Long Days in the Life of a Film Extra in Prague
Peter Falk: [sketching a female extra, who is waiting on the set]
"What a dear face! Interesting. What a nostril. A dramatic nostril. These people are extras. Extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit. Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans."
"Wings of Desire (1987)"
I sat in a fake pub with a glass full of fake wine staring into a plate full of cold food: Schnitzel with mashed potatoes. The television studio set was a near perfect replica of every single Czech pub in this country: wall-to-wall wood, heavy wooden tables with brewery brand linens, and tan walls with antique photos yellowed with the patina of an endless smoke cloud. As I sat there staring at my prop plate with the food on it, I wondered if they expected us to eat this cold slop. When the man said AKCE! I picked up the lemon and squeezed it over the schnitzel in a vigorous circular motion. On the next take, the PA* came to our table and made a sour face while miming a sour man waving a sour lemon over his food. Then he said 'neh.' My inner De Niro replied 'Are you talking to me?' but my limited Czech language informed me that we would in fact have to chop that cold shit up and shovel it in. Action!
One of the greatest parts of being a freelancer is that I can set my own hours. When there is a slow season for my photography work, I can keep my idle hands from doing the Devil's work in many ways; writing travel pieces and blogging is one way, being a film and tv extra is another. Prague is a film production paradise: it wasn't bombed to shit in the two world wars, so its architecture has survived the ages. This makes Prague a prime location for shooting period pieces, war epics and basically any film or tv show in need of buildings and streets dripping with history. And there have been some major and minor epics shot here: Amadeus, Mission Impossible, Kafka, Blade 2, Triple X (Vin Diesel), not to mention hundreds of films shot in Prague—but set somewhere else.
The Allure of Doing Nothing All Day
"I did absolutely nothing and it was everything I thought it could be."
- Peter Gibbons, 'Office Space'
Most of being an extra on a film set involves sitting around for a 12 hour day staring at the coffee and snacks tent. Your small stipend for sitting around (about 30-40 bucks per day in Prague) means that this is not the job for movers and/or shakers. It also means that you don't have to work very hard for your money. Extras are basically breathing props. They producers always have more extras than they need, they never use most of them, and when they do use you in a scene—it could easily wind up on the cutting room floor. Extras are pawns on the board and directors move them about freely.
I've done a dozen extra gigs for advertisements, tv and film. Some of them were more memorable than others. One long night was spent in an ice hockey rink as a crowd extra. We all donned our goofy hats and scarves and did The Wave on command while scenes changed bizarrely from hockey hi-jinx to graceful figure skating. For some crowd scenes, a camera on a drone flew overhead to shoot the crowd. The sound of the whirring blades was too close for comfort, especially when the director shouted: "If something goes wrong with the drone, keep your head and your hands down, or they will be chopped off!" Cold comfort, really. How many extras do they plow through per year with that aerial death machine?
The gigs that stand out the most are the productions that fed, watered and caffeinated the extra humans for the entire 12 hours. If they had a tent on the set devoted to a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner—with endless coffee, juice and water breaks—those were the gigs. The rest of the productions, the cheap-ass, boiled-hot-dog-Czech-breakfast-gruel-lunch-bread-dinner mother fuckers can eat a dick. If I'm only getting paid beer money for a long day, y'all better feed my wide ass.
I have other memories from film sets not entirely related to food. I once spoke with the Maytag repairman, the Big Guy from WKRP, the late Gordon Jump. It was a week long shoot set in a field in the Czech countryside. This epic Maytag commercial unleashed a product that could cook 2 meals at the same time, pizza for the kids and casserole for the parents. It was a mock-up of an epic battle scene from Braveheart. A hillside full of screaming children assaulted an over-the-hillside of parental units. The Maytag man stopped the battle and dropped the appliance bomb. Off camera, I spoke to the Big Guy about the food. I was a vegetarian at the time and I couldn't stand the boiled hot dog breakfast the Czechstras were getting. He gave me carte blanche, the pass to the crew chow, the knowing wink, the secret handshake, and the keys to the kingdom. The crew gets all the good shit. I lied. That memory was entirely related to food. But no moment in my checkered past as an extra human was more memorable than being yelled at by a famous director.
The Joy of Verbal Abuse From Roman Polanski
Cut to: 2004 and a five minute chunk of my 15 minutes of fame on the film set of Roman Polanski's 'Oliver Twist.' I was given a simple task by the director himself. The scene: a bustling Dickensian London street, full of filth, hay, horseshit, grime and grit—all constructed on a hill on the backlot of Barrandov Studios in Prague.
Roman Polanski: You! Can you speak English?
Me: Yes sir!
Roman Polanski: Good. I need you to stand by the bookstore, reading a book. The kid runs by, you drop your book, run after him and yell 'STOP, THIEF!'
Me: No problem!
Polanski: You need to wait until the kid hits that mark by the sewer grate in the street. Do you see the mark by the grate?
Me: SIR YESSIR!
Dozens of extras milling about the 'street.' Horses trotting, extras walking, extras shopping. A team of horses attached to a carriage narrowly misses grinding me under hoof and wheel. I yell 'STOP, THIEF!' I am too early. The kid had not yet arrived.
Polanski: CUT!!! STOP!!! WHAT THE FUCK!?!
(running up to me, yelling in my face): HOW FUCKING HARD IS IT TO SEE THE FUCKING MARK AND FUCKING RUN UP TO IT? WHAT IS THE FUCKING PROBLEM? GO STAND OVER BY THE FUCKING CHEESE SHOP!!!
Damn, that Pollock can speak the French! No wonder he lived in France.
And with that, I was exiled off camera, another pawn sacrificed, moved off the board, relegated to the cheese bins of film history. Damn. This pawn could have taken the queen. We'll never know. I took a nap inside the store with the wooden wheels of 'cheese' and dreamed of the smažený sýr I would have after this epic finally wrapped.
I didn't have the stones to tell him why I couldn't see the mark. Just before The Auteur yelled ACTION! A well meaning but clueless PA* snatched the glasses off my face. They were my glasses. I need them to see 5 feet in front of me. Without them I am nearly blind. But they didn't match the costume. So they had to go. So I did what any extra human would do: I tried to do the scene while blind. I endured the screams and verbal abuse of the director with all the star-struck confusion of a 6 foot 5 guard dog being yip-yapped at by a 5 foot pedigree chihuahua. Yes, the man is short. Yes the man is famous. He also survived the Holocaust and the murder of his wife and unborn baby by Charles Manson. He gets a pass.
On the set of Genius, an upcoming TV series about the life of Albert Einstein, I was a quaking, spastic live prop in a loony bin. I was sitting and rocking on a bench at the end of a long hallway, third twitching loony on the left. We started the long day at 5:45 in the ay em. I had to be at Barrandov Studios for costuming and makeup, which meant that I woke up at oh dark hundred, scant hours after I had just started the REM sleep. A phone alarm tune, a bowl of coffee to the face, and one tram ride later—I'm on set. In the costume building I waited around in my underwear for the casting chicks to find clothing that would fit over my wide body. It's a good thing they finally found something to strap onto my elephantine frame. You would not want to see me on the big screen in my shorts. It's frightening, I tell you. I wore a threadbare 1920s suit covered with a tattered bathrobe and natty slippers. I really looked the part. Then over to the makeup wing, where the stylist rushed me through the process in record time. I closed my eyes and felt a wet brush assault my face like a rodent in heat. I opened my eyes and saw a caterpillar mustache glued to upper lip. A quick rustle of hands in my hair, 'Done!' she said. Either she was the fastest stylist in history or I already look loony enough at 6 am to pass muster.
In the van the way to the location, an abandoned 19th century building in Prague-Strašnice, a large bald man with freaky eyes was laughing like a lunatic. It was a 40 minute drive to the location. He did not let up. He was the first extra in history to stay 'in character' for the whole day. A method extra. His crossed eyes, maniacal laugh,wet lips and leering grin had me wondering if this was really an aspiring actor or an actual loony. It was that realistic. The whole day was set in one hallway made up to look like one of those old style sanitariums where they used to throw tards and twitchers before the advent of modern medicine and the Special Olympics. A smoke machine hissed clouds of white mist at the end of the hall while the AD* shouted "Tell them to ease up on the smoke! It's like a barn fire in here!" This particular AD was a fount of wisdom and advice all day. After several takes of the same scene, the AD simply announced "I could do this all day long, but I would rather not!"
Extra Becomes Actor: Pawn Star
Sometimes, just sometimes, a casting director might notice your picture on the computer with all the other human props and pawns and recommend you to the director personally. This wasn't my hope or dream. I have other hopes and dreams. This was just a lark. So when they called me in for an actual casting, I went with it, thinking there was no way in hell I was going to be chosen. The part was for a Russian General. There was no chance that I was going to get a part as a Russian General in a Czech television commercial. I barely speak Czech and I fear Putin. Especially when he's shirtless on horseback. Fortunately for me, there were no lines, just using angry facial muscles. I've already got that characteristic, probably acquired from a long life of cynicism. Plus I just turned fiddy.
After a callback(!) and an actual offer for the part, I broke the barrier from extra human to super human. Hired to be an actual actor I was. An übermensch. And it wasn't even a German production. The Czech gambling giant Tipsport hired me to play a Russian General at a roulette table full of exotic characters. I still had to get up at oh dark hundred. I still had to dump a bucket of hot coffee on my face to wake up. But this time they sent a car to pick me up at home. Both ways. Two days. And the pay was 30 times higher.
I was dropped off on the muddy back lot of the Art Nouveau Hotel Evropa on Vaclavske namesti in the center of Prague. This landmark building seems to be under slow and constant reconstruction, largely financed by lending the film out as a film set. The entire interior of the hotel had been commandeered by the crew of the Tipsport shoot. The lavish interior was strewn with cables, props, duct tape and extras. A long hallway was completely boarded up from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Maybe it was to protect the historical walls from being whacked by props slung haphazardly by grips, gaffers and gophers.* I didn't ask.
Most of the waiting around on this particular shoot was done off set, in plastic tents erected in the muddy parking lot. In a moment of confusion I almost went to the extras tent, but I was quickly ushered into the cast and crew tent. What a difference. They had rows of warm buffet breakfast foods, pastries, breads, juices, teas, fruits and espresso from one of those fancy little machines. A large heater tube blew hot air throughout the tent. Meanwhile, next door, the common extras had to get their water from icicles and chew on cold hot dogs and stale bread. Poor bastards. Just a few meters from them, we übermenschen were living large in a caterer's cornucopia of never-ending food and drink. The only ones treated better than the cast and crew were the two main Czech actors. They shared a trailer off to the side of the lot, with their own private space so they wouldn't have to mingle with pawns or peons. Hell, they even had a private toilet so they wouldn't have to get any extrament on them.
|A Man in Uniform Draws The Babes|
Most of my 'acting' involved sitting around a large roulette table with other actors. Between takes, I could sit and watch the DP's* screen and watch he and the director communicating. In the digital age, you can see exactly what you will get in each shot on a big flat-screen. The light hit the mist from the ubiquitous smoke machine just right and carried into every shadow, creating that 'cinematic mood' that makes the on screen image look so much better than real life. In one close up scene, the camera was suspended above our heads for a tight shot of just our hands on the table. Just off camera was a giant flat-screen monitor so we could view and position our gambling hands on the table. We needed to know where our hands would be when we were placing bets and moving chips. I saw my hands on the screen and told the actor next to me to look at the screen for some very important acting tips. My left hand was full of chips, and my right hand, bored and idle, slowly extended its middle finger.
I just hope the director wasn't staring at the screen at that exact moment, especially if he knows Polanski. If so, I'll probably never work in this town again.
FILM SET GLOSSARY
AD – Assistant Director. Does all the shouting and heavy lifting that The Auteur (Artsy Fartsy Director) won't deign to do (like speaking to extras).
DP – Director of Photography. The eyes of the director. The one who makes the real image magic. Chooses the angle, lighting and mood of the whole scene, then tells the cameramen and lighting crew how to set it all up.
GRIPS, GAFFERS and GOPHERS – The blue collar workers on the set; burly men and women who grip, gaff and gopher cables, light stands, and coffee. They seem impervious to the artistic pretensions of everyone around them. They do the thousands of hours of manual labor required to keep the whole ship from springing leaks and sinking. They wear Batmanesque utility belts of tools and bandoleers of duct tape in many colors, sizes and shapes.