cover story

Esprit de corpse

What it's like to be embedded—on a movie set
November 1, 2012

With an explosion of light, the screaming starts. . . . This place is wrecked—an entire ballroom flopped on its head. In the middle of the floor (which used to be the ceiling), crushed chandeliers slump like twin crystal wedding cakes left in the sun too long. Playing cards, balloons, dishes, and chairs litter the tiered space; broken glass and broken bodies are scattered everywhere. Dozens of dazed and bloody people stumble about, trying to adjust to this unexpected horror. They’re failing with great success.

As I struggle to my feet amid the unmoored throng searching for their missing wives, brothers, and daughters, one thought keeps intruding with the brutish force and graceless inevitability of each new reality-TV show: Screw your loved ones. I need a bathroom NOW. . . . 

Okay, rookie mistake. Note to self: Before going on set, void the six cups of coffee you nervously gulped down since arriving at wardrobe.

So I began a 2006 piece for the late, lamented Premiere magazine about Wolfgang Petersen’s colossally unnecessary Warner Bros. remake of The Poseidon Adventure. The original disaster epic, released in 1972, boasted a dozen Oscar winners in its cast, including Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, and Shelley Winters (swimming in her granny panties!). The concept for my story was to spend the day as a participating extra on the set of what was supposed to be a giant blockbuster (the production budget was $140 million).

I was nervous, as I am for just about every assignment, but some instinct told me to go all in: with the right observational filter on (curiosity, of course, but also an eye for the absurd), and the determination to maintain relentless documentation. To photograph the experience, Premiere had assigned David Strick, the warped maestro who always finds a way to capture the organic bizar­reness of behind-the-scenes Hollywood. Strick’s involvement not only added an indelible element to the published piece, it also provided a reason for potential sources on set to talk to me—really, how many extras have their very own photographer tailing them?

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As I wrote in Premiere, the week before, I had gone to the studio lot so the wardrobe department could take my measurements, and when I arrived for the big day, I had a blood-and-oil-streaked tuxedo ready to go. After some artful makeup and a briefing by several assistant directors, I waited in the holding tent with the real extras for the director to require our services.

Extras—actually, many of them like to be called background actors or artists, depending on whether they consider this a calling or a way to dodge a subpoena—are lowest on the filmmaking food chain, quietly nestled beneath the lot-tour tram drivers. “Everybody’s replaceable,” one veteran told me with 20 years of resignation in his voice. Background work typically involves an extended day full of lengthy stretches of punishing boredom, lingering uncertainty, potential injury, and banal indignities. And yet, the camaraderie of fellow travelers, the exposure to successful actors, and the chance to hone “the craft” provide a genuine satisfaction for many of these unsung artisans.

When the call came, we trudged into Stage 16, where Petersen had also shot parts of The Perfect Storm. After every take, I whipped out my notebook and jotted down the crew interactions, the physical details of the set, the reactions from the actors and extras, the smells and sounds of the experience. Then I would tuck it away in time to start yelling in terror again. Periodically, I would get a little time with Petersen, who noted that background actors provided physical and emotional context: “Fifty percent of the feel of a scene like this is coming from them,” he said.

I also snuck quick interviews with the extras, every chance I got. One woman with an oddly intense affect let loose, unprompted, with a “spitting mad” rant about how computer-generated imagery was killing her career. According to her, the filmmakers pull certain notable background actors out and make detailed digital scans of their dimensions that they can later use and manipulate onscreen without needing the actual actor to be present and paid. “I am not a CGI puppet!” she cried.

Most seemed much more laid-back. A guy named Dave with an elegant gash across his face said, “Just relax and have a good time, that’s what it’s all about.”

Strick took hundreds of pictures that day. After a while, I managed to lose my self-consciousness about him. I was too consumed with observing, eavesdropping, questioning, scribbling notes—plus “acting,” of course. I was “on” for nearly 14 hours, and though I was exhausted at the end of the day, I’m convinced that having all of that real-time reporting—an entire standard reporter’s notebook filled—was the key to delivering what I consider one of my best yarns.

Sadly, since I wrote this piece in 2006, these types of assignments have become almost extinct, as entertainment journalism itself has capsized. (One could be forgiven for assuming that the corpses in this photo are people I had to murder to get the Premiere job.) The disappearance of in-depth monthly film magazines and rise of the quick-hit trade story that now permeates most of the industry-focused blogosphere is one reason, but it’s also a result of filmgoers being completely saturated by the factoids and ephemera of the movie world. There is now so much material available online every day about every step of the filmmaking process—through filmmakers Tweeting set photos, studios releasing seven different teasers and endless making-of featurettes, obsessive fans stealing smartphone pictures during production—that there is very little mystery left about how movies are made.

Film reporters traditionally derive much of their value from being somewhere the average reader can’t go, talking to talented people who cinephiles never meet, being in on things that the casual observer never hears about. While much of this is still in play for entertainment writers, the current all-access-pass climate on the Web means that journalists have little to reveal by offering access behind the scenes. Meanwhile, thanks to the likes of US Weekly and TMZ, a lot of that entertainment “news” is really celebrity content. Hard-news outlets either compete for the same juicy scraps or risk irrelevance by devoting dwindling resources to longer, more in-depth pieces that fewer people have the time or attention to read. Just as in the business they cover, the money’s in the sparkle and spectacle, not the thoughtful and thorough.

Before shooting, my little group gauges the camera positions and ruefully acknowledges that, given our placement at the back left of the set, it’s unlikely that any of our hard work will make it onscreen. . . . 

Finally, everything is set: One hundred background actors, Kurt Russell in the middle, and dozens of crew, all ready to make some art, baby. Petersen comes on the “God mike” and gives us a little first-shot-of-the-day pep talk, ending with “G-G-G-G-Go for it!”

The dripping water is cued . . . 

The fire bars go hot . . .

The lights are extinguished . . .

A tense pause as we all lie still in the silent darkness . . .

And: “Background. . . .  Action!”

Jay A. Fernandez is senior writer and news editor of Indiewire. He recently worked for The Hollywood Reporter and wrote a weekly column called “Scriptland” for The LA Times. He has written for dozens of publications, including Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, and Los Angeles.