My Life As An Extra (part 2)
(***If you haven't read Part 1 of this post, you can find it here***)
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. You’re Matthew, Anthony and Paul’s friend. I’m so sorry.” She reached her hand across the table, and I shook it. “My name is Jane, nice to meet you.”
The rest of the actors in the room, I discovered later, were not only working in theater but also work as "career extras." If you don't know that term, there are basically two kinds of extras (aka background performers) the first, and most common, are people who are interested in the film/tv production process and want to see what it's like; the second type is the career extra.
A career extra is usually an actor who has an agent, works in theater and gets the occasional commercial role but make the majority of their living working as a background performer. If you can get an agent, and get into the union, even extra work is pretty lucrative if you can handle the long hours and the fact you are pretty much on call 24/7.
When Jane personally introduced herself the rest of my potential cast mates around the table glared at me with the, "who the fuck is that, and why is he so special," look.
Jane quickly tossed a few pre-production sketches of what we were going to be playing. Not only was I going to get to play one of my two childhood dream roles, a zombie, I was playing a Russian Army Zombie! In case you're wondering the other dream role for me is a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. That one comes with a catch though, I have to be shot onscreen so I can point myself out to my friends.
The sketches were really cool, and I could feel the excitement building. I've been on a lot of sets by this time, and I always get a little excited when I know I'm going to be working on a shoot but this was different. It felt as if the 14 year old in my head was so giddy to play this tiny role, I couldn't pull back the child-like smile that had begun creeping across my face.
Jane thanked us for coming in and let us all know that, "your agents will let you know your shooting dates and call times." She then paused and looked back at me, "Matthew, I will email you directly."
I could feel that look again from around the table. But thought to myself, "oh well, at least she knew who I was."
Three months as a resident
When I arrived at the studio on Kippling Ave. for my first day, I did the standard check in with the guard at the gate and he directed me to background holding. Upon walking into that warehouse sized room I was welcomed with a sight that I assumed I would've had at the audition. I didn't take an exact count, but I would say it was close to 75 guys, who looked a bit like me sitting around waiting and discussing how "their agents didn't tell them it was a night shoot, or they would have to wear make-up, all they knew it was a zombie movie etc."
My immediate thoughts were, "guys it's a zombie movie that needed extras, what did you think you were doing? How many horror films do you know that take place in the day time?" And the ten million dollar question, "really you have an agent for this?"
It took about an hour for them to finally call us, 10 at a time, to make-up. Although mine was just a straight "paint job" (I love using industry lingo when I can), I was still in the make-up chair for almost an hour. You'd think it'd be boring, but these guys and gals really know how to make you feel comfortable and keep things light and interesting but just chatting and joking around. Not only does it make for a very relaxed atmosphere (even though you are under a severe time constraint), it also makes the time fly by.
The other thing I enjoy watching when I'm in the chair, is observing the conveyor belt-like precision these artists work at. As soon as one actor is done, they're sent back and told to tell the P.A. to send the next one down. Then it's the same friendly banter with this new face while they work. It's really impressive and if you're an artist, extremely inspiring to watch.
With my wardrobe and make up done I headed back to background holding and casually waited for the whistle on that human factory to blow. That's when five of the loudest "booms" I've ever heard in my life went off. It didn't roll like thunder. These were quick, precise, and sounded like the world was coming to an end. I jumped in my seat and perked up like a terrified meerkat, "what in the fuck was that?!?"
"They're filming outside."
I hadn't realized I said that out loud. I looked at the table across from me and two of the stunt men happened to be sitting there casually drinking coffee. They both smiled with that, "don't worry about it" look through the heavy prosthetics.
"Do you know what they're doing out there?" I could feel the panic slowly slide away.
"You'll dig it. It's pretty cool." The blue skinned stuntman sipped his coffee.
Before he could continue the Assistant Director (A.D.) walked in and cut him off, it was not at all surprising to hear such a commanding voice coming from a man of his size. The A.D.s are all the yellers on set, they're job is to get everything, and everyone moving so the Director can get all his coverage and they can make their day on time and on budget. It's a good job, a tough one because occasionally you have to be a fucking dickhead to do it right, but it can be extremely fun and rewarding.
"Alright guys! If you'll follow me we're heading down to have a quick meeting with our firearms expert from the props department, and from there we will get to you in an hour or so. So follow me and we'll head down there now."
The room quickly became a buzz of murmuring, and not in the fun way that my brain was going off in, the quiet mumbles had an air of confusion and disgust that you could feel becoming thicker as we walked down the long corridor.
We rounded a corner and there stood three large men that you could immediately tell were present or former law enforcement. On the four tables in front of them sat an arsenal that would make John Woo and Chow Yun-fat cream in their pants.
In addition to the various caliber of handguns you would expect, the tables were piled with AK-47s, AK-74s, and even for RPG rocket launchers! It was fucking crazy! But so awesome! How often can a kid from suburban London, Ontario end up in a place where I'm dressed as a zombie and I get to fire a gun?!? The only way this could've gotten any better would be if I was a Stormtrooper in the new Star Wars films. I still had no idea what that sound was erupting from outside, but once seeing this I knew it was going to be cool.
I listened intently on every word from the prop master, one of my favourite parts of this business is: sure they let you have fun and do a ton of cool shit like this. But they want it in a 100% safe environment. You screw up once, they're taking that live firearm from you and replacing it with a rubber gun or kicking you off set altogether. I watched it happen more than once on this shoot. But I digress.
Now when the A.D. told us, "about an hour," I knew that wasn't going to be the case. Film and TV shoots are always a constant guessing game. As much as production does its best to keep things running smoothly and on schedule, shit happens. It could be an actor constantly flubbing lines, technical issues with the cameras, and especially on a large scale FX shoot like this you can compound technical snags at least ten fold. So that hour, turned to four.
Finally after we had our catered dinner (one of the many reasons I love working on set), they organized our grey and decaying army and marched us first to the firearms table where we were each provided with a gun, I could barely contain my delight as I was handed an AK-47. As we were ushered out the studio doors I finally laid eyes on where the thunderous noise was emanating from.
The stuntman wasn't lying as we were led to an outdoor set replicating Red Square and were placed on our marks flanked by two military jeeps mounted with .50 caliber machine guns!
Our only direction was to slowly walk towards the main cast, who were holding up inside a demolished store front, and fire as much as we wish. As excited as I was, that quickly switched to terror after the first yell of "Action!"
The sound of those .50 cals hits you like a punch in the chest, and for a few brief seconds I thought the world was ending.
For the next three months, for three to four days a week, I would make this trip; sit in make-up; and shoot multiple variations of the same scene. As much fun as it was, I never quite got used to eruption of the .50 cals. Luckily, I had gotten accustomed enough to not jump out of my skin, like I did that first night.
Fast forward 6 months later and I'm sitting in our local theatre waiting for this chapter in the Resident Evil franchise. After about 40 brutal minutes into the film, my scene finally came up.
After months of filming, through all the long cold nights, and weeks of little to no sleep about 30 seconds of what was shot ended up on screen.
On the plus side, if you go frame by frame, they did pop my head with a digital effect. Welcome to show business.