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Extra, extra

Today Herb and I made our movie debut as extras in a small-budget local movie called "27 Down", which was written and directed by a theater friend (see http://wildbeagleproductions.com/). The movie is set in the fictitious small town of Canada, Maine, where a Boston cop is in hiding after leaving the scene of a fatal a hit-and-run accident. Today's scene was set in the local bar, so we played some of the local pub crawlers. As part of the scene, the cop, who has become the new police chief in town, is taught to sing the town's "theme song" by the locals. 

When we arrived at 9 this morning, I was delighted to recognize several familiar faces among the principals, and as the other extras trickled in, quite a few familiar faces among them as well. We were instructed to go inside and sign a release form, then to check in with the makeup lady to have our makeup either approved or improved. I received a thumbs-up but Herb needed a bit of de-shining, so I wandered back downstairs to chat with the other extras while she worked on him. A few folks had done movies before, but the majority of us were friends of the director or other crew and production staff, or friends-of-friends, some with stage experience and some with no acting background at all. We waited for quite some time while additional actors trickled in and finished their paperwork - the Dunkin Donuts across the way was doing a booming business this morning! Once the majority of volunteers had arrived, the director called us outside and pulled a few folks aside and paired them off. Herb and I were very relieved to be paired with each other. We went back inside and picked seats at random, and when everyone was settled, the cameraman (who was apparently also the unofficial assistant director and who, although fairly young, was obviously very experienced and competent) rearranged a few folks for height and lighting issues. Once we all had final places, we sat and waited some more while the production team and principals discussed some things. 

Eventually the director called us to attention and walked us through the scene: the local mayor would make an announcement, at which we would cheer, then quietly boo when he droned on too long, then the band singer would call someone up to sing the town song while we cheered her on and joined in. Then she would recruit a stranger to sing the song, and we would react appropriately and join in on the final line, clinking beer bottles and cheering. Before we ran through the scene, the prop master (who may have also been the stage manager and/or assistant producer and/or business manager) cleared the coffee mugs from the tables and handed out empty beer bottles and a few glasses of nasty-looking concoctions, which he warned us not to drink. He also suggested we avoid pantomiming drinking from the beer bottles, which hadn't been washed. (I suddenly wished that I had a bottle of Purell in my purse.) Once we were reset - and the lyrics to the song were safely stashed behind a table flyer, out of sight of the cameras but enough in my peripheral vision that I could get in a subtle glance now and then - we ran through the scene a few times before the camera rolled. Several people had been assigned to cross through the scene at various times, and it took a couple of tries to get the timing right so people weren't bumping into each other, or crossing in front of principals during crucial lines, or accidentally staring directly into the camera lens. Once we'd gotten it right a few times, the camera started rolling and we ran the scene for posterity. There were a few flubs now and then, or extraneous noises, so we did several takes of the scene, then the camera reset at a different angle, and we did it all again. 

I'm sure that with a major movie, extras are rarely re-used within the same scene, to avoid the audience noticing that the woman in the purple sweater is sitting at the bar and then 5 seconds later she's standing behind the main character on the other side of the room, but with small, independent films, one can't always be that picky. So if in one take of a scene you're not front and center, and if you're not wearing something especially recognizable and memorable, you may be sitting at several tables in the bar at once. During one take of a scene, I was sitting at a table with Herb, directly in front of the camera past the main characters, but in another take I was walking between the tables with a girlfriend to a completely different seat, and in yet a third Herb and I were leaning against a wall at still another place in the bar, and then crossed through the room to say goodnight to the mayor. And of course, each version had to be rehearsed four or five times, then shot three or four times, with lots of waiting before and after as lighting and cameras and boom microphones and actors were repositioned and checked and double-checked. 

It was definitely a situation of hurry up and wait. But it was a lot of fun to be involved in! We got to make up conversations about the local characters (what does Cyrus have in his store worth stealing? where did the old police chief go? does anyone other than the Canadians enjoy listening to Celine Dion?), we got to sing drunkenly (it was really more of a chant, but the principle stands), and we got to chat with some interesting people from all walks of life, from the 6-foot-tall stunning redhead with the Australian accent, to the Goth chick with tattoos up and down both arms, to the guys in the real-life U2 cover band playing the fictional U2 cover band, to the woman with the painted-on black hair. It was quite a cross-section of humanity - but then, isn't that exactly what you'd expect to see at a small-town bar on a Saturday night?

We may end up on the cutting room floor, but for a few hours, we felt like the movie stars that we really ought to be. Anyone want our autographs?