Staying in Focus: Lights, Camera, Action: I Was a Movie Extra

Lights, Camera, Action: I Was  a Movie Extra

It all started with a call from a Hollywood casting department .  Tinseltown had come to Durham, North Carolina.  The call took me totally by surprise.   After all, I had filled out an audition form, on a mad impulse to do something different, weeks ago, and now they were asking if I could be at the filming site on Wednesday – four days from now!

Imagine taking a step out of your everyday world for a brief period of time, and entering a world in which people create their own reality – over and over again-until it is exactly the way they want it.  This is the world of Hollywood.

After a moment’s panic and some encouragement from your husband (Just say yes, we’ll figure out somewhere to put the kids), you agree, and scribble down the  pertinent information .  After hanging up and screaming “I’m going to be in a movie!” you calm down and try to read the chicken scratches you scribbled on the paper.

You are to report to the filming site, the American Tobacco Warehouse, in Durham, at 7:00  a. m. (ugh!) on Wednesday, with three wardrobe changes.  The scene you will be in is a winter scene – bring a coat, hat, scarf and gloves. (Are they for real? It’s going to be 84 degrees on Wednesday!  But remember, this isn’t reality, this is the movies!)

You now enter phase two of this experience:  “What am I going to wear?!”  After all, this is your debut on the big screen, to be seen by millions of people.  Worse yet, they could be people you went to high school with  So you tear through your closet find a few pitiful items and finally decide, “What the heck , I’ll probably have my coat on the whole time anyway.”

Now that your wardrobe is settled, you spend the next day telling everybody you know about your impending debut. In the process, you discover a friend of a friend has also been called in – Hollywood is a small town, after all – so you contact her, and decide to drive up together.  It’s always more fun (and  a lot less scary ) when you face a new experience with a friend.

Finally, it’s the night before the big day.  Kids are tucked away at mom’s, you’ve completely discarded every piece of clothing you had planned to take and replaced them with a whole new set, and you tumble into bed early to get a good night’s sleep.  Not a chance!  Visions of movie cameras dance in your head.  By 5:15 you are sitting bolt up-right in bed, waiting for the alarm clock to signal the start of your big day.

You shower, apply makeup (they instructed you not to wear makeup, but there is no way you are going to walk onto a movie set without mascara), and style your hair.  By 6:15 you’re on your way. During the drive, you fill your “co-star” in on the plot of the movie.  After all, the extent of your experience as an extra for this movie was your availability and the fact that you read the book twice.

The movie, is called (for now, at least), The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name. The story concerns the takeover of the United States by a repressive religious sect in the near future.  In this new society, people, especially women, are stripped of their rights and given specific duties.  A women’s role is determined by the state of her fertility.  She becomes a “handmaid” if she can bear children.  Otherwise, women become “Marthas” (housekeepers) or “econowives” (drudges who do heavy manual labor and clean up toxic waste). The most radical women are forced into prostitution.  It may not be exactly the direction you want your new ‘career” to take, but when you live in Cary, NC,  you don’t have  a lot of choice. The movie centers around the experience of one handmaid, played by Natasha Richardson. And you’re sharing billing with Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Victoria Tennant and Elizabeth McGovern!

At the cluster of austere warehouse buildings, you join a large group of women heading towards some brick buildings. As you view the chain link fences and the barbed wire enclosing the warehouses, you realize how well-suited this site is for the movie.  You are directed to a building marked “Extras holding.”  The inside of the warehouse is filled with well-used tables and chairs.  In two corners of the room are “enclosures” made by hanging black plastic sheets from the rafters.  One is marked “M”, the other “W”.   Ah, the dressing rooms, you presume.

.  Shortly, an official looking person comes in. You can tell he is in charge because he has a walkie talkie attached to his belt.  You soon learn that the only people who have a clue as to what is going on are the ones carrying walkie talkies. He first calls the econowives (“you know who you are”) to report in, and then asks the rest of the extras to line up.  After everyone has reported in , the assistant director welcomes you, and explains what you will be doing in the movie today.  It seems you are to portray women who have been on the run for three weeks or so .  Therefore, you have to look appropriately rumpled.  No jewelry, no makeup and, “sorry about the perms, girls, they have to go.”  The costume designer arrives, and weaves her way  through the tables, choosing what she wants you to wear.  You breathe a sigh of relief (mixed with puzzlement), however, when she tells you to wear just what you have on.
Next, the makeup people arrive.   While a tall, red-haired woman starts cruising around, pulling a t people’s hair and spraying it down, a bearded man surveys the crowd, staring intently at each face.   As soon as he spies a glimmer of makeup, he nabs his victim, pulls a wet towel from a package attached to his belt and removes every vestige of the offending makeup.
Now the waiting begins.  “Angels”, men in military jumpsuits and black berets,and the econowives are called to the set.  Later, they return, then leave again.  Meanwhile you sit, talk, eat donuts and take walks for some diversion.  It is now early afternoon – you are bored and hungry.  You take more walks.  Finally, you corner a walkie talkie man.  He explains they are up by the train tracks, and the trains are not cooperating.  You may not get a chance to film until after lunch (which is at 2:30).
Just as you are about to eat another donut, there is a sudden flurry of activity. The call has come and you are on your way!  You race out, winter coat in hand  and trek up to the actual movie set, located up on a hill several buildings away.
Finally,  you get to see what you came here to see – lights, cameras (no action yet) ,directors, hyperactive crew people and movie stars – namely Victoria Tennant,
Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern.  The assistant directors divide you into groups and tie different color armbands around everyone’s arm.  You are in the yellow, or radical group.  This is the “Selection Scene”: the women  are being divided into groups and taken away.  The handmaids will board a black bus and leave for the re=education centers; your group is off to forced labor.  You take your place, with several soldiers guarding your group, and are told that when you hear, “Background, action” you simply march away, out of the scene.  Great! Just great! You’ve waited all day just to have the back of your head debut in the movies!
The first “take” is for the camera, without it “rolling”. You are fabulous. You do it again.  Now you do it with the camera rolling.  And again and again and again.  You are consistently fabulous, but the camera has to shoot from several angles.  Between takes, you take off your coat, Each time they are ready to roll, the assistant director shouts,”Sunglasses off, coats on, look cold ladies. Brrr!  It’s really cold!”  You hope the sweat running down your back doesn’t show on camera).
Finally, you break for lunch.  All too soon the call comes down again – back to the set for more walking.  This should be a piece of cake.  Your group gets pulled up closer to the camera.  The director points at you ( he actually acknowledges your presence) and motions you to move back a little more.  You do so with professional aplomb.  You put on your coat, you look cold, you’re ready to go – and they call a wait for the sun to return, and for a plane to travel on, out of the scene.  Then you walk.  This time, a car, a van and a bus are departing as you walk away.  Every time they do another take the car, van and bus must back up into the compound.
Endless takes later, you are ready to move on to the next scene.  You are herded into an area surrounded by a chain link fence.  Behind you is a smaller enclosure, filled with benches and surrounded by hanging white sheets.  This is where the women are being tested for fertility.  Those positive sit on the benches; those who are negative are rudely shoved into your enclosure.  In this scene you are to fight and scream and try not to be forced into a nearby cattle truck.  The first take is without the camera. It is amazing how the scene takes you over.  Everyone starts to scream and shove.  One girl tries to climb out over the fence.  You clutch at a railing to avoid being thrust into the truck.
Once in the truck you are shaking from the adrenaline. A few people break out into nervous giggles.  When the truck backs up and returns to the scene, everyone on set applauds.  You feel really great.  It was a powerful scene.  Now, this is acting!
The director asks if you can do it again, with the camera. Once on the truck, he tells you, keep screaming because the cameras are still rolling.  You do the scene, not once not twice, but over and over.  He assures you that the scene is wonderful, he just needs to shoot it from different angles.  Somehow, even though everyone is now dead tired (It’s 7:40 pm)  ,each time the scene is getting more realistic. The assistant directors are getting worried.  They don’t want anyone to get hurt.  They break to let everyone have a drink.
Then the director addresses the group.  He will use parts of from each take, so it is important to keep the energy level up.  You are operating on sheer adrenaline at this point.  You mention to your friend that everyone looks appropriately rumpled now. Each time the cattle truck backs up after a take, you hear, “One more time!” You don’t know how much longer you can continue to scream.  Yet again, the truck backs up after a take, and the assistant director asks, “Is anyone hurt?” “No”, the group shouts.  “Does anyone need the paramedic?” “No,” the group replies. “Does anyone want to go home?” “Yes!,” you shout, with what’s left of your voice.
You leave the set.  Darkness has fallen since you began filming this scene. You  appropriate a soda from the crew’s ice chest.  You earned it.  Back at the holding area you stand in line and turn in your paper.  In return you receive $45.00 and  a “thank you.”
On your way home, you and your companion discuss the day’s experiences.  You  are exhausted – physically, mentally, emotionally – but if given the chance,  would you do it again?
In a flash!
Only not tomorrow.
(Note I chose to write this piece in the second person in order to put my reader directly in the experience. and make it real to them.
 : My appearance in the movie lasts several seconds as the credits are still running. I can also identify my arm, sticking out through the slats of the cattle truck as we scream for help. The producers of the movie provided us with a special screening at a local theater. It was a different experience, watching  a movie with people who were in the movie. However,  the best thing to come out of that experience was the opportunity to tell my story and have it published, albeit in a small press venue,  It gave me the confidence to to submit additional articles which were also published. So thanks to Margaret Atwood for writing the book, without which their would be no movie and to the directors and crew for making it such an eye-opening experience.
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