Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Strike Out

The long, painful writer's strike that had Hollywood on hold has finally come to an end. Here in Georgia, that means many everyday people will be back to an industry that has been growing here for years now.

Thanks to a few favorable tax laws, the television and film industry came to my state years ago. Strange as it sounds, southerners gradually became accustomed to seeing and interacting with film crews, cameras, and sets all over Georgia. Thankfully, it's been mostly fun without being intrusive and has been mutually beneficial. Incidentally, for a little over a year, I myself worked as a background actor. 

A break on set
and a banana
Throughout my adult life, I have worked numerous day jobs, side jobs, and upside-down jobs while I followed my creative passion. Being an artist is great and all, but for many, it takes time to find a balance and land on the right creative vein that will support oneself full-time. So my approach has been to choose [mostly] side jobs that offered some element of creative outlet while helping to pay the bills. Working in the film industry was one of those jobs. 

To clarify, to the industry, I was called a "background actor". In plain speak, I was an extra. But, as I would learn, there was much more to it than filling up scenes. It was nuanced, and there were different expectations on every set. Some sets were "on location", which means they were filmed in a public (or private) space where the film company had gotten permission to set up. Some things were filmed on expansive sound stages inside unassuming warehouses.

a series of very different productions

Most productions were kept low-key to keep the general public from interrupting or delaying filming. Some productions were so guarded that we were required to sign non-disclosures before work and/or hand over our phones during filming. As in, they didn't want costumes, sets, or storylines leaked.

playing an FBI agent:
I was so convincing that
people let me go ahead
of them in the line at lunch!
I'm sharing pictures now that I would not/could not have shared during filming. Sharing during filming could have resulted in being fired, blacklisted, and even sued. 

Since all of these productions have long aired, and I've removed any sensitive studio details from them, I think I'm  in the clear.

There are several large studios across my state, and I've been to most. Sometimes I went only for a wardrobe fitting, and the shoot was at a different location.

Some productions were set in the present time, but some were period pieces where the entire cast and background had to be dressed and styled for another time. Some were historical, others set in the distant future. The ones set in the 50's were my favorites because they would bring in some amazing wardrobe and props (including cars!) from that time period. Some of the elaborate sets I had the privilege to work on really inspired me and piqued my creativity as an artist. That made it worth having to work a job besides my creative work.

I kept a list of the productions I worked on, since I knew I wouldn't remember. There were a lot! A few of the most well-known were the Outsider, The Resident, Jumanji 2, Lovecraft Country, and Coming 2 America.

a prop car
Yes, background saw and worked with celebrities. But on sets, everyone is expected to behave professionally and with respect for everyone there and for the production. Time is important, and we had schedules and deadlines. I enjoyed being on set with some of those big names because many turned out to be as (or even nicer) than I imagined. My most memorable moment was filming a scene from a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. The scene was set in the 1990's in the newsroom of our well-known newspaper, The Atlanta Journal Constitution. We were all dressed in the type of clothes my mom wore to work in the 90's and had old typewriters and computers. I loved that. We filmed in an old office building set up to look like a newspaper office, complete with fluorescent lights, fax machines, and whiteboards. There were a good number of us background actors moving around the scene, busily making fake phone calls and sharing fake documents. It was a lot of fun. 

On most sets, the director would relay info to background actors via the production assistant. There would be multiple PAs for larger sets. We didn't usually receive directions directly from, well, the director. Not a type of situation where they were too important to talk to us. As I mentioned before, time was of the essence on sets. And extras were often scattered over different areas of sets to shape scenes. So crew members would act as the director and assistant director's messengers to keep things moving forward quickly. They would sometimes talk to us over bull horns, if necessary. On Mr. Eastwood's set, he walked around with a tablet, playing back scenes and talking to PAs. That day, he made his way around the room as we filmed each segment. Finally, he ended up on my side of the newsroom where he perched on my desk. He politely said hello, and looked at his tablet. I spoke back then looked across the desk at a fellow extra. My eyes spread and I left my body momentarily. Mr. Eastwood spoke to the lot of us, giving us direction himself. We were being directed by Clint Eastwood.

I just bit my lip to avoid saying something to make this a totally different story (better to be silent than embarrassed!). The movie (Richard Jewel) was not a box-office smash. And I have yet to see it, so I don't know whether I can even be spotted. But I was never there for that, lol. It was the creativity, the pay, and the people. The memories are fun, too. I even got my mom booked to work with me on several productions!

The pandemic eventually brought film in Georgia (and everywhere else) to a standstill. So I moved on. When filming started again, the productions proceeded with great caution. But by that point, my life had seen several shifts that made it difficult for me to return. Then the writer's strike happened, and the industry saw another 8 months of involuntary hiatus. Thankfully, for all those who had come to depend on film here for their livelihood, it's back. And that's a lot of people. From my fellow extras, casts and crews, to the Georgians who rented their old mansions, farms, and storefronts to studios. I'm thankful those opportunities are returning for them.

While I have some fun memories from my time as an extra, I haven't decided whether I'll ever do it again. If a project appeared that really sparked my creativity, possibly!

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