Seven Days on Set ~ What I Learned as An Extra

Here’s what I have known about myself for a long time:

~ I need at least seven hours of sleep per night to be pleasant.
~ I need the same number of hours of sleep to function.
~ I am not a night person.
~ I am claustrophobic.
~ I am afraid to drive in winter weather.

And, here’s what I just learned about myself while doing seven days at 12-16 hrs/day as an extra on a movie-set:

~ I was right.

To those people who came in contact with me that last night on set, or rather, on the second set at midnight and for an additional three hours: that wasn’t really me. I am professional, positive, articulate, respectable and don’t really use the ‘f’ word that frequently.

That was a tired (exhausted, really), middle-aged woman (who does not enjoy being up and pretending to have fun at 3 am) who felt like a caged animal, especially when she had earlier seen the green screen being fixed into place so that there were no holes. The final straw for her was getting reprimanded and told to sit down, for having gone outside – in the cold rain – in heels – to use the bathroom, by someone her daughter’s just-out-of-college-age. Yes, outside, mind you, where, at any moment, said rain would be turning to snow (Storm: Thor).

To the three girls who, at the beginning of the seven-day stretch, actually had the catty, wannabe attitude to ask, “how did you get to be VIP?” I say, “Wow, really? Did your mother teach you those manners?” And to the one who told me my dress was an Armani knockoff, I say, “Oh yeah? Well (when I finally looked at the tag today…cold wash or dry clean?…I discovered) it’s actually Calvin Klein, honey!” And yes, I believe mine did look better on me.

Ha, so now that that’s all out of the way, let me go on to report (positively) on my first time as an extra!

While my encounters for the previously-mentioned type were of just a handful of hopeful stars, yet to be discovered, and considering the many hundreds in attendance, I mostly met a number of wonderful people. People, who, for myriad of reasons, were doing the same as I. Some work full-time in business and took vacation time, some who drove from several states away, and some who simply needed a few days’ pay. Regardless of the reason, all of us were excited by the project, itself, and those associated with it!

In background (extras) ‘holding’, and on set, you are, in a sense, initially immersed into an alternate, time-encapsulated culture where everything is new, everyone is new. Remembering people’s names was, for the first time in my life, effortless. I sat in holding with an old friend, and met new friends: T, F, R, D and T. On set, my group consisted of V, J, J, J, J, M, M, M, M, K, N, TC, and K. Sharing personal details of your life is easy and often, no holds barred. Is it because it’s safe enough in that you may never see these people again (until some potential future shoot)? Because the hours are so long, a lot of the talk (speculation) revolves around time and food. What time is lunch? (which could be at 7 pm), what time will they wrap for the night?, what food will be on the buffet?, same as yesterday?

Because this was my first ever extra job, I didn’t know that you come to set camera-ready with makeup and hair done and ready to be checked, following wardrobe check.  I also learned that you don’t want to have to get any loans from wardrobe, because that just becomes one more line you have to wait in before the very long checkout line, at the end of the night.  Surprisingly, however, even with hundreds and hundreds of people in these lines, they do move rather fast.  And, when all hands are on deck, meaning the ADs (Assistant Directors) or PAs (Production Assistants), these lines move very fast.  Here’s something to keep in mind, too, these people have been working an hour or more before the first of background’s call time, and are there at least an hour later than when we left. I wonder where do they sleep and how do they function on so little sleep?

On the first day, I had done my makeup, mainly because I don’t leave the house without my face on, but I had only done the precursory blow dry. No style, no finish, no polish.  So, I got to get my hair done. It seemed to me that some actors felt that ‘getting hair’ each day was a privilege – like actual stardom, but if you ask me, it’s more a pain than any of that first-time excitement. However, for continuity, it’s necessary for that same stylist to do your hair the same way on subsequent days.  Even, days later, when they forewarned of a reduction in the number of people ‘getting hair’, and I had done it myself at home before driving to set, (I had, over the weekend, bought a flat iron and the polishing paste the stylist had used), I was not successful, so I still had to have it tweaked.

Overall, here’s how the typical day went:  Call time (is set the night before and you check via website) could be anywhere between 5:30 a.m. and 1 pm. At your call time, you check in, by giving your name and receiving a voucher. You complete the voucher and if you are using a piece of wardrobe, you give the voucher in exchange for your piece. Wardrobe OKs your look, then to makeup for check. Maybe more lipstick or eye liner.  Then hair. (I went over hair).  Then breakfast – even if the call is at 1 pm, it’s breakfast. Generally a good buffet – lots of carbs. Note that even if you’re looking to cut carbs, it’s good to eat them, because it’s a long time before you’ll eat again. Unless, hours later, on set and in-between takes, production assistants come around with snacks. Again, later, and hours after lunch, they would come around with sandwiches. And always water – several times a day and night. But, I digress.  After eating breakfast, you sit in holding until they’re ready for you on set.  Groups are called based on the organization of the set. And, finally, at the end of the day’s shooting, you are checked out (wardrobe first) and receive a copy of your voucher for your own records. Checks are mailed a few weeks later.

By now, you’ve no doubt noticed that I have not mentioned the film or my actual part or described the set or the actors.  Some of that I could say, as it’s widely known what film(s) are shooting near me. But, like everyone involved with the project, I signed a NDA, or confidentiality agreement. And, as I am one of the rule followers, I have not posted any specific information or photos to my FaceBook page or Twitter account. OK, one Tweet that the 12-hour days do offer the opportunity to get my own writing done. Also, it can get quite noisy on set with so many people. I actually preferred the quiet so that I could think and get some writing done.  But, again, you so easily meet so many interesting people, to your right, to your left, in front and in back, that it’s hard not to share some bits of your own life. Or, as they talk to each other and can be so funny, I found myself laughing a good deal of the time. All this and the actual takes usually made the time go pretty fast, and, just like casinos, there are no clocks on set. So, you have no concept of time. It was quite a new experience for me, not to know (and even care, most of the time, no pun intended) what time it was.

Typical rules, other than no FB, etc., are that the background does not have direct contact with the actors or director unless they speak to you first. Once again, I stayed in my seat versus walking around the set when it might look like there’s some downtime. I can see how those who are seriously pursuing an acting career, or using background work as filler, between other gigs, would try to get noticed or reach out to make contacts, etc. I did, though, make eye contact with one of the main stars. I, however, was just there writing, and getting paid for it, instead of in my home office.  For me, also, though, I considered it research, of sorts, since one of the projects I currently am working on is a screenplay (which is much, much more lean and word-economical than this blog post). How scenes are set up, the time involved, the detail, and the options are all fascinating pieces to movie-making. I can understand, as an artist, that the director would want to do so many different takes, angles, etc. so that in post production, there’s a lot of material to work with, based on the overall vision in his head.

Finally, the experience of seven days on set was, ultimately, very enjoyable. And, I am grateful to the person who told me about the opportunity and to the casting agency, who made the application process exceedingly easy. On set, there were several fun and funny episodes between the actors and director and background (or ‘atmosphere’ as the 1st AD called us). And, now that I’ve caught up on my sleep and winter is just about done, I might just check out what other extra opportunities exist.

See you on set.


One thought on “Seven Days on Set ~ What I Learned as An Extra

  1. Thanks for the excellent account of a large scale movie Extra gig. If you expand after a few more jobs, you’ll have an interesting book! Many people contemplate what its like. You’ve lived it.

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Writing by Marnie Mitchell-Lister

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