February 12, 2007. 7 a.m. I am standing in a cold, windblown cow pasture with George Clooney, just off Highway 414 near Tigerville, South Carolina. I’m wearing a 1920’s era topcoat, three-piece suit, suspenders, and ancient shoes complete with spats. Topping it all off is a Bowlers hat, favored by Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charlie Chaplain. But the Bowler is not funny. It is hard, heavy, and wearing it all day hurts. It feels like a tightening band of steel, and I will wear it an average of eleven hours a day five straight days come rain, wind, cold, or sun making a film called Leatherheads.
I am an “extra” or as Hollywood puts it a “background artist.”
I have long told my writing students that you never know what an assignment will lead to. While writing a feature on South Carolina’s love affair with the movie industry, I interviewed a casting director, a winsome blonde. A friend of a friend, I knew she would be recruiting the extras for George Clooney’s Leatherheads. “I’ve always wondered,” I mused, “what it’s like to be in a movie.”
“Come to a Leatherheads casting call and give it a try,” she said.
A few days later I was driving to a casting call in Greenville one Saturday, a bit uneasy. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I completed some paperwork, attached my black-and-white photograph, and returned to Columbia.
Several days later, an email from Leatherheads Casting told me to report to wardrobe in Greer, South Carolina, at 9:10 a.m. Right on time I arrived at a huge warehouse on South Batesville Road. Entering the extras’ door, I heard loud banging and sawing. Set designers filled a cavernous area making period furniture. Down a hallway came a rhythmic, repetitious banging with lesser volume.
“More sets being made,” I ask.
“No,’ replies the casting director, “they’re just aging wood.”
In the hallway, three clothes dryers with their doors sealed with duct tape banged away. Each contained wood for sets with golf balls inside, denting and aging the wood.
Soon I am sitting with other extras, all nervous, tapping their toes and clearing their voices. What to expect?
Julia, a wardrobe assistant, escorts me to a vast room filled with men’s clothing from the 1920s. In a makeshift dressing room, cheap curtains hanging from steel pipes, Julia gives me the aforementioned three-piece suit, a shirt and tie (extremely short), a massive overcoat, Bowlers hat, gloves, old shoes, and spats. I will be a game official. No black-and-white striped shirt. No zebra look at all. Game officials in the ’20s wore suits.
I find the clothing’s fasteners clumsy so Julia dresses me and takes me to the costume director who’s sorting a huge collection of antique buttons. She looks up at me and in a British accent says, “Get him a starched collar.” Soon I return, wearing a stiff white collar that fastens with brass studs.
“Get him a haircut.”
I go to an upstairs area converted into a salon and 15 minutes later I sport a shorter ’20s era haircut, ready to debut as a game official in Leatherheads.
A few days later an e-mail from Speakeasy Productions gives me my marching orders and a map to a Foothills destination. I am to bring a copy of my social security card or even better a passport. Be on the set Monday, February 12, at 6:30 a.m. in Tigerville. It’s February, cold, and an ominous line gives cause for worry … “Filming will take place regardless of the weather conditions.”
I left Sunday afternoon with enough time to arrive before dark and scout things out. That night in my room, looking over my paperwork, the rules for men and women extras rise from the paper: “Please come clean-shaven. Wear foundation only—no makeup. No artificial nails or polish. Do not ask for autographs or pictures. Do not bring guests. No cameras or video equipment is allowed. Failure to comply is grounds for removal from set. No cell phones (an unenforceable rule). No modern watches, glasses, or jewelry (can’t risk anything modern making the bloopers). No talking on the set.”
With rules bouncing around my head, sleep comes late. The alarm goes off. It’s 4:30.
There’s a saying about being in a movie shoot. “If you are early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.” It’s serious business. The first morning on the set some of the football players get an earful from the Second Second Assistant Director, Ian. “If you want breakfast, get up earlier. Do not show up late.”
I arrive on set at 6:30 a.m. and get my bearings, namely to find casting and stand in line to get a voucher from Speakeasy Productions. I sign in, go to wardrobe—a huge van—where costumes are stored. I get my wardrobe and dress, a maddening chore. Buttons and studs must be fastened. There are no zippers. (The zipper would not best the button until 1937 when French fashion designers raved over zippers in men’s trousers.) Then I go to make-up and hair where a handful of Groom and Clean greases down my hair and stylists give me a period look. Nearby, a gentleman balks at losing his beard. “That’s the deal you signed up for,” someone remarks coolly.
I look around at the men and do some math. I play a man who would have been born shortly after the Civil War. I am become my great, great granddad.
I see action immediately. I go straight to the set, the cow pasture. I sit at an old table with an antique clipboard, an old natural wood-finished pencil, and an ancient clock. The scene is to be comical. A cow runs onto the field and ends up blocking for the team playing Clooney’s Duluth Bulldogs. Ian comes over and tells me to study the action and keep stats.
The only statistics I count are the endless takes. As the cameras roll, I scribble “stats” and keep them as a remembrance. Here’s what I wrote: “A cow is playing football. The cow runs away. The cow runs away again. Clooney is number seven. The cow runs away yet again …”
My second day on the set, the word spread through the extras that National Enquirer had put up a $10,000 bounty for a photo of Clooney in his football uniform. It made sense. The day before, cows betrayed a photographer wearing camouflaged clothing hiding in the woods. The cows thought he had come to feed them. Security ran to the wood line and arrested him, or so we heard.
Being among mostly first-time extras puts electricity into the air. People are excitable. In fact, a bit of hysteria exists. In Tigerville, an extra sitting next to me between takes of a fight scene kept pointing to a tree on a distant hill. He saw paparazzi high in a tree, taking photos. “Look,” he said, “the guy is moving. See?” I didn’t. That afternoon after the shoot was over, I drove over to the tree. My co-star’s paparazzi was nothing more than a clump of mistletoe in an old oak. In Boiling Springs, one woman thought she saw a man crouched beneath some bushes in the woods. It turned out to be some windblown debris, part of a tarp.
Sheriff’s deputies and a bodyguard kept an eye on things. No cameras were allowed on the set. Still, a photo of Clooney, No. 7, made its way to People.
The excitement balances the repetition and drudgery. Shooting is repetitive. After watching one scene go through a dozen takes, an extra deadpanned “this is like watching someone making sausage.” In one scene, I memorized the lines of Clooney and a football referee. Lines are not set in concrete. A certain amount of ad-libbing goes with the lines. Clooney occasionally added words that, perhaps, felt natural.
When you see extras shouting and speaking, remember this: they are pantomiming. Extras can make no noise. One fellow with whom I shared a scene violated this rule by repeatedly shouting “uppercut” during a brawl scene. He told me he was a member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and had had a speaking part in Patriotville. Perhaps it went to his head. The next day he was nowhere to be found. Besides not speaking, we could not “high five,” do the wave, no chest bump. Those cultural phenomena were somewhere in a distant future.
What is it like to appear in a scene? The second second director, Ian, explains the scene and tells what you’re to do. Then all crew members clear the set. Ian and crew members shout the commands: “Picture’s up (camera is ready); Rolling (sound and camera are recording); Background! (All extras begin acting and moving); Action (the actors go to work); Cut (actors stop acting but background keeps acting); Background Cut (extras can relax). Reset (prepare to do the scene again and again and again).
It is repetitive with one goal, perfection. Imagine you intend to make the world’s first perfect cherry pie. You don’t make one pie; you make a hundred, each a slightly different way by design. When you’ve baked all, you oh so carefully cut eight flawless slices and reassemble them into an unequaled pie. That’s movie making.
Everyone, of course, wants to know about Clooney. “Did you meet him? Did you get his photograph … his autograph?” The answer? Read the rules above. I spent 46 hours in Clooney’s presence: so close at times I could touch him. Ladies, even in a cold windblown pasture, having removed his leather helmet, hair askew, George Clooney is really, really ridiculously good looking, and he chews gum like a sewing machine gone mad. He brims with energy, laughs often. Before plays, Clooney would run in a loop about 40 yards long to get some heavy breathing going. Then he’d dive into a pile and the cameras rolled.
At 7 a.m., February 14, Clooney walked by my table where I sat with my antique clipboard. “Stay warm,” he said. “Man, I’m trying,” I reply. It was 27 degrees and sleeting, a stiff wind was kicking up, so stiff it would hurl a tent over the stadium wall by noon.
I made a point to study Clooney. I watched him interact many times with his crew, other actors, and especially the football players. One day in the dressing room, I asked a few players what they really thought about him. They had spent more time with him than anyone. “He was,” they said, “a good guy, one of us, a great guy.” I had already reached the same conclusion.
We shot for four days in Boiling Springs, a misnomer for the weather was some of the year’s coldest. The action took place at a ninth-grade football field, converted via props to Duluth Field, home to the Duluth Bulldogs, Clooney’s team. The days ran bitter cold. After several hours of shooting one day in a punishing wind, Ian released us. We poured through the gate. Immediately, all these people garbed in 1920s attire in the midst of Model T Fords, horse-drawn carriages, and period billboards broke out their cell phones. A horse tied up nearby kept neighing. A mule stood nearby. Many times I have regretted not making a photograph of this surreal scene. The information age and the roaring ’20s melded.
What did I take away from the experience? A lot. Choreographing the masses is an art with these people. In one scene where the game degrades into a brawl, the bleachers empty randomly, naturally. And here’s how it happened. Ian ordered us to leave the bleachers based on our birthdays. January to June went to the right. July to August went left, September to December milled about, all commingling nicely for the camera.
As for the movie people, they work very hard and they put in unbelievably long days. The supporting equipment is phenomenal. Imagine a field holding a ring of trucks, golf carts, equipment, and tents. Then, closer in, the cameramen, gaffers, sound technicians, and others stand in a tighter ring. Within their midst—in the eye of the storm—stand the actors, truly at the center of their universe. The next time you watch a movie, if only you could see beyond the stars. Just out of sight, all around, you’d see the people who make it happen. And out farther still, beyond them, would stand the extras waiting for their next scene.
Who are background artists? People from all walks of life: retired folks, ministers, federal agents, businessmen, school psychologists, women who build sports cars, salesmen, people with a bit of ego, people who believe they are beautiful, doting mothers with young sons, their vision set on lofty achievements, and assorted people with one thing in common. Time.
Where do extras stay when not in a scene? The holding area. A place such as a cafeteria where extras stay for hours and hours. A lot of time is spent sitting and waiting. If you ever get cast as an extra, here’s a tip. Seek out people who are splendid conversationalists. By the week’s end, you’ll have new friends.
At day’s end, it’s time to get your orders for the next day’s shoot, go back to civilian clothes and turn in your wardrobe, and that means standing in line again. Women, beautiful in their costumes and flapper-era looks could not escape fast enough. Too embarrassed to be seen, they’d wave you away. “Don’t look at me!”
I generally got back to my hotel around 7:00 p.m., just in time to clean up, grab dinner somewhere nearby, and then go to sleep. In the morning, it was yet another day on the set, hoping to make the silver screen.
It is an eye-opening experience. After it was over a fellow extra emailed me one day. Her advice is good: “I think anyone that has an opportunity to be an extra should. I don’t think most people realize the resources needed to make a movie. You also get to meet a lot of nice people.”
She’s right. You meet a lot of nice people behind the silver screen.
And my movie career? In the movie itself, I saw myself for a nanosecond … standing in a crowd scene. My 15 seconds of fame, my five days of standing, sitting, and shooting, collapsed into a black hole of cinematic alchemy.