the difficulty. Still, there was a considerable amount of wait time before filming could begin so the masks could be removed at will. In between scenes I snapped lots of photos, but was told “not for the net,” so you won’t be seeing anything anytime soon, suffice to say.
Eventually filming did begin.
We followed the director’s orders and performed a lot of basic activities—walking in formation, jogging in formation—basic stuff like that. Chris and I were both exhausted from the run. It wasn’t so much the physical exercise as it was trying to do the exercise beneath our warm, latex masks. Chris was sweating quite heavily at the time. Tim’s director, who is also very well established in the industry, was extremely down to earth. I had the fortune of meeting his wife, an actress who has appeared in several of my favorite films as well as one of my favorite television series of all time (no, not Barbara Bain from Space: 1999. But the actress is a very sweet and funny woman and was also our first LA “celebrity sighting.” I related to her the story of how, when Di and I first relocated to LA, we nearly ran her down in a crosswalk (little knowing that in California, the pedestrian can at any time step into a crosswalk and be granted the right of way). We didn’t know this, and I didn’t see the actress as I sped down Wilshire Boulevard one summer evening. Although I nearly ran her down I was able to stop in time.
“You just waved, and smiled,” I exclaimed as we stood in the makeshift make up room.
“Did I?” she asked.
“Yeah, and we were gonna turn around and follow you cause we’re such big fans of yours.”
”I did that once,” she said, laughing. “I saw an actor on the road and turned around and started following him.”
It was comforting to know that even celebrities can get celebrity fever. We then chatted a bit about a few of the characters she’s portrayed in film and on TV.
As the afternoon progressed the sun continued to be our enemy. By 3:30 we were dressed in full military regalia, with life-like weapons at our sides, field binoculars in hand, and night-vision goggles atop our scary masks. It was a fright-filled regiment, which is to say that Tim had done his job and done it well. Our next bit of filming involved walking alongside a jeep through a stream of water not more than several inches deep. Most of the regiment sat atop or in the jeep while four of us walked on either side.
“Weapons at the ready,” the director instructed and proceeded to describe our motivation. “Remember, at any point someone may be hiding in the brush waiting to ambush you. Look around, look from side to side for anything suspicious.”
The jeep moved slowly. It was being towed by a John Deere tractor and the director was hanging off the back. The cameraman held a small digital camera and walked backward from side to side, shooting as much footage as possible from as many angles and vantage points as he could without losing balance.
“The right front tire is going flat,” one of the extras noted.
“Just keep shooting,” the director insisted.
My feet were wet by the time we’d finished this part of the shoot. The Hollywood prop boots, though they look like authentic GI issue attire, proved less than water resistant.
“Okay, up this hill and down the other one,” we were told, and we followed orders like the monstrous soldiers we’d become. The rest of the shoot involved what I’d describe as standard army maneuvers. Lots of shooting, crawling around on our bellies with rifles in hand, sliding down hills, etc.
There were more scenes to be shot, including a crucial decapitation scene involving the actress I’d nearly mowed down 2 years ago, but as we watched the sun sinking further and further behind the mountains Chris said to me, “That’s it. This shoot is over.”
We walked back to the base and the director confirmed that the day’s shooting was at an end.
“The problem,” Chris explained later, as we changed back into our street attire and scrubbed off the tattoos, “was that there was no A.D.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The A.D. is the assistant director. The A.D. is responsible for keeping the shoot moving—for planning out everything that needs to be done in 1 day so it actually gets done. You can’t do this many scenes without an A.D.”
It turned out that the A.D. had canceled due to a prior commitment and there’d been no time to find a back-up.
We drove home in the darkness down the crowded 405 to the 10 and the fatigue began to hit. It wasn’t a terribly active day, yet I felt as though I’d just gone four quarters against the Indianapolis Colts offense. There are no vouchers to be claimed or paychecks to be got. This was strictly a non-union, independent project that will, with all likelihood, soon to become a much bigger project given Tim’s successful track record. Mostly, it was fun—exhaustive, but fun. And I walked away from the experience with a greater respect for the folks who make their living on camera but not really on camera—the Hollywood extras, without whom the image within the frame would often be scarce indeed.