This past summer, Sony Pictures shot its controversial-because-boobs blockbuster Ghostbusters, set in New York City but mostly filmed in Boston, because the Big Apple rent is still too damn high. Upon hearing this, I realized that being a barely famous Internet comedian simply wasn't enough to fill the pit in my gut that other oddballs fill with love and contentment. So I decided to also become a barely famous movie extra. At least then I could fill my gut pit with catering.
And, amazingly, perhaps because they knew me (or, more likely, because they didn't), the casting crew hired me. They turned me into a backpack-toting man on the street, as capable of cowardly running away from CGI ghosts as anyone else in Not York. My three days on set were enough to qualify me for a SAG card (just add $3,000 and stir) and were also an eye-opening lesson in how even the silliest of popcorn flicks get made. I may or may not appear in the final film -- depends on how much the producers enjoyed my panicked scrambling -- but I do know that ...
#6. The Casting Call Is Just As Important As The Actual Filming
The website that advertised the Ghostbusters casting call made it sound like there would be actual auditions happening, and those who got selected would be working that day. I mean, look at these directions:
Billy Dowd Casting
"The movie will be filmed by a small dinosaur chipping away on a slab
while occasionally squawking. 'Reh, it's a living.'"
I had no reason to think this was anything but exactly what the nice ghost people wanted from me, so I gave it to them. Fall clothing, multiple times over? Check.
I forgot to pack for the part of fall where the temperature
jumps 50 degrees in 10 seconds.
Mind you, I don't own a wardrobe bag, so I carried every single one of those goddamn rags from my car to the casting room. Even The Rock would moan about his poor triceps after that. In addition, I left my phone in the car, cleaned my hair, and dressed like I was ready to dance among the dead leaves and dirty Times Square ground.
And maybe score a Suave shampoo contract along the way.
I got there and ... it was seemingly all for naught. There was no filming. There were no auditions. There was simply a cattle call, where hundreds and hundreds of hopefuls filled out a form, got in line, dropped off said form along with their headshot, and then left. It was like speed-dating for people who don't have 30 seconds to waste getting to know anyone. So I, who did everything I was asked to do, left with the same feeling of "That's it? Now what?" that the losers wearing Ghostbusters garb and yakking on their phones did.
Then, a couple weeks later, I got the call to work. For PAY. And that's when I realized my ridiculous preparation wasn't for naught after all. Their first impression of me was of a guy who followed directions, was eager to work, and really needed the money if he couldn't afford a damn garment bag. In short, I was exactly who they were looking for, and I showed them this from the very start.
Meanwhile, the people who showed up with no extra gear, logos on their shirts, and phones? I saw precisely zero of them at the actual shoot. The number of angry comments those people left after not getting the call, about how girl Ghostbusters totally ruined their childhoods somehow? All signs point to way higher than zero.
#5. Everything Is So Much More Thought-Out Than You Imagine
My first day on set -- in fact, my first hour -- immediately refuted two extras myths I keep hearing. One, that it's easy (and boring) as fuck and you basically just hang out until lunch. And two, that the movie people only care that you do the bare minimum. If your scene calls for you to cross a street, just cross the damn street and try not to tear your ACL. One take later, you're done and on to the next doughnut.
Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte/Getty Images
The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was actually a former extra with a bottomless stomach
and way too much downtime.
Total nope. For starters, I was on set for 11 straight hours. I don't care what you're doing, 11 hours of it will take its toll on you. And in my case, I walked across the street in the morning and ran from an unseen to-be-CGI'd-later terror in the afternoon. And I did both over and over and over and over and over and over again, for 11 hours, standing, walking, and running the whole time. By the time I clocked out, my legs were screaming for mercy, which I'm pretty sure is the opposite of both easy and boring.
Because that's the second thing: The movie people do care about your "nothing" role. They couldn't be more devoted to perfectionism if they had to dismantle a time bomb strapped to the president. They made damn sure every inch of our costumes and delivery was spot-on. We must've walked up and down that cursed street a hundred times, because it had to be just right. Everybody had to keep pace with everyone else -- not too fast, not too slow. We could cross only when the little white walking man let us, and we couldn't leave the crosswalk. And anybody in a car absolutely had to wait until the light was green and couldn't brake or hit the gas too quickly ever, even if nobody died because of it. If even one of us fucked up, we all had to start again.
Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
I'm assuming union contracts call for a free tank of gas after 300 takes.
And my costume? They obsessed over that too. More than once, somebody snuck up behind me to fix a slight scrunch in the bottom of my jacket or to slightly adjust my collar. And early on, they came up to me and had me hike up my pants to almost Urkel levels, because I had excess leg length and they didn't want that kind of distraction to show on camera.
Daylong wedgies are how you pay your Hollywood dues.
While you might think this sounds awfully ticky-tack, I actually respect the hell out of them for doing it. Extras are pure background, so we shouldn't stick out at all. If we jaywalked, ran across the street, wore saggy pants, or did anything else that could be considered part of a "character," suddenly the audience thinks we're part of the story and that we tripped over our pants leg while power-walking past a dozen other street-crossers because we're secretly the villain. That might make for a decent shitty internet fan theory, but it's not actual cinematic foreshadowing.
Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images
There is no Dana, only Awkward Hurried Businessman.
So crap like that needs to be snuffed out immediately, and they did a damn good job of it. Sure, it's a goofy comedy based on another goofy comedy, but they weren't going to let anything but perfection slide. They wanted to make sure every last detail was as right as humanly possible, and if getting there took 200 takes, they would do 200 takes. I can respect that. Besides, this utter perfectionism sometimes evolved into wonderful surrealism, like a street filled with cars all backing up at once, in perfect synchronicity, to get back into starting position for the next take. It was like God had rewound real life, and it's humanity's loss that I wasn't Solid Snake-sneaky enough to smuggle my camera on set.
#4. For Being Nobodies, We Were Treated Very Well
In just about every industry, the perception is that the people on top spit on the people below, with the bottom drones all but drowning in spit. So, naturally, many people would assume the same thing happens in film. Background extras, supposedly the single least important aspect of a movie aside from the people who pirate it, are nothing but meat, right? Worse than meat, even, because people like meat, especially when liberally garnished with salt, pepper, and oil. Extras? We're nothing but rancid, spoiled Steak-umms that others flavor with a sprig of parsley and then happily puke down the drain.
Nothing that looks like diarrhea-soaked toilet paper should ever be consumed by anyone.
Or not. I can count on zero fingers the number of times the Ghostbusters people gave me shit for anything, or simply gave me shit for the sake of giving me shit because who's going to yell at them for it. And it's not because I was simply the best extra they had (even though I totally was). Nobody, even the people who really didn't know what they were doing, got yelled at or publicly called out for their mistakes. So if you were hoping for a hit piece on Melissa McCarthy's stunt double pouring coffee down my pants because I dared breathe within 10 feet of her, you're just going to have to write it yourself.
Patriot Pics / FameFlynet
You need at least five films on your resume before the real Melissa McCarthy
wastes her coffee on your Levi's.
Now, obviously, this is filmmaking and not anarchy, so we did have rules and direction to follow. Those who broke them had to be dealt with, but there was no enraged director R. Lee Ermeying his way down the line, verbally abusing anyone who haphazardly increased their walking speed from 2 mph to 3 mph without permission. The way they dealt with issues was ... professional. Like we were actual workers. Guidance, encouragement, gentle reminders, stuff like that. The most I ever saw was a couple people who got "spoken to" after repeatedly ignoring instructions to not jaywalk. And that talking-to was basically private -- all I saw was a stagehand gesture to the two and semi-quietly say, "I need to speak with you two over here." And I saw them working later, without black eyes, bruises, or the telltale waddling of a freshly broomsticked ass.
If you want to be an over-analytical twit (and why wouldn't you?), you could conclude that they only act this way due to social media. This is the Age Of Accountability, after all, and any anonymous jamoke who screams "WITCH!" on 4RedditBookGram gets taken as seriously as if Walter Cronkite himself had said it. So if a studio treats extras like trash, even though they're just extras, the Outrage Machine would KILL them. So they don't.
Ismail Ciydem/iStock/Getty Images
"n datz th way it iz, you fuckin' n0obz."
Or, you can be a boring non-twit (and why would you?) and just conclude that these are professionals who act professional, expect others to be professional, and treat people professionally even when something goes wrong. Either way, don't expect to get punched out on set unless you're filming the riot scene of Wah Wah Wah: The Story Of The 2011 Vancouver Canucks.