Sunday, May 28, 2006

Spiderman 3 on the Avenue of the Americas

The 6:AM call time meant that I'd have to get up at 4:20 AM to catch the 5:11 AM train... (yawn).

But I knew that I'd sacrafice my sleep-time and whatever Memorial Day plans I had -just to be on this set for 3 days as a background extra. The ordeal was draining -but well worth it. I put 36.94 hours into standing around, running in fear, fighting with makebelieve cops, avoiding computer debris from hitting me on the head -and of course clicking away a few paparazzi-style pictures of the cast and crew.

Our director for the first two days was Sam Raimi. He was the first director I've ever seen on set to constantly be wearing a suit. Most of the "trendy" directors wear some type of "nuveau hat" or jacket or some outlandish color that allows their clothes to be noticed. Not Sam. He was neat, focused and professionally kind. He personally addressed the extras with respect and gave a clear synopsis of what we were expected to do. He also did something very classy... he spoke to the gawking tourist crowd and took pictures with them... he also invited a few of the enlisted men to come onto the set and watch the movie making from a few feet away. Observing his style, I developed great respect for him. It's too bad he didn't stick around for the third day. "Unit 2" apparently had a director with a much more different style and all of a sudden there were delays, mishaps, walk-away meals (read: buy your own lunch), and even a thunderstorm which suspended shooting for an hour. I hope Sam returns soon.

The fun part of watching the stunts take place was mezmerizing. The "real Spiderman" (a.k.a. stuntman Henry Amos) was swinging through the canyon of tall buildings on 6th Avenue with Ron Howard's pretty daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard hugging him. The tethers on their torsos were attached to two large cranes -one for the vertical lift and one to create the arc-swing. I was repeatedly amazed by how gently the two actors were able to land on the debris-strewn concrete fountain area. All of the extras were snapping away with their low resolution telephone-cameras, while I had my handy-dandy digital Sony doing a little zooming at a much higher resolution. One of the PA's eventually begged us not to do it in front of the producers! (Otherwise it was O.K.)

In one scene we were told to react and run for our lives as a loud explosion took place and precariously placed desks and computer equipment went dropping all around us. One of the desks landed in the windshield of a taxi cab and another piece of metal crushed a vendor's hot dog stand with broken girders all over the place. I couldn't help but "reminisce" about my experiences during 9/11... Other extras also had a similar reaction to this scene. But thank goodness we have a "friendly neighborhood Spiderman" to look over us!

Bryce, having been saved, ran to the arms of her police-chief father, played by the ubiquitous actor James Cromwell. He is another magnanimous actor who likes to go sit with the extras on occasion and sign autographs. I love that down-to-earth attitude. Enter the scene, Topher Grace (he's shorter than I expected), with camera in hand, interviewing Spiderman while clicking away at his visage. Something was not satisfactory with Topher and he started to pace back and forth while discussing the scene with Sam Raimi.

While this is going on, I elbow my friend and mention how funny it is to see these guys going at it while some little shrimp in a white shirt and sunglasses is standing next to them eating chinese food from a takeout dish. I was then quickly and comicly corrected with the explanation that the kid in the white shirt was in fact Tobey Maguire. Coooool!

So he was here after all. And it suddently struk me how weird it was to see the stuntman in costume, Tobey the eating-actor, and a close look-alike in an orange polo shirt who was his stand-in for light and distance measurements -all of whom, as a conglomeration, were needed to depict Spiderman. (One for the price of 3 -That's the American economy. I suddenly have a deeper understanding of the speedy US debt-counting sign nearby which is showing the amount to be in the KAZILLLION dollar range at the moment. Oh well, I guess we'll just have to export more movies).

Breakfast and lunch for the first two days went really well... especially the 2nd day, when we had blackened cajun catfish and tons of garnish and desert to go along with it at the Roseland Ballroom. Throughout the day there were little sandwiches being passed out to the crew. The rule was that the crew must be the first to take from the tray... and if there's anything left over, we, the extras, could have it. I guess it's part of the Caste Laws in the Movie-Manu System. Needless to say, there were few, if any mid-day sandwiches left. But I kept a bottle of water in my pocket. This came in very handy because the weather turned really warm (we're talking 80's) and all of us were told to wardrobe for autumn weather (suits, scarves, gloves, overcoats). My raincoat was black and it absorbed heat like a sponge. Other extras were stripping off their clothes between takes. It was a real do-your-laundry provoking scene. Even Spidey was dragging his ass.

The three days ended and some of us exchanged emails so we could share the pictures we took on the set. One of the guys who asked me to take a picture of him in "costume", was a "ticket concierge" and said he would be "helpfull" in getting me any tickets to theater shows and concerts. I'll be testing that offer pretty soon! My other background buddies are shown below.

The following day I got an offer to work on the Spiderman set again... in 2 weeks. So I guess this is a "to be continued" ending!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Auditioning in Connecticut

It had to be one of the rainyest days for my drive up to the Norwalk studio. But 60 miles later I had arrived at a pretty modern setup in the middle of a family-style quaint and quiet neighborhood. As I approached the entrance, it was laden with tons of electronic equipment, neatly arranged and well organized. A young woman was speaking to a tall man as she greeted me and welcomed my "talent" status inside the hipster-stylized abode. Friendly, yes... but all business in attitude. I was asked if I wanted any refreshments, given my lines and seated inside the studio's grand white backgrounded set. I found my cofort and began to internally rehearse the syllabus:

"The doctors and nurses at St. Vincent's gave me superb care...
...I'd trust them with my grandson!"

I pretty much glanced at it and had it down pat. Two lines of script. How easy is THAT?

The young cameraman came in and fiddled with the video camera that I would be slating in front of pretty soon. It was quiet for a while... and then I broke the ice with him by stating that the white background of the studio looked like something out of "THX1138"! That got him to look up and immediately shmooze about the film. (After all, that was George Lucas' first big breakthrough in the early 1970's... and one of my personal all-time favorite movies). Our banter was soon interrupted by the cordial director, Paul, who explained the scenario and got me right up in front of the camera. He did a few takes with a couple of different suggestions and then asked if it would be alright for him to make my hair look more "salt & peppery" for the hospital ad. "No problem." I heard myself respond. But internally I had instantly grasped that I was too young for the part and that unless a miracle took place, I wasn't going to be making the $600 bucks for this stint. But cordial-Paul asked if I'd be available on Monday and Tuesday if the client had decided in my favor. To which, of course, I had no problem aquiescing... again knowing fully well that this would be a very remote possibility. The part really called for a more silver-haired grandfatherly-frail-looking old bugger.

This was a complete reversal of my full-time job interviews, where jobs are predominantly given to those who are young. You just can't win!

So I got back into my car and drove antother 60 miles back home through the avalanching thunderstorm. Cost of trip (gas, tolls, nerves): $30.00 plus "interest". I don't think I want to travel across state lines for an acting job -unless pay is assured (and how many times have I said that before?).

Now my mercenary side is starting to kick in!!!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Banking on a commercial in Brewster, NY

First and foremost, the craft food services were EXCELLENT! Much more extravagant when compared with the cheap Disney or skimpy Warner Brothers food provisions for the extras on set. The other feel-good moment came when friends from previous gigs started showing up. And still better was the fact that we were 75 miles upstate from NYC -and we were breathing clean air. That made up for the 3 previous days of sucking bus fumes in Times Square. Also my cold was starting to subside.

Three small movie theaters made up the location kown as Empire Cinemas. Our holding area was in one of them and we settled comfortably into the modern cushy rocking seats. In the lobby and in the next movie room, the crew was doing the lighting setup. In the third movie theater, we had the hot lunch arrangement. Holding didn't take too long and we were all called into action at the lobby. I was placed with one of the women I had met at the ONE NINE shoot. As a couple, we and the rest of the extras, would grab the popcorn from the counter and head into the theater. The director was a hearty and energetic soul who went by the name of Ed Buffman. He was jocular but stern with a good focus on what he wanted to accomplish. The principals consisted of a young couple, whose overly-cordial banker would provide them with everything they needed -even before they needed it!

"I got your tickets… RIGHT HERE!… Here's your popcorn… JUST THE WAY YOU LIKE IT!"

Upon which he ushered them into the apparently fully seated movie theater, walked up to two isle seats and grabbed a bar which had been joining two "mannequin seat holders" together, raising them into the air with the obvious service of making sure his bank customers had seats. Everyone cracked up laughing. But after a couple of takes it became routine to see the dummies' arms dangling helplessly while the "smart banker" provided his enthusiastic grin between their lifeless heads. The shoot was over before 4:00 PM and we got paid $100 (that's more than what Warner Bros. and Disney pay their extras). The gas and toll (at today's $3.12 /gal prices) unfortunately offset the euphoria. Tolls = $9.00, Gas = $25.00… That nets only $66.00. Might as well be working for Warner Bros. or Disney.

The actors networked and I got the email address of a casting broker whom I had tried to contact two months ago via phone -without much success. Her name is Desiree and I've heard that she gets jobs for background extras on a fairly regular basis (more than once a month). However, she does take 10% of your gross pay for each gig. I sent her a request to put me on her email list to get the process rolling. Got a strange feeling about this one…

In the meantime, my other avocation's headhunters were beginning to call me. It seems that the "real world" jobs were starting to pick up and I might start getting some face-time soon. Hollywood may have to wait for me a bit longer.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

ENCHANTED in Times Square

Three days… I spent 3 exhausting days at the center of the universe: Times Square, New York City.

Of course the story line for the tongue-in-cheek fantasy movie, Enchanted, describes this location as the worst possible place in the real-world. And that's exactly where a cartoon-world princess (Amy Adams) is to be banished by the evil queen (Susan Sarandon). She is followed by the handsome prince (James Marsden) and his rotund friend (Anthony Spall), so that they could rescue her and return to the perfect happily-ever-after cartoon-land called Andalasia (aka: the production company working for the Disney money-machine).
But things get complicated… the princess falls in love with a real-world almost-married man (Patrick Dempsey)… and… I guess I'll have to go to the movies to see how the story ends.

Had I not done my research on the IMDB website during the previous night, I would still be in a fog about what my role as a tourist in the background would have signified in the context of the movie's story. This is typical of most shoots -"they keep us in the dark and feed us mushrooms"... or something like that. As I observed during the course of the production, no one on the set was able to give a clear synopsis of what the movie was supposed to be about. And I find that attitude to be the typical level of work-related-IQ for most of the crew I've chatted with in the past. Either they are uncaringly aloof or they're just into "guarding the secret" (so that they won't have to go into a long-winded spiel about the meaning of our purpose each time one of us asks for our "motivation").

The first day was a 6:00 AM call. A chilly, albeit sunny day was spent between the various filth-laden curbs and ominously dangerous crossing-islands created by the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue. The food services for the 300 extras was skimpy and lacking any appetizing appearance. Many people thought that the ersatz-egg-salad sandwiches were constructed of some kind of astronaut-food powder. I stuck to eating fruits and cheese… occasionally flushing it down with some grapefruit juice. I figured the citric acid would kill any germs that may have been cultivated while awaiting our anxious fingers to rip open their plastic-enshrined confines. Some of us decided to seek culinary-euphoria at any of the nearby quick-food establishments (Shbarro's Pizza, MickyD's fries, and Starbuck's cafeinated panacea). Standing in the breezy chill while the "prince" was stabbing a New York City bus or prancing through the sea of yellow traffic; we snuk inside the food and hotel establishments between takes, seeking an atmosphere that would return the natural color of our now bluish skin. I had developed a nasty cough and later that week had to be put on antibiotics.

A roving band of FOX5's camera crew invaded our nearby corner and quizzed passersby with some political questions. If you answered it right, you got a FOX5 t-shirt. I couldn't resist!

"State your name and where you're from!"
"Who named the White House… "White House"?…

…and BAM! I won a t-shirt (which immediately contributed a degree of Fahrenheit to my body's low core temperature). I love America. You just have to wish for stuff and there it is. I was warm for the rest of the day.

The second day was warmer but the filming wasn't progressing with any great success and some of us (150 strong) were given a chance to come back for a third (and final) day to help complete the necessary background effects. Now that my unemployment benefits were exhausted, the extra work came in handy. Occasionally we were taken back to the holding area where the friendly banter created some interesting verbal exchanges and autobiographical sketches of those in our immediate circle of extras. When the chatter wound down, I took out my playing cards and taught the group how to play "I DOUBT YOU!". This was a huge success as we all tried to bluff our way to a win. One of the beginners won… Naturally!

Soon we were back on sin-city's streets, guided by our fearless handlers and placed into position. While there, any number of foreign tourists would stop and snap off a few digital pictures… and also try to sneak into our group. This was not a good choice on their part because our fearless production assistants immediately recognized their colorful garb (we were all told to dress in muted and drab colors) and guided them politely (yet firmly) away from our area. This "tourist invasion" was unceasing throughout the day and the procedure would be repeated countless times during the course of the shoot. I still don't know how the production crew thought they could control a NYC crowd in Times Square without the help of the riot-police or at least some tape. No-my-yob. I took it all in with smiles. After all, here I was standing in the middle of Times Square . A sense of tranquillity waved through me as I looked across at George M. Cohan's statue and thought: "I finally made it to where I needed to be... crossroads of the fantasy and the real-world at large.".

(EPILOGUE: The final release of the film showed me in 3 areas: 1 behind Timothy Spall, when he appears out of the manhole, another when the prince stabs the bus and has a confrontation with the bus driveress, and a third when the busdriveress is in panic mode -trying to get the chipmonk off her body... see me at the red arrows below).