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Posts Tagged ‘Oz’

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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