Saturday, November 19, 2005

September in November

I'm very, very dirty right now, and that's not just my strict religious upbringing talking.

Today and tomorrow, I am working on Oliver Stone's 9/11 movie, tentatively titled SEPTEMBER. Like on SPIDER-MAN 3, today is the first day of the shoot (in L.A., anyway), and like SPIDEY, Downtown L.A. is subbing for New York City. This time, however, we're shooting in a nicer, cleaner, more scumbag-free area of the city, and there are legitimate businesses on this street (like a Subway, Burger King, and Washington Mutual).

There are a handful of familiar faces among the extras, most of them from the set of SPIDER-MAN. Also easy to recognize is Oliver Stone, standing out in a bright pink t-shirt (an odd-looking man up close, he makes Sam Raimi look like Steve McQueen).

I am playing a New York pedestrian again, but as it's set in the summer and in the business center of the city, I am in a nice shirt and tie. Or I would've been, had wardrobe not changed me out. You see, besides the many firefighters, NYPD, paramedics, FBI agents, postal workers, construction workers and nudists, the crew asked for ten volunteers to be soot-covered survivors. There were twenty or so who volunteered, and I was among those chosen. I have always loved to put on makeup and pantyhos-- er, makeup and stage blood, so I was happy to be dirtied up for the production.

Another four volunteers were chosen to be walking wounded, and they got cuts and blood all over their clothes (which were partly theirs and partly wardrobe's). One guy was so blood-covered that he looked like an extra in a George A. Romero flick (and I was really jealous).

For me, they subbed out my shirt and tie, then put glycerin on my face, neck, and arms (to appear as sweat), then dusted me up with soot and ash (which I was told was actually flour, dye, and baking soda). It smelled like cake mix, and I got it all over my arms, hair, back, tie, neck, and face. I was fortunate or unfortunate enough to be one of the most filthy ones, and my normally brown hair has been grey ever since.

After we had changed and waited around for an hour or so, a new guy--someone I'll call Guido--joined us in the line. I guess he had heard of our volunteering and assumed we would be paid extra for getting dirtied up (a "makeup bump," I think they call it). Lots of times, there are people like Guido, who understand instinctively that the rules don't apply to them, and they always win in the end. You see it almost constantly, and not just in Los Angeles: he's the kind of guy who sees the Please Turn Off Your Cellphones message before a movie, and yet his rings an hour later. Guido's the guy who smokes his cigarette right outside your open living room window, so as not to stink up his own apartment. The guy who drives onto the soft shoulder of the freeway to get to the exit before all the cars that have been lined up there.

Well, this time, crime didn't pay, because the A.D. who asked us to volunteer had written down our names in the morning, and pulled him out of the line right before we finally had our makeup applied. Guido was cast out with the devil and his angels, and is now ducking over to craft service when it's time to go back to set.

Wow, that was a tangent, but it's either write this blog or sleep.

I'll make a confession to you: I'm happy to be working. I worked six days last week and six the week before, and it looks like this week will be the same. I don't have to work so often, but I choose to. I like overtime. It's gotten to the point where I don't even mind getting up at five o'clock. It beats the alternative: sitting around my flat, eating Cool Ranch Doritos, and pondering why I'm so alone, contemplated where my life went so wrong.

Now, on with the countdown. I was worried that it would never come out of my clothes, shoes, and backpack, but it's already gone from my pants and most of my white shirt, having simply fallen or rubbed off during the shoot and long downtime (if you're ever a film extra, ALWAYS bring a book to set; I usually bring two, as well as the notebook I'm writing this in).

The fourteen of us volunteers have had a very easy day so far: I and another sooter were used in one shot where I stumbled around, looking confused, while the police converge to decide what to do. There were many takes--perhaps ten, but the cameras moved onto various characters throughout, so it wasn't so bad/inefficient.

There are many extras--a hundred maybe, but none of the other dirty or wounded extras were used by the time lunch rolled around.

Or perhaps I should say "by the time lunch SHOULD have rolled around." In my last journal/blog entry, I stated that a production technically doesn't even have to give its non-union extras a lunchbreak, though it had never happened in all the times I've worked (they'll sometimes make you buy your own lunch, or will dismiss you before lunch comes along), but define irony--today seems to be just such a theoretical instance.

We started at 5:30am, and it's now 1:30, so lunch SHOULD have happened if it was going to. People are saying that the production doesn't want to lose the daylight, so they're opting to work through lunch. For those who are in SAG (the union that covers extras as well), the rewards will be great: for every fifteen minutes after working six hours, they will earn what is called a meal penalty, a payment in addition to their hourly wage that will continue to add up until they are fed or dismissed. Those lucky souls in SAG will make as much in meal penalties as I will for my full day's work.

'twould be nice.

Let's see, what else can I tell you, since I'm not doing much except sitting and getting everything I touch (this notebook included) filthy?

What we're shooting today involves several New York Port Authority cops and FBI, none of which I recognize. Well, there is one young, dark-haired cop that is familiar in an Italian-friend-of-Leonardo-DiCaprio's-in-TITANIC sort of way. But he seems like kind a tool, to be honest.

Wait, scratch that--I shouldn't say something like that about the man, just based on the hour I was around him. He's a pretty big tool, to be honest. How's that?

There was a lot of joking and horseplay among the featured actors (the "principles," as they are known in the industry), with dancing, fake fighting, singing, and more cursing than a visit to Dakota Fanning's dressing room. I understand that all actors can't be Sean Penns or Daniel Day Lewises, staying in character and professional through the entire shoot, but I did have to ask myself, as the papers and debris were raining down and the firefighters rushed into their unwarranted doom, if there was this much grab-assing on the set of SCHINDLER'S LIST.*

I'm a hypocrite that way, I know, but I've always tried to give these jobs my all--as much as when I was a real actor once upon a time--and when I see extras walking around the base of the soon-to-be ex-World Trade Center with dumb smiles on their faces like they got off the short bus to Disneyland, I wonder why I've never gone anywhere in this industry, and so many others sure seem to.

Maybe I'm being unfair, though. There were always some, even among my own friends, who were willing to do anything in one of our film productions (though none more than me, he said with absolutely no false modesty), and some were a little more hesitant to wreck their cars or jump into freezing water or make love to a giant spider puppet. Doesn't mean anything, I guess, just personal preferences.

There are always those who will succeed by getting around the rules or cheating their way to top, like our friend Guido tried. I can only hope that they end up being extras in my own productions once we all get to Hell, kids.

Rish Ramblin' Outfield

P.S. No more than a half hour after I finished writing the above, we got broken for lunch. I had already gone to McDonalds to grab a couple sandwiches, though. I was worried by how shocked people would be by my physical condition, but in asking the manager if it was okay, I was even more shocked that she didn't speak English. Regardless, the Union extras got eleven meal penalties when we finally ate, so they'll still get to cry themselves to sleep tonight on gold-lined pillows.

*Some of the actors playing cops were not actors, but real NYPD cops, and a few of the technical advisors (including the man Nicolas Cage is playing) were actually there that day. And I wondered how they felt seeing these idiots jump around like back-up dancers in an M.C. Hammer video.

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