Posts Tagged ‘casting’

Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………


[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.


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Despite being told that the script had a hard deadline — as the first day of principal photography would be October 23rd, with the new script the production date was pushed back until early December of 2013.  My contact, the director (AT), wanted to start after the New Year.  “Why bring everyone down for a few days of shooting, and then have to break for the holidays?  There’s all that extra airfare.”  One of the producers (AG) insisted that there was an incentive to starting before the year was out, whether it was a tax credit or some other item involving distribution (which he kept hinting at), no one was really certain.  Now the latest conflict of the production was that AG confirmed that he also wanted to play Walt Disney.

With about ten days notice, I was told I’d have to be on set on the first day of photography — ostensibly to play Doc Sherwood.  “Do you know how to ride a horse?”

“The Doc Sherwood based character doesn’t appear on horseback.”

“He does now.”

Flashback: when I had my meeting with the producers in Florida, they wanted to add almost all of the people who had some influence on young WD — from the first person who gave him a drawing pad, to Doc Sherwood, who gave him a nickel to draw his horse.  There was nothing in any of these factoids that served the forward momentum of the story — so I’d eliminated them.  AG wanted Doc Sherwood, so I met him halfway — I had Disney go, at the nadir of his despair, to a public bath (true story).  In the opposing shower stall, he saw someone who reminded him of Doc Sherwood (fiction).  WD gets caught staring, and tells the man in the shower about Sherwood — believing in him, giving him his first nickel.  The man encourages WD — “must have seen somethin’, men don’t just throw away nickels.”  WD turns to rinse in the shower, and when he steps out to dry himself, the man is gone, but there is a nickel on his stacked clothing.  (This also = Jung’s “Old man in the fairy tale” — someone who encourages at a point where the main character is losing the way).

AT tells me that he’s had to make a few concessions to the producers.  They wrote this scene, but I was free to adjust the dialogue once I was there (and there was a strong likelihood it wouldn’t make the final edit).  I’d gone too far to turn back.  I was still intrigued how AT was going to get around AG playing Walt.

I flew into Orlando where I was met by the company driver.  I was starving, but there was no room in the schedule to stop for something to eat.  The driver complained for the 90 minutes to Deland about how many trips he had to make back and forth to the airport and to the set.  I bit my tongue.  The voice in my head kept saying, “you’re a driver.  You’re being paid to drive.  Why are you complaining about having to be on the road?”  Shortly before we arrived in Deland the answer came.  He was an actor, who was promised a walk-on part, but also given a job as driver.  Once he’d wrung out all the misery of the journeys he had to make this week, he harped back on older experiences where he’d driven someone from Florida to upstate NY (and didn’t get fed).  I don’t think I’ve been more relieved to exit an automobile, not even after a non-stop drive to South Carolina from NYC.

The production offices were set up in an old real estate office on the outskirts of Deland, though still on the main drag.  The director had sent fair warning to the production offices ahead of time about who I was really (the screenwriter), so the head of wardrobe whispered to me “bless you. This might actually be a film now;” make-up fawned on me, “my god, it’s so much better. They’re actually able to get name talent to consider it now.”  I had a cachet that no bit player could possible receive.  But there was something else to focus on: food in the office — rice and beans, pulled pork and burrito shells.

They were only covering rehearsal and wardrobe that afternoon, but the tension between AG and AT was palpable.  The director pulled me out into the parking lot at one point after I’d eaten.  He pointed toward his car.  Once we were inside, he explained that he could not get AG to see reason.  Not only that, but the other producer, AB wanted a prominent part as well.

“Maybe they can act; has either one studied acting?”

“AG thinks he can. He hired a coach last week.  But he can’t carry a film — I think my only recourse is to put him on film and let him see how he looks next to a real actor.  I’m thinking of having the two actors switch parts as an experiment, and then trying to get it to stick.  Back me up on this, will you?”

In all fairness, I was aware of this battle since mid-November  The director and several crew members challenged the producers on more than one occasion when the discussion of casting the lead role came up — they’d put off casting the lead, or even considering casting for several months.  Finally AG confirmed that he was planning to play the part. They there was an e-mail from a quitting production manager saying that the producers were sabotaging the work of many professionals by trying to turn the project into a home movie featuring their own unseasoned talent.  I saw the note one of the producers (AB) sent in response — that they were hiring a producer from L.A. to oversee the project.While they mentioned that the producer had over 60 projects to his credit, the ones they listed sounded like B films or soft porn.

Back to the first day in Florida. Not too much after I’d been in the director’s car, AG, the producer who intended to play young Walt Disney, threw one of the lines I’d written at me, but he changed the context, saying “Hey Doc, gimme a nickel.  I want my nickel.”  I nodded at him and smiled.  What was I supposed to do?  Get into character? He’d watched too many behind the scenes videos.

To be honest, though AG was Latino, he actually looked somewhat like Walt Disney in his 20s.  Striking resemblance.  Coming in a few hours later, I met the actor who’d been cast to play Ub Iwerks, one of Disney’s long time artists (and the guy who actually drew/created Mickey Mouse).  I rehearsed my scene with the nine year old actor who was playing Walt in the first scenes. Late in the day, I watched the director play cat and mouse with AG.  He rehearsed a scene between Disney and Iwerks. He directed AG, each time getting more demanding.  Finally, he asked them to switch parts, just for an experiment.

Later a small group of us went to eat at a small restaurant called De la Vega.  There was the actor/casting associate (FL), who’d gotten the director involved, myself, the director and the actor who was to play Ub.  The director told this actor (I’ve been searching for his name, but it does not come up — the reason will become apparent later) his plan was to switch roles, and to prepare himself to play Disney.  The primary topic of conversation seemed to be how the director was going to get the role of Disney away from AG.

The director was bringing a lot of his talent to the film from NYC.  Most of these actors had agreed (against union regulations) to purchase their own airfare and to house themselves in Florida.  AG was under the assumption that I would do the same.  The director convinced him that as I’d done the writing, they owed me at least that much respect (and since my payment wasn’t complete until the first day of principal photography, I was still officially the owner of the script).  They’d hired out rooms in the Ann Stevens House in Cassadaga — a place in Florida that is a renowned camp for psychics and spiritualists, but that’s a story for another day.  I have to say the accommodations were wonderful.  Both the Ub actor and I were staying there and were dropped off at the end of the night.  He had no call the following day, I wasn’t due on set until 2:00 p.m.  I did hear him on the phone, however, calling L.A. — informing both his agent and girlfriend of the good news.

The woman who ran the B&B greeted me at night when we arrived.  A charming earth lady in her 40s, she stood in my doorway and we talked for nearly an hour, despite the fact I was exhausted, one of those random occasions of rapport.  When I went down to the kitchen in the morning, her husband was there.  Apparently, AG negotiated breakfast out of the price of the B&B — i.e. we were getting rooms but no food.  I didn’t recall seeing much on the highway on the drive in the night before.  “Where can I get some food around here?  Is there a deli or something?  The production company is busy filming this morning and won’t come bring me to set until much later.” The man stared at me for a few minutes.  “I was just baking an egg casserole.  Give it a half hour and you can eat some eggs.”  He brewed coffee and put out some bread for toast.  I pulled out my pad and began the morning writing.

One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that I love being on set — I’ll be there even when not required.  Where else can you learn about film-making on a large scale?  I called the production company and told them to send someone when there was a car to spare.  My “I hate driving” driver from the day before showed up in an hour.

The set was removed from the production offices by a half hour to the north.  It was out into farm country and featured an old barn with live animals. It was unusual for a Northern boy to see pasture among the palm trees.  Neither image fit my experience. As I pulled up, they were broken for lunch.  Once again, I was handed around the crew as the savior of the script — lauded by sound, set design, et al.  My assumption at this time was that I was still going to receive credit of some sort for the work I put in.  (AT had mentioned along the way that the person he’d had working on that was the production manager who quit).

They were a little behind in the shooting, but it was a good thing.  I’d have time to spend getting acquainted with the horse.  After lunch, they continued shooting a crane shot of the Disney family getting into a Model T and Walt not piling in.  There were drawings all over the barn boards.  I stood behind the crew for take after take.  I met the horse trainer and Seamus, my mount for the afternoon.

I still had hair and make-up to attend, so at three the director sent me back to Deland.

We’d chosen a handle-bar mustache for my character and a pin-stripe suit.  I spent some time dressing, and at each button I felt more and more of the period. I had a bowler hat and a medicine bag. Since I was the last shot of the day, both make-up and hair came out to the set with me.  It was a beautiful day, I was about to act, and all was right with the world.

to be continued

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It’s tricky to have a child and to be on call.  I never knew until 8 or 9 o’clock at night if I was going to have to be on set the next morning at 7.  I had alternate childcare in place each day, and after the first ten days or so of shooting at the Kaufman Astoria Studios (of which I worked five), when I checked in nightly about shooting the following day,  I was not on the schedule.

The truth is, despite my aversion to “extra” work, I enjoyed being on set.  They had told us during the second set of call backs that Alejandro was looking to cast a core group of 10 or so extras to function as the employees of the theatre — stage hands, wardrobe, make up, etc.  There would be a lot of work. On set, after a time, people knew who we were and on the whole were mostly respectful.  The 2nd AD, Feeny (as everyone called her) was skeptical about all background as a  rule (although, through competence, one could win her trust) ; her assistant, a tall skeletal looking man whose black hair and pale skin were highlighted by his mandatory black clothing, was borderline rude. I cannot recall his name — everyone called him by a nickname anyway and that’s the piece that escapes me now. Although the team of ten had been set at the last callback, on the third day of shooting one of the stage hands overslept.  He never returned.  The guy who was given a line (that was then taken away and given to someone else), also had a conflict toward the weekend.  He never returned. The attrition started to build.  It was not a cozy little world.

When the production moved to the St. James Theatre, I was told that casting would be in touch.  Yet several days went by without hearing a thing.  I continued arranging for childcare and cancelling it. On the third day, I was told to report.  At the St. James, the only other stage hand who’d survived from the Astoria Studios was “Keith.”  There were some “old timers” — people who made health care and pension benefits from doing background work  — who were now the replacement stage hands.  One guy in particular, an older man with balding scalp and white hair snuggled up to Feeny and kept putting himself in position to be placed in any upcoming shot.  Fortunately, “Keith” and I had earned PK’s trust.

Holding was now in the hallway of the balcony tier.  Sound was set up there in the hallway as well.  Crafty was in the second floor lounge. In Manhattan, the quality of the food stepped up a notch.  I was reading one of the “Game of Thrones” novels at the time.  I’d watched the first two seasons, but I refused to pay $1,000 a year for television (I watch only selected programming and insist that my son choose dvd’s if he wants to watch something, so it’s not worth the money to us).

One of the first scenes we shot in the theatre is more or less at the opening of the film — where the actors are seated at a table on stage and a light comes crashing down, hitting one of the actors.  Zach Galifianakis zips through the seats of the theatre, tells us to call 911, then jumps onto the stage where he and Michael Keaton flourish off stage left.  There was a line in the script at this juncture that would have been assigned to either “Keith” or myself — we are both working on set, me on a ladder and Keith off stage right.  The light crashes down, we both move toward the body stretched out on stage, there’s a line in the script, Zach yells out call 911, we improvise some dialogue and attending to the fallen actor.

I had decided pretty early on that I was going to treat this as a day job.  From day one, with the ten original actors in holding, there was much chafing, praying and hoping about getting upgraded to a speaking part.  On day one (in Astoria), one of the actors who chafed the most got a line — and then had it taken away.  When we’d rehearsed the fallen light scene several times and the line was not assigned to either Keith or I, Keith brought it up to PK.

“You know there’s a line in the script here?”

PK did not take it amiss.  “I hope to give everyone a line by the end of the shoot.  But you know if I give you a line today, you can’t come back tomorrow.”

And then we improvised.  Zach calling out to call 911, I took out my phone, dialed and in a near panic, said “911, we’ve had an actor struck by a light.” Spur of the moment, with a flash of wit, I continued, “No, not lightning, a light, a stage light.” Naomi Watts, who had knelt down beside me, looking over the actor with concern, lost it, trying to contain her laughter.  Well, after all, they did tell us it was a comedy.

I never knew if those lines would be used.  Or any of the others I improvised during the next four takes.  No one seemed to have an issue with the fact that I wasn’t miming dialogue.  I also knew everyone around me was miked — so that sound would be picked up.  It would be on different tracks if they decided to use it — i.e. it would not interfere with the take.

Once we were inside the theatre shooting, I was back for most of the following days.  I read until someone called me. Went where I was told.  Kept my mouth shut when I was on set — unless I was chatting with the steadicam guy, Chris Haarhoff.  He was originally from South Africa and our conversations ranged from world politics and economics (including Chomsky) to literature and philosophy.  Once, at “crafty” when I mentioned that I wasn’t fond of papaya — he asked if I’d ever eaten it with lemon juice.  I told him I hadn’t.  He insisted I try it.  Damned if it didn’t change the flavor.

One day, another new extra was called on set.  In fact, I knew the guy — call him John — I’ll leave out the details from where simply because it would make him too readily identifiable.  He had on an olive green coat and a black wool cap.  Wardrobe came up, looked him over and told him to lose the olive shirt and the hat.  He was wearing a navy blue t-shirt and that would do.  Take one — he’s asked to bring a can of paint forward at a given moment (cue).  Four takes later, he’s missed the cue every time.  Finally they take the paint away from him, and someone is yelling to PK that if he doesn’t go to lunch now, the union penalty is going to cost him a fortune.

Lunch — John-the-new-guy is lying in the middle of the floor, on his cell phone, telling someone he’s on a set with Michael Keaton.  He says fairly loudly that he wants to walk up to him and say, “you’re the Batman.”  Since I’d been involved with this guy on a project, I’d nodded at him once or twice — to acknowledge that I knew he was there.  Each time he found another direction to look.  Fine by me — I didn’t really want to talk to the guy anyway.  And at this point, with everyone in crafty looking over at what he’s saying, I’m glad there’s no acknowledged connection.  After lunch, he is on set, late.  He goes back to get the paint can that was taken away and resumes wearing his black hat and olive shirt that wardrobe had insisted he shed.  At this point, the skeletal tall P.A. (production assistant), the one who was generally dismissive of background came up and asked what he was doing.

“Weren’t you told to lose the shirt?”

“Yes, but I thought it served my character better.”

“Your character?”

“I studied at H.B.”

After the wardrobe was cleared up, with the skeletal P.A.. almost physically tearing it off John-the-new-guy, the scene continued.  Once that scene was shot, John-the-new-guy found himself in the darkest corners of the theatre when the next shot was sketched out.

PK selected me and the old timer who was snuggling up to Feeny to move a bed into place on stage as part of a filmed scene change.  Since Ed Norton and Naomi Watt were already in the bed, it was heavier that a simple piece of furniture, so tech had to be called to put it on rollers.  Then one of the rollers skidded sideways. Tech tried several times to adjust the wheels, but we were toward the end of the shoot and there was a lot of time pressure — Alejandro only had so many days in the theatre.   I knew where the camera was, but volunteered to move out of the shot to the head of the bed to control the sideways skid.

I don’t say this to sing my own praises.  In my career, I have been as bad as the worst actor stereo-type you have ever seen.  I’ve been petty, resentful, unapologetically late and profligate with time and talent, you name it.  But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the joy of simply working at your craft.  Some years ago, I was working on a foreign play presented at a festival.  The lead was a U.S. actor, who’d until recently been a big fish on a popular soap opera.  He showed up late, beefed that his co-lead was only cast because she was the producer’s girlfriend, wasted an entire rehearsal using the subtext of “f*^k you” for every line he said to her — and in the same production, there were two Russian actors.  One had no lines, he simply walked through.  Yet each character who walked through with him was unique.  He and his compatriot showed up an hour early.  They took every item off the set, swept the floor, dusted the furniture and reset that stage as if they were laying vestments and chalices on an altar. Many times I ask myself — whom do you respect?  Whom do you want to emulate? The American actor or the Russians (not in general, just in this play)?

I remember W.H.Auden once saying that the author is always humbled by his work — his work is to capture some aspect of reality, and his work will always fall short of his best efforts.  The critic is always bolstered by his work — his work is to review one book, and he is always superior to that book.  When I look at the two versions of actors who showed up for the festival play, the feeling was similar — for one, he was much more important than the play, the work he was hired to do.  For the Russians, they were at the service of the work.  When I went to work on Birdman, this was the attitude I chose — to be of service, in any way I could, and to expect nothing in return.  And yet, I will admit, after being told in Astoria that I’d be billed at Tough Guy Stagehand #1, when I watched the credits roll, I felt a bit heavy in the chest when my name wasn’t there.

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During the last month, the month since its release, I’ve gotten more private messages, Facebook posts and phone calls about my three-second appearance in Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman than I have for just about any other project in which I’ve been involved.  I discussed the process with Carl Kelsch, a uniquely-voiced screenwriter for whom I’ve done a number of readings, and he suggested I be open about the process.  So here it is.

I submitted my picture and resume to be an extra.  I don’t know how many people are aware of what it means to be an “extra” — it basically means you are set-dressing, you are furniture that moves. My last experience as set dressing came on the set of The Cradle Will Rock. I decided that day that there was too large a chasm between extra and actor to ever want to surrender the second to earn pay as the first.  Some examples:

On the set of Oz, the “extras director” (yes, the main director does not want to deal with the furniture) told the prisoners who were seated at the tables in the cafeteria to “mime talking.”  Immediately everyone at our table started to move their mouths.  Large, wide open, tonsil revealing mouth movements.  I decided that my character would be listening.  After all — if this many people at a table are talking, SOMEONE ought to be listening.  One of the other actors became very concerned; he started to pantomime to me that I should be miming.  I pointed to my ears, pantomiming the words “I’m miming listening.”  When the scene was shot and we were returned to holding, the actor approached me.  “Don’t you know how to do ‘the mime’?” Yes, those were his exact words.  “The mime.”  I tried to explain to him that if that many people were talking someone should be listening.  He thought I was putting him off.  “I can teach you how to do ‘the mime,’ if you want.”  I told him that mostly what I wanted was to eat my lunch in peace.

We shot Cradle Will Rock in July.  Hot, hot summer that year.  I recall — we shot during the days before my birthday. The first day we were in Madison Square Park.  We were filming a concert that had been banned indoors and was now being held in a park.  The police came riding through on horseback to break up the performance — and the extras ran through the park laughing and holding hands.  Tim Robbins had to get on the megaphone and yell: “People, the police are hunting you down.  You should not be laughing.  Or holding hands.”  Take two.  Did anyone listen?  Less than half.  You get the idea.  Extra work is largely for people who want to be on film but don’t want to take the time to learn about the craft of acting.

So — Cradle Will Rock is the late 90s.  No extra work since.  But — having left my steady job for unsteady employment in 2011, I looked at the ads.  Did not submit.  Looked again.  Then finally decided — hey, it’s like a day job.  I’m in the union  so it’s not going to be 12 hour days for $75 (as it was in the days when I first moved to NYC). So I ultimately submitted.  And forgot about it.

Perhaps a month later, I got a call from Adam DeLisi — they’d been assembling pictures, narrowing them down — they liked my look.  Can I come in and audition.  I said “sure,” but in my mind I’m thinking — “for extra work? Are you nuts?”  I dressed the part, including the older guy who does physical labor elbow brace.  On camera, I was asked to pick up a chair, move it to stage left (they were checking — did I know which way was stage left?). I was called back.  Yes.  A call back.  For extra work. They wanted to match various actors who’d submitted — which groups looked the most likely. Called back again.  This time various actors were given scripted lines to read.  We were directed where to look, etc.  I have to admit that this callback took much longer than I’d anticipated and I needed to get to my son’s school by 2:20 to pick him up.  Though I’d normally have gone last to have the most time with the text, this time I went first.

For the film, the production company built a replica of the theatre’s backstage in the Kaufman Astoria studios. The first day on set, we walked through a long take.   I assumed these were establishing shots.  Wrong.  I didn’t know at the time that the film was to be a series of single unedited takes. Peter Kohn was the First Assistant Director.  He and his staff dealt with the self-moving furniture.  And I have to say, while some of his supporting staff may have been condescending toward the extras, “PK” as he was referred to on set was not.  He did not tolerate lack of focus, lateness, errors caused by folly, but to those who showed up, did the work, were focused and committed, he moved us to the front of the scene and gave us responsibility time and time again.  But I get ahead of myself.  On the first day of actual shooting, Zach Galifianakis and Michael Keaton were walking forward through a long corridor.  The camera preceded them down the hall.  Acting as a stage hand, my job was to cross in front of the camera and between the two actors and continue down the stairs at the end of the hall.

First take: goes perfectly.  Except it was a run through — and the camera was slightly out of focus — Michael and Zach need to walk closer together.  Next take, Michael and Zach are too close together for me to feel comfortable going between them.  I pass alongside of them.  PK — why did you go to the side?  I explained they were too closely involved for me to pass between, especially when there was room to the side, i.e. it would seem overly rude.  PK — they are close for the camera.   Don’t be rude but excuse yourself and walk between them.  Next take:  I start out and as I approach, I mumble, excuse me — and pass between.

Alejandro — loud enough for me to hear — “why is he talking?  Who told him to talk?” The sub sub furniture director comes over — why are you talking?  PK told me to excuse myself.  Sub sub — he didn’t mean it.  Mime excusing yourself.  Ha ha. Had I learned nothing? Take four.  They adjust where the camera comes down the hall.  It’s too tight to where I’m supposed to move.  I bump it on the way past.  Twice. Or maybe three times.  It’s something that has to be worked out.  More than once. After several bad takes, I feel like such a loser that I lay down on the set floor to try to collect myself.  I am told later that Alejandro came out to look for me, but when he saw me lying there, he turned back into the control room from which they watched the monitor.

I think we ended up filming something in the first six hours.  And yet it was not formally considered the first day of shooting.  Holding on this day is in the basement with all the electric equipment.  The place reminded me of Zappa’s “Dynamo Hum.” By day two, most of the “background” had positioned themselves upstairs, near “crafty.” Industry slang for the guys who put out the food (and by extension the food that is put out). They shot something else near Michael’s dressing room.  Mostly that afternoon we sat.

Next day, Ed Norton was on set.  I wasn’t involved in the morning shot, but just after lunch, PK called for me to come to the back of the set.  They walked us through the take: Michael would walk down the hallway to Ed Norton’s dressing room.  They would have words, walk back up the hall toward the kitchenette, enter the kitchen.  At that point we would round the corner.  They would begin to fight.  At a certain point, the camera would look up at me and the other extra — I want to say Keith, but he looked like a director from New Orleans I worked with who is named Keith, and I think I hit the overwrite button on those brain cells.  Anyway, the camera would look up at us and we’d look at each other, then look back at the two actors wrestling on the floor.  Alejandro’s instructions — “these two are pieces of shit.  Just total shit.  That’s how you should treat them.”  Easy enough.

Here the shoot bogged down.  Alejandro instructed Ed Norton to move up a step on a certain line.  I think he’d blocked this out so many times in his head that he just knew what he wanted.  At this point, Ed Norton interjected.  “I don’t think that’s my motivation line.  I think the impulse to move comes from the next line.” Like a truck in mud, neither one of these two budged from their position for nearly an hour.  Alejandro asking Norton to “try it my way.”  Norton refusing, not seeing how that line could possibly be paired with any impulse to move.  The sub sub director came to “Keith” and I and asked us to clear out of the area — don’t go away, we want to be ready to shoot, but get as far out of earshot as you can get.”  The hallway from which we were to enter, was false.  Like the train track in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it simply ended at an overhang, though not quite as steep as that cliff.  Keith and I hovered near the end of the hallway train line looking over the wooden chasm at set-making personnel stressing new items to make them look old.

Eventually, the issue was resolved.  In whose favor, I cannot say, but it also alienated Michael Keaton, who had been Mr. Easy the day before.  Now his attitude seemed much less amiable.  Chris Haarhoff, the cameraman, followed Michael down the hall into Ed Norton’s dressing room, came back toward the kitchen, squatted down with them as they fought, and turned to face “Keith” and I as we stood there gaping.  On the first attempt, we mistimed our “head turn/look at each other/look back.”  Alejandro thought we didn’t get the concept.  I asked him for a count — when the camera turns, what is our timing to look at each other?  Three.

Feeling the heat of the underlying hostility, like coals that were dusted over but not out, I did not want to be the cause of any re-takes. There was pressure.  Take two — “the look” as I now thought of it was once again  mis-timed.  Then the unthinkable happened.  I was already terrified that I’d be replaced.  I’d watched one other actor be given a line the day before and then have it taken away. He was not back on the ensuing day.  Yet, on the third take, I got so engrossed in the fight I forgot to turn at all.

Alejandro came out and I thought it was over for me.  His decision now was to skip “the look” — just keep staring at them.  At this point  I was uncertain (actually, I’m still uncertain) if the change came because my reaction was so natural that it allowed him to see that “the look” was a forced comedic bit, or if he felt that “the look” was beyond my meager acting capability and therefore he lightened the load. I think it’s got to be either one or the other, there’s not a lot of middle ground.

We did one more take and that’s the print you see.  I made all the trailers, both U.S. and international — so the moment was clearly worth something.  After we worked through that bit, Debbie DeLisi called me — “how do you like it? You will now be ‘Tough Guy Number One/Stage Hand.'”  I assumed that meant I’d be credited.  At this moment, according to IMDB, I am not.  I remember asking an industry person who called me (“Is that you?”) when the trailers first hit the theatres: how do you market being an extra?  It’s like saying “I can be good furniture.” I’ve done much better work, more intricate work on smaller films.  Birdman? It’s the highest profile performance of my career — and yet, it’s extra work….

How do you market that? (to be continued)

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