By Chris Allen
We’ve all seen them, those signs posted on streetlights and poles with cryptic letters and arrows. They appear for a few days and then disappear. They are directional signs that help actors and crew find a production site.
I am an extra, also known as a background actor. We are crucial to any movie or TV show, fleshing out a scene for the main actors and the viewers. Extras rarely are given speaking roles. Rather, we are silent, miming our conversations as patrons at a restaurant or workers in an office. Often, we stroll down a sidewalk or drive on the road.
My cell phone rang late on a Monday evening. The air had cooled from its high of 104 degrees to 98, and I was about to train one of my horses. I answered the call. It was a local casting agent.
“Chris, we need a beater car for tomorrow morning.” Beater car refers to a vehicle well past its prime that displays great character. “Do you still have that ratty farm truck?”
“Sure. Where’s the shoot?”
“West on I-40, about 45 minutes out of town.”
Uh, oh. There was slim chance my 1987 Isuzu pickup with 190,000 miles on it would make it that far.
Recently the cab had filled with gasoline fumes while I was hauling a load of hay. When I arrived home, I discovered a leak in the engine. Although it had been in two productions previously, Bordertown with Jennifer Lopez, and Breaking Bad where the director described it as the perfect meth truck, those shoots were both in Albuquerque. This location was 30 miles of open, empty desert away.
“When is call time?”
“Late morning,” she assured me.
I hadn’t worked for this agent in a while, and I had been hoping to reconnect. Late call time? Probably worth the risk. At that hour, I could call my husband or AAA if things went awry.
“Sure, book me. I’ll be there.”
The truck, faded navy blue with dings, dents, scrapes, and broken running lights, had taken two children to college. While there, it had been ransacked and had the radio torn out. The tailgate barely closed, and the rear bumper was askew. Nowadays we used it solely as a farm vehicle, hauling hay, manure to spread on the fields, and orchard trimmings to the local composting facility. It hadn’t been driven in months and was currently parked in the middle of the pasture.
I went out to retrieve it so my husband, Paul, and I could check its condition. One of my steeds had dumped a pyramid of manure on the hood. In the heat, it had concretized. I ran back for a broom and pushed off the mound of desiccated, undigested hay fiber. Fortunately, the broiling desert sun had baked out the smell of horse manure.
I moved the truck to the front of the house. “Paul!” I called from the driveway. He was relaxing inside.
Silence. I could hear the dialogue from one of his favorite Sci-Fi movies, The Abyss.
“What!” he shouted back. He was settled in for the night, but I knew he would dredge himself out of his chair to help.
“I was booked to bring the truck to a movie set tomorrow. We need to check the tires, fluids, all that stuff.”
“All right,” he sighed heavily. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“While you do that, I’ll get my outfits together.” Extras are asked to provide several changes of clothing for when you appear on camera, all in muted, unobtrusive browns, grays, and blues so you don’t conflict with other aspects of the set. My “movie wardrobe” hadn’t been used recently, and it took time to gather it.
“Chris!” Paul’s voice rocketed through the front door. “Oil’s barely registering on the dip stick. You’ll have to get some. While you do that, I’ll pump up the tires.”
As I backed my car out, I saw Paul connecting the bicycle pump to the front left tire. God bless that man!
We added the oil and put the container on the floor by the passenger seat. We added water to the radiator, and then I noticed the gas gauge. “I’m going to fill it up. It’s a late call time, but I’d feel more comfortable getting a full tank tonight.”
“You’ll have to wait until morning,” Paul cautioned.
“The headlight button doesn’t stay on. You have to push it in with your finger.”
“I can do that,” I chirped.
“It’s a standard, Chris. One hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the button, and what hand is going to shift the gears?”
“I’ll get back before dark,” I laughed.
When I returned, I logged onto the agent’s website to verify the call time. I was stunned to see my name next to a 6:00 a.m. call! That’s “late?”
“You can’t do that, Chris.” Paul was peering over my shoulder. “You’ll have to cancel. It’ll be dark driving that early.”
“No! I can’t! I’ll never work again. Once you commit, you must show up! The production depends upon the people who are booked to complete the scene.”
“We can try taping the button,” Paul said, rummaging around in a drawer for the duct tape.
I sat in the driver’s seat with a wad of silver tape over the headlight button. Paul roved around the vehicle shouting commands. “Headlights! Turn signals! Right! Left! Brake lights!” His report? Headlights worked.
Brake lights worked. Back turn signals worked, front ones did not.
“You can’t go on the interstate,” Paul warned. “Let’s see if we can route you on the frontage road.”
Paul fired up Google Earth on the computer. “Here you go. Head straight down Coors, turn onto Paseo del Norte, run past the shooting range and the mattress plant, and then out to the frontage road. It will take longer, so you should leave at 5:00.”
Ugh! I am not a morning person.
Paul went downstairs to get ready for his own workday, and I reviewed the route. I then trotted downstairs to pack my wardrobe. As I neared the bottom, I detected the distinct odor of dog poop. In the dim light, I saw a large, brownish, amorphous blob on the brick floor. I flipped on the stairway light and saw a moist mound of puppy goo that was bisected by a boot print. Off to the left, a series of heel prints continued from the pile, across the living room and into the kitchen, each step diminishing in size in proportion to the distance from the pile.
“Paul!” I shouted. “You stepped in dog poop! Check your boots!” It was undoubtedly Mia, our new Labrador puppy who was having a terrible time grasping the concept of housebreaking.
After cleaning the mess, I ran back upstairs to commit my route to memory, since at 5:00 a.m., there is a fifty-fifty chance my brain will function. As I traced the roadways, the nauseating stench of skunk assaulted me.
“Paul! Are the dogs out?” I screamed as I careened down the stairs. I threw open the backdoor and before me was another pup, Ember. Her head hung so low, her nose scraped the threshold. She reeked.
“Paul! Ember got skunked.”
He came thundering down the hallway in his underwear.
“Please go get the hydrogen peroxide from under the bathroom sink,” I beseeched. I buy the stuff in bulk since, with four dogs, this happens on a regular basis, though never with an early call time.
I emptied the bucket we had just used to clean up after Mia and mixed up the de-skunk solution. We each took a sponge and drenched Ember with the concoction. The poor dog howled in despair, leaping, and thrashing about, then slipping her collar and running into the living room where she violently shook off the solution, splattering the couch, rugs, and coffee table with her castoff droplets.
It was now midnight.
By the time I packed my clothing and a selection of shoes into the truck, laid out the food for the horses’ morning feeding, and put my cell phone on the charger, it was 1:00 a.m. My fingers reluctantly set the alarm for 4:30.
I crawled into bed exhausted, but my rabbit brain kept checking lists to see if I had everything in place. Cell phone! Sunglasses! The keys to the truck! By the front door?
The next minute the radio alarm blared in the inky darkness. An annoying voice said, “The New Mexico Film Office has announced a new production is coming into the state. The movie, a sequel to Wolverine, will be directed by James Mangold, director of the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The production will employ several hundred people.”
“Oh, God,” I groaned, slapping my hand against the radio alarm. “Lucky me, I’m one of them.”
To beat the heat, I dressed in a lightweight outfit of beige Capri pants, and tan linen shirt with short sleeves.
I hoped this would pass the inspection of the wardrobe people, and they would not require me to change into a warmer outfit like long-legged pants and a long-sleeved jersey.
I slapped on some provisional make-up, fed the livestock, and buckled myself into the truck. It took about an hour for me to drive to the location. On a long stretch of barren roadway, momentary panic set in. There was no one around should the truck decide to be recalcitrant and conk out. I mentally crossed my fingers.
Bolstered by a beneficent universe, it indeed nattered along, accompanied by a symphony of squeaks, clinks, and squeals, and by the time I arrived, the slanted rays of the morning sun lit the world. I followed the signs to base camp and parked where a sleepy-eyed production assistant pointed. I was a few steps toward check-in when I remembered to remove the duct tape, relieving the headlights of their responsibility.
Passing muster with the wardrobe ladies and receiving permission to return the other outfits to the truck, I then sat down to the best thing about working on a set, the catered breakfast. Trays were filled with puffy clouds of scrambled eggs mounded with melted white cheese. Savory bacon, sausage, and crisp hash browned potatoes filled other trays. The smells of sizzling peppers and mushrooms from the made-to-order omelet station mingled with the fruity scent of freshly juiced beverages. Nearby were pots of steaming hot coffee.
I heard my name as I popped the last forkful into my mouth. Three of us with vehicles were ordered to caravan to set. I arrived in line first, and another production assistant, shielding her eyes against the rays of the sun, asked if she could hitch a ride. I gulped.
“Sure, let me clean off the seat.” Farm truck, remember.
I heaved the hangers of unused wardrobe and a box of yarn to the back seat along with a chicken waterer.
I grabbed the container of oil, shoved it against the console, and invited her in while I brushed smooth the torn and worn upholstery, raising clouds of dust along with bits of hay and a couple of chicken feathers.
We drove a short distance up a paved road and pulled into the parking lot of a gas station and convenience store.
“Here is fine,” the young lady indicated, pointing to the gas pumps. I pulled next to one of them, and she reached for the door handle.
“Oh, sorry,” I shrugged my shoulders. “A dog ate the plastic handle. You have to roll down the window and open the door from the outside.”
“No problem,” she said graciously, reaching for the power button.
“No,” I said. “You actually have to roll it down.”
She quickly cranked the stiff window and groped for the exterior door handle so she could vacate my vehicle.
“Be careful of the exposed springs,” I warned, fearful she would shred her clothing as she slid out.
I remained where I was until another production assistant approached. “Would you please pull up into that parking space by the front door? Leave the keys in the vehicle, and then you can head over there,” he said, gesturing to a small shade tent that had been erected on the west edge of the parking lot. “Craft service is next to it.”
I looked beyond the tent to the north and saw a silver catering truck with shelves of snacks, a coffee bar, and a tub filled with iced drinks. Oh, thank goodness, I thought, knowing it was likely to be another 100-degree day.
“And bathrooms are behind the building,” he continued. Also good to know as filming can run 12-15 hours.
I got as far as the coffee bar when someone called. “Hey, sorry. We need you to move the truck. Please pull it behind the building and wait there.”
Resuming my seat behind the steering wheel, I shifted to back up. “Hold it!” a commanding voice shouted.
Activity on the set was increasing. Safety dictated I wait to move until dollies of equipment, cables of electrical wiring, and miscellaneous people stopped crisscrossing behind me. “Ok, back up and go to your right.”
I pulled off on the side of a road on the east side of the gas pumps. Fifteen minutes later I heard a shrill whistle. “Bring the truck back,” he yelled.
I returned to park exactly where I had been earlier. This is standard procedure on a movie set. If you expect efficiency, you are looking at the wrong industry.
My truck never moved from that time until the end of the shooting day, twelve and a half hours later. Except for lunch, I spent my time in the extras holding tent, 10-feet by 10-feet of cover against the brutal, blazing sun. Nine other people were with me, two of them fervently hoping they will be called for a speaking role, their break into the business.
We shifted our chairs frequently so we could stay within the margins of shade as the sun moved across the sky. Occasionally someone would be called to participate in a scene, but mostly it was waiting, waiting, waiting.
At 7:15 p.m., one of the crew approached and asked who owned the blue truck. “I do,” I replied.
“Can you have it back tomorrow? We need it for continuity.”
“Sure,” I sighed, thinking of what I had gone through to get this day’s work.
“Hey, you get to come back,” one of the extras commented. “Congratulations!”
“Yep,” I replied, shifting my seat for the hundredth time that day. “But it takes a big chunk out of my acting ego to know they only want me for my truck.”