Extras are invaluable pawns in moviemaking game
COLONIE Our meal at the Route 7 Diner was quiet, long and somewhat awkward.
Kate Alois pushed a soggy piece of lettuce around her plate with a fork. She smiled, took a sip of water and then mouthed a few words as though she were talking.
I squinted my eyes slightly and cocked an ear toward her, as if that might make her words more audible. When this failed, I jammed my fork into a dwindling pile of lukewarm scrambled eggs.
Then a seemingly disinterested waitress strolled by the table, a morose look entrenched on her face. To my surprise, she turned and uttered a few low-pitched words.
“Hey guys,” she said sullenly. “Is everything alright?”
I jammed the eggs in my mouth and grunted. Kate instinctively eyed her almost empty glass of water, but said nothing about wanting it refilled.
“Yes, we’re fine,” she said cheerfully without skipping a beat.
She was right. We were more than fine.
For roughly seven hours, we were working with the stars from Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Our waitress was Eva Mendes, who bristled when a rather surly Gabe Fazio sauntered in to meet Bradley Cooper at a booth in the side dining room of the restaurant.
With cameras rolling and the set quiet, they exchanged dialogue as I ate lunch with Kate and three other movie extras unexpectedly pulled into the action. They shot the scene seven times over the course of the roughly two hours, as we played diners either disinterested or unknowing of the major production revolving around us.
Movie extras almost always play a crucial role in feature films. Their benign, seemingly ordinary presence help directors bridge the gap between fiction and reality.
A handful of people filmed in the background can breathe a sense of reality into an otherwise staged scene. They can be passive dwellers in an empty space, drifting through the camera’s eye like silent wraiths.
Cianfrance, the award-winning director of “Blue Valentine,” is no stranger to filming around real-life people in their real-life environment. The graduate of the University of Colorado’s film school credits his work as a documentarian for molding his realistic approach to film-making.
Cianfrance also lists Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” as the film that helped him realize the importance of taking a more natural approach to directing. Pasolini relied heavily on nonprofessional and amateur actors to retell the story of Jesus Christ in the 1964 film.
“It made me aware of how real life and personal experience can create more breathtaking, sensitive cinema than more sophisticated techniques,” Cianfrance said of the film during an interview with The Observer. “It has made humanity crucial to my own work —I’m obsessed with capturing raw, living moments.”
This is part of the challenge of casting extras for the movie, explained Sean Powers, co-owner of the Rita Powers Casting Group. During their first meetings, Cianfrance insisted on using as many local residents as possible as background and extras in the film.
“That was pretty much the first thing he said to me: ‘I really want to involve the community.’ ” Powers said.
Among the 1,500-plus extras expected to appear in the film, only about 50 are members of the Screen Actors Guild, a labor union that requires its members to have an appearance in at least three movies. That means the majority of the extras in Cianfrance’s movie will have hardly any experience working with a major production.
“That makes my job a lot more challenging and a lot more creative,” he said.
Like most of other 13 extras solicited for the diner shoot Tuesday, I was no exception. My acting career was pretty much limited to my by-gone college years, when I sometimes employed creative hysterics in an attempt to push back term paper deadlines.
But as neophyte extras, our instructions were basic: Bring three changes of clothes that appear to be from the early 1990s, get to the closed-to-the-public diner by 6 a.m. and above all, follow directions. Those directions got slightly more complex when the crew added “wait here” to our succinct list of duties.
“I guess it’s one of those hurry-up-and-wait situations,” said Nick Kaiser, one of the few among us with any experience as a movie extra.
Of course, no one really minded the waiting. All of the extras seemed happy enough just to be on the set, a feeling that was only augmented when they learned they’d be getting more than $17 per hour as non-union background extras during the shoot.
The bulk of guidance from the production crew focused more on what extras shouldn’t do, rather than what they should. Don’t gawk at the movie stars, and don’t look directly at the cameras; don’t talk to the actors or director unless they talk to you, and then only answer the questions directly.
Just act normal, they said. Or as normal as you can with a Hollywood film crew capturing your every move on tape.
“You are part of us today,” said the casting director. “You are part of the team. You are working today.”
After another hour of waiting, a woman from the film’s wardrobe crew wandered by our tables to rifle through the three changes of clothes we brought. With the scene being shot set in 1994, she looked for the type of threads that would make us look like authentic diners in the restaurant: denim jackets, dated logo T-shirts and old jeans seemed to be the look she was seeking.
She selected our respective attire and directed us to a bathroom to change. Several of the female extras were pulled aside by the production’s stylist, who applied liberal amounts of hair spray to roll back the date of their appearance.
Then we were whisked into the diner’s seating in front for another long spate of waiting. And then some more waiting.
I sat down with Brittney Dalton, a Marine reservist visiting family in Schenectady. Up until recently, Dalton was on active duty, serving as a helicopter mechanic on Marine One, the craft used to fly U.S. presidents to various destinations.
During her career with the Marines, Dalton had the occasion to meet presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. But for her, those experiences would pale in comparison to a meeting with Ryan Gosling, one of the stars of the film.
“I’d much rather meet him,” she confided.
Our conversation is cut short when an unseen voice announces the film is rolling. Silence falls on the extras.
The hours ticked by with little change. I slowly drifted in and out of a whispering conversation with the other extras when the crew directed me to move to a booth in the side dining room with Kate.
We were seated at a booth, given a pair of meals and instructed not to eat them until the camera started rolling. Even then, we were told, take small bites so they last throughout the scene.
Cianfrance sat at a table where Cooper was to have a conversation with Fazio. For another half-hour, he meticulously angled each camera to catch exactly the shot he envisioned for the segment.
We stayed silent at our table, unsure exactly how to act when the cameras started rolling. By the sixth take, there’s so little of our food left that Kate begins mouthing imaginary words to me instead of eating; I nod as if I’m understanding them.
Each take is different from the next, which is common for Cianfrance’s style of realism: Let the dialogue follow real emotion. I wonder if perhaps the waiting was a device to lull us into a sense of dull glazed-look normalcy — the type one might find in the afternoon at any working-class diner.
Then it’s a wrap. We’re hustled onto a bus and brought to the Niskayuna Reformed Church, where a catering company serves us lunch with the rest of the production, including Gosling, Cooper, Fazio and Cianfrance.
Only seven of us were used during the scene. The rest sufficed with a chance to get an up-close look at the inner-workings of a major production.
The crew used the diner a total of three times for the movie. They even employed restaurant manager Colleen Noble four times as an extra.
Like many of the other extras, Noble said she had no prior acting experience and never even considered a career in film. She said her limited role in the movie — appearing as the restaurant manager and then later as the godmother to Mendes’ child — was a thrill she won’t soon forget.
Yet there’s no guarantee that Noble or any other movie extra will actually appear in the final film, which is set to be released in 2013. Just like any ancillary or background performance, it could always end up a casualty of editing.
“It might all end up on the cutting room floor,” she said. “But you never know.”