Sunday, June 03, 2012

All You Zombie

One of my aspirations (dreams, really) when I was a film and TV extra was to be a zombie in full makeup.  Another was being in a hot tub with Alyssa Milano.  Despite working on "Charmed," neither of those ever came to pass.

So, I jumped at the chance to be a zombie in a low-budget flick shot locally.  It was scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, then they bumped it to Thursday and Friday, and finally, Saturday and Sunday.  Guess it says something about my social calendar that there was minimal juggling necessary to accommodate their production schedule.
The shoot was on an indoor soundstage (a converted warehouse in the industrial area of the city an hour's drive away), but made to look like slums and back alleys after the shit has hit the you-know-what.  I was really impressed with the sets, and the detail of the playbills and overflowing dumpsters, the downed lightpoles and trashed cars, and the layer of filth on practically everything (but not REAL filth, which makes all the difference in the world.  I remember shooting in downtown L.A. subbing for New York, and the strewn garbage and urine puddles were just as genuine as if they'd been produced on the east coast).

Basically, all our scenes were either approaching the main cast, attacking soldiers, or being killed by soldiers (though there were a couple of scenes where we were just standing around, crossing, or lying on the ground, having already been killed).  The 1st A.D. did most of the directing of the actors (and his words had to be translated when addressing the Russians), while the real director seldom left his chair behind the monitors.  Hey, not every director can be Sam Raimi, kids.

I didn't get a head count, exactly, but it looked like about twenty-five to thirty zombies were on the shoot (with the fog machines in overdrive, it sometimes seemed like a lot more, but sitting around eating or playing cards, it seemed like way fewer).  I had gone out and bought a new ensemble for the project, because my friend and I are always talking about doing a zombie walk in August (instead of just missing it like we do every year), and I could wear these clothes for that.  I don't know anymore, though, since the clothes are so filthy and matted with fake blood that it would be a crime not to burn them.

Most of the outfits the zombies wore were provided by wardrobe, and for some reason, there was a distinctly Seventies vibe to the clothes.  Honestly, I always think of Dawn of the Dead whenever I think of zombie movies, but it would surprise me if anybody else does (still, the two movies everyone kept referring to yesterday were Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead--so you could do worse). 

Oh, I'm writing this early in the morning of the second day. Yesterday, I was so blooded up that everything I touched became stained or marked, and it was hard to even read, let alone let my hands pass over a notebook again and again. I wanted to document this like I used to--before I found out that somebody somewhere didn't like it--because the background work was something pretty unique I did/do, and honestly, some of those film shoots aren't even memories anymore.

The wardrobe department did what they called "distressing" of my outfit, which was white shirt and tie, dress slacks, and shoes, and tore them up in practically no time, then patting them with phony dirt and grime, grease, and copious amounts of fake blood.  And that, kids, was the worst part of the whole experience.  That red liquid--made up of corn syrup and food coloring, as you Scream fans know--gets into your clothes, into your skin, hair, and mouth, and makes you feel unclean and sticky.*

Then it was time for the makeup department to do essentially the same thing to my face.  The makeup chair wasn't unpleasant, and both days I was the first one in.  My makeup girl was attractive and smelled nice, and she started with a grey cream all over my face and hands, then used a red/purple for my eyes and lips.  She put on a prosthetic the first day of a tear/scar in my forehead, but the next day, she just used thickening face blood to create a tear-like effect (and that's preferred, since I had to have a makeup guy remove the prosthetic at the end of the first day.

First sitting down, I told her of my exuberance to do this project, mentioning that I would've done it for free.  She wilted a little bit and said, "They're paying you?"  Apparently, she was doing zombie makeup for college credit and the value of the experience. 

By the end of that first day, "I would've done this for free" was no longer true.  I was really glad they were paying me.  Especially when my alarm went off before six on the second morning.

Even so, I remember the time I was paid to be Lucky the Leprechaun with that oddly-fitting, hot suit and that giant, hot head.  That was way less comfortable than being a zombie.  And it's nice to have highs and lows to measure things against.

Somebody just asked me what I was writing here, and it made me self-conscious.  I remember on the Dreamgirls set, there was a woman who was super convinced that I was writing about her.  She said, again and again, that I couldn't put her in a book or mention her in my report to the mothership.  The only reason I even remember interacting with her instead of staring at Beyonce's bosoms was because of the irrational paranoia of that strange woman--and again, here I am writing about it.

Man, it's so weird what you remember from these experiences.  For example, I remember a bunch of us extras passing around a flask on a basketball game set, but not what it was for, and I remember this dude's insanely-lame Sci-Fi costume on that Leonard Nimoy commercial, but not what I wore or what the commercial was even for (Alleve . . . it just came to me).  Entire series I worked on that I no longer remember, but I can still see Heather Locklear's legs on the one day I was on the "Spin City" set.

I don't know what to write about here, because I'm too close to it.  I think I'll recall what it was like to have all that blood on me, and maybe the gunfire, but who knows?  I might remember the bald guy who played a zombie, but wouldn't let them put blood on him and insisted on wearing his glasses (he really stood out).  Or the woman who stood about four-two and they covered her face in blood, so she looked like a child every time the camera was on her.  Or kicking a dude in the hat.  Or the Russian girl in the pink shorts.

Oh, the first shots I worked on were done with a camera, like a little pocket Nikon or Canon.  I kept waiting for the real camera to come in, and when it didn't, I wondered what kind of quarter-assed production this was.  But it turned out that was the stunt coordinator ordering us around, recording footage for the director to look at, since we ended up doing it again with more zombies, smoke, and live ammo.

Wait, what do you call blanks?  Are they live ammo?

In L.A., because the unions look out for the extras--even the non-union ones--there are all sorts of "bumps" (or bonuses), for any unusual work aspect.  So, I'd have gotten a makeup bump, a smoke bump, a wardrobe change bump (though I never ended up switching to another character), a hair bump, and a stunt bump--maybe even a blood bump.  Here, I have only my self-inflicted bumps or my unlovely lady lumps. 

Usually, an extra sits in holding (the relaxation area off the set, designated for us "background artists") most of the day--sometimes the WHOLE day--but there wasn't a heck of a lot of that with this shoot.  I read my Harry Turtledove book (my first), but only thirty pages or so.  The zombies beside me played a few hands of Poker (the losers had to do pushups), but kept having to abandon their games to go back to the set.  A couple zombies simply splayed out on the floor and went to sleep, but the one time I tried that, I kept touching my tie or my face, getting my hands all bloody (and when I had to stand up, my back was stuck to the floor).  Oh, and holding was just a couple of tables in the same stage, so we heard every line delivery and every gunshot.

I had a surreal conversation with an also-undead woman standing around waiting to see if they'd use us or not where she wondered why, if the only way to kill a zombie was to destroy its brain, they always moaned "Braaains" and wanted to eat brains.  And if you ate somebody's brain, why would they become a zombie?

Sometimes I really hate Return of the Living Dead.

Another first for me was being close to guns being fired.  The soldiers killing the zombies had pistols, automatic weapons, and in one case, a shotgun.  Because the latter was so deafening, all of us were given earplugs, which had to be painted by the makeup department to either match our skin, or look like bloody wounds.  Unfortunately, once those earplugs were in, we could no longer hear our cues, or the shouts of the assistant directors and P.A.s.  Everything became muffled except for my own breathing and internal sounds, which became amplified, kind of like when you dunk your head in a bathtub when you're a child (or in my case, a very fat adult).  And I have to admit that, in the lead-up to the very first firefights, I was getting nervous, or at least anxious enough to hear my own heartbeat.  Partly this was due to the adrenaline of the scene, but partly because there were many things to keep straight (the order of my death, for one, and falling onto the ground in a safe, yet still realistic way, for two), not to mention the fear of screwing up the take, when resetting would take an hour.

The stunt zombies died way harder than we did, including one who fell from a scaffold onto the roof of a car . . . twice.  They got hit with squibs and bloodpacks and fake machetes and a real briefcase, and impressed me with their willingness to not only do the stunts again, but to get killed in a new way an hour later as a different character (there were only three or four of them).

The blood spraying out the squibs was hot, as I guess real blood would be.  In one scene, I was pretty sprayed with it, and that meant there was all the more red on my face and costume for the rest of the shoot.  I didn't really understand how they'd reset if one of the squibs didn't work (which happened once) or the shot wasn't right (which happened more than once), since the detonation seemed to blow a hole through the stuntman's clothing.  Did they clean it off and paste over it somehow, or have to provide a whole new outfit?

Anyhow, the shoot went really long, especially on the second day, when we showed up earlier and stayed later than on the first day (the actors were going back home the next morning, so we had to get the work done that day, even if it meant shooting longer than anticipated).  Even so, it was a good experience, and writing it up has been more of an ordeal than getting the makeup off was. 

Sure, the 1st A.D. seemed a bit of a screamer, but the crew was pretty great. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing a lot them again in the future (especially the cute ones). And the extras were all pretty cool to work with, and seemed pretty dedicated (although a couple of them were doing it for the first time, and said they'd not ever be doing it again).

The film has gone without a name, mostly because I am now a coward when it comes to my blog, but also because there is virtually no chance it'll be released in this country (and literally no chance it'll get a theatrical release here).  When I went to Walmart afterward to buy wet-wipes to clean my hands and arms, the cashier asked me what the movie was and when I told her, she seemed disappointed for some reason.**

Like I said, it was a long shoot, and were I in Los Angeles, in a union production, wow, the money I would have made for what we went through.  At the same time, the unions in L.A. would've prevented common extras from participating in what I did today and yesterday.  About a decade ago, I asked stunt coordinator Peter Diamond how many times he thought he died in the Star Wars films.  More times than he could count he perished, playing aliens and stormtroopers and Rebels and Imperials getting shot and blown up and dropped and lightsabered.

Well, I don't know if any of it would be in the finished product, but I died again and again these past two days, and not only in multiple takes of the same death.  In all the time I was an extra in Hollywood, I never got to be killed.  I never had blood spatter me from others being killed, or had candy glass rain down on me from stuntman deaths.  So that was cool.

You know, it may be that people in California are just spoiled.  I suffered through a couple of unpleasant shoots, one or two even more uncomfortable than this one (the only time I've caught pneumonia as an adult was on the beach in Santa Monica, pretending it wasn't cold and windy until the wee hours of the night), but people would have pitched a fit about being forced to lay on the ground while soldiers run back and forth, or breathe in surely-poisonous fog banks while being covered with sticky, skin-staining (and Harry Turtledove book-staining) fake blood. 

Because when you work in the circus, you don't ooh and ahh when you see elephants.

And if I have complained, more so than I should have, I apologize.  I was lucky to be able to work on this project and realize one of my dreams, and with overtime pay, I can probably see Prometheus next weekend, instead of just rolling my eyes at those that do see it.

And hey, now I have an outfit for that zombie walk I've been planning to go to in August.  Probably the grey makeup on my arms and in my ears will be faded by then.

Rish "Night of the Flesh-Eaters" Outfield

*Then, taking it off at the end of the night, you find it got in your chest and leg hair, and taint.  As pleasant as it sounds.

**That reminds me of something Kevin Pollack said once.  He said people will always come up to him when he's shooting on the street and ask him what the movie is.  When he'd tell them the title, they'd always seem unimpressed that they didn't recognize the title of a movie that hadn't come out yet, often saying, "Never heard of it," so now, whenever somebody asks him what movie he's making, he always says, "The Godfather."  It's a funny story, and I can totally see some guy responding, "Hey, that's a great movie!" and walking away impressed.

1 comment:

Maymunah said...

I'm sick, but I'm gonna try to be coherent.

Memory is a funny thing, and it's okay to state that something is unpleasant if it is unpleasant. It's not the same thing as whining. There comes a point when it's not an honour anymore, it's just hard work with little recompense.

I used to live in an area where a lot of movies were made, and I heard that being an extra really wasn't worth it, even for the chance of being in the LoTR for two seconds. It's not an experience I've had, and it's interesting to hear in detail what it really is like.

What I mean is, keep writing, and keep publishing what you write.

There. I think that was semi-coherent.