Saturday, February 9, 2008

Text Messaging. The Location Manager's Best Friend.

Crowd Scene from Ghandi
I told you recently about how I was an extra in a scene from my last job. I told you how I almost always say no when asked to be an extra in a scene. I didn't mention that one of the reasons I usually say no is that I despise extras and prefer to stay as far away from them as possible.

Let's analyze my hatred of extras. I think its an entirely rational hatred. YMMV.

First, let's define the job these folks are doing. They are there to populate the background of the various scenes we'll be shooting. You can't just go willy-nilly putting innocent passersby into a scene. You'll get sued. You also can't get innocent passersby to walk through the background from the left side of the frame to the right side of the frame precisely when the lead actress says, "Yes, Jorge, I'll be your wife." over and over again, for hours and hours. The fact that the top of the frame cuts off this particular extra at the shoulders is of no concern. This extra is going to be in the movie (headless) and s/he is thrilled.

Later in the day, we'll be shooting a scene that takes place much later in the movie (possibly months in script time), so this extra will take off the heavy jacket s/he was wearing in the first scene and walk through the background wearing a T-shirt. (It's still 6 degrees out on the day we're filming, but fuck 'em, they're extras. Let 'em suffer.)

So, assuming you think you might be shooting your first scene at 8:30 a.m., the Assistant Directors (A.D.'s) will set the extras' call time at 6:30 a.m. That's because someone has to look at them and decide that the "old lady with little yappy dog" is, in fact old lady-ish enough and that the dog is yappy enough. Its also good to discover that the guy who's supposed to be driving a car in the background can, y' a car.

Because of the fact that we need to have the extras change clothes between scenes, they all bring their entire wardrobe to work with them. And they bring stuff to read because they'll be sitting around in the Holding Area for more of the day than they'll actually be working in front of the camera. They rarely bring snacks because their union dictates that we must provide snacks.

Whoa! Did I just say Union. Why yes. Yes, I did. The Screen Actors Guild says that the first 100 extras hired on any day must be union members. They get an allowance for the wardrobe they bring. They get additional pay if there is smoke on the set. They get extra pay if its raining and they get wet. They get extra pay if we're creating rain and they get wet. They get extra pay if they have a "special ability" like riding a bicycle.

Now, why, you may ask, does any of this matter to me, the Location Manager. Why should I care?

First, think about the mindset of a person who will happily sit around for 7 of the 13 hours s/he may be at "work"...for a chance to show up out of focus half a block behind the actors in the scene. The pay is ok, but not great. They get snacks and free lunch. And while, I'll admit that some of them have higher aspirations and/or they're doing it to supplement their income, most of them are people I see over and over and over again. They are professional extras.
(I once had a woman drive up to me and ask me where she should park. When I asked her if she was one of the extras, she replied, "I am a background artist!" Yeah, right.)

When the A.D.'s set a 6:30 a.m. call time for the extras, I have to make sure the Holding Area is open by 5:30 a.m. I have to make sure there are enough tables and chairs for all of the extras. (For 25 extras, you need to have 75 chairs and Eight 8' tables, 'cause they need to have somewhere to put their stuff.) Sometimes there are additional Make-up and Hair folks if we think the extras might need special attention. If that's the case, I need to make sure that there are Make-up and Hair stations in the Holding Area. The extras make extra work for me.

There's always a few extras who show up obscenely early. As soon as they've arrived, the Holding Area will look like a tornado hit it. There are clothes everywhere. Somehow every newspaper, magazine and book has been read in 15 minutes and is dropped wherever the reader lost interest. Invariably, one or two extras will ask me within 5 minutes of arrival whether or not I think they'll be finished in time to make it to an audition at 9:00 a.m. (No.)

So anyway, they expand like a gas to fill all available space in the room I've been required to provide. Anything they no longer want, (reading material, empty water bottles, 1/2 full water bottles without the caps, banana peels, 1/2 eaten donuts, whatever), is dropped precisely wherever it became no longer wanted. It could be on a table, but if the table is more than arm's length away, it will be on the floor. I could put trash cans every 5 paces and there would still be a bunch of crap thrown everywhere at the end of the day. Don't even get me started on what the restrooms look like.

And my department is responsible for cleaning up after these slobs at the end of the day.

Also, if you walk into the Holding Area in the middle of the day, you'll be subjected to the most inane conversations you've ever heard in your peak volume.

So, yeah. Extras annoy me. Before they show up. While they are there. After they leave.

So, what's with the title of this post? On a recent shoot, I walked into the Holding Area. Dead Silence. Wardrobe everywhere, but a strange absence of other debris. I looked more closely. Every single extra was sitting in a chair, mesmerized by their Blackberry or i-phone or whatever device they had brought to work. They were too mesmerized to even get up and walk over to get a snack.

Text Messaging. The Location Manager's Best Friend.

Update 10/4/12: I just had reason to read this again more than 4 years after writing it. Unfortunately, it may be obsolete already. It would seem that extras have become highly adept at multi-tasking. Now, they can text and throw shit all over the room simultaneously without breaking a sweat. On the other hand, they bring less reading material on paper, so that's a little better.


MWT said...

Cool post. Thanks for the glimpse into your worklife.

Steve Buchheit said...

At least they aren't driving the tables. You know, some states have had to pass laws to forbid texting while driving. Sometimes I fear for our future survival.

Jim Wright said...

Steve, no, refer to Nathan's original post - texting while driving would be a special Union skill. chuckle.

Nathan, man I though movie making was glamorous. You've managed to take the shine off my apple, thanks Dude.

Kidding aside, I'm damned glad there are people like you and the AD's and etc etc and etc. I'm a detail guy, I love being submerged in the movie and it jars the crap out of me when the movie is sloppily done, when the veneer cracks and you can see reality peaking through. So for all of you guys who are stuck taking care of the details, thanks man. I, for one, appreciate the hell out of it.