Paul W Franklin writes for Bleeding Cool about the life of an Extra.
The thing about Hugo was that it was a good gig. I don't mean interesting, or exciting, or even rewarding. I mean that it was solid work for the best part of 6 months. That's almost thrice the length of a Kardashian marriage. Which, in the Extras business, is like a lifelong career… or it feels like that anyway.
Whereas with most jobs where they're shooting a big battle scene or the like, you'll only get a couple of weeks' work (or in the case of John Carter they'll tell you you're 'Booked' for a whole month, make you keep your diary free, change your holiday plans, and then reward you for your loyalty with a mere 5 days of filming), Hugo was different primarily because so much of it centred around the train station. It's refreshing to be told 'You're needed all next week', and for them not to be talking shit.
So if you're part of the Great Unwashed, or Great Unskilled, or Great I've-No-Fucking-Idea-What-I'm-Doing-With-My-Life, that's a pretty sweet gig. On paper.
In reality, it's an Earthly replication of a level of Dante's Inferno, perhaps somewhere between Flagellation and Sodomy, a Moebius Strip of repetition, like Sisyphus pushing that builder up the hill, only for it to tumble down from near the top and the chore to commence all over again from your First Position.
'Number Ones, please!'
That's what the A.D.s yell. Translation: 'Back to your starting positions'. For a bit of variation, they might say 'Back to Ones', 'And once more for luck' or 'That was so good, we're going to do it again' (hilarious). But they all convey the same message – The boulder fell back down. Go get it. (Go get it while our Stars have a mango smoothie and a nice sit-down.)
Like any job, you get different types of workers. You get your Keenos, your Wannabes, your Blaggers, Newbies, and those who try to avoid getting involved as much as possible. Like animals in a zoo, you fall into routines of repetition, doing things to amuse yourself and others, to keep the boredom at bay. Those playing Gendarmes (policemen) would stay in character during the tea-breaks, guarding the drinks table like it were the Mexican border, asking 'What's your business here?', often hilariously speaking like the copper in Allo, Allo (who, I've just realised, is the spitting image of Sacha Baron Cohen in his station guard get-up). Amazingly they kept this charade up for about the months, whilst I myself would try and supply them with a different film-related reply each time: We're on a mission from God, I am an F.B.I. agent!, I'm Luke Skywalker and I'm here to rescue you, You talkin' a me?… Kept me amused for a few minutes anyway.
Then there were the Keenos and Wannabes. A lot of what we filmed involved Mr. Cohen chasing a dog – whilst in some kind of leg-brace – which in turn was chasing Hugo through the crowded station, amongst the tables and chairs of the café and beyond. If you see the Background Artistes near the camera, realistically jostling for position, it's not because they've somehow learnt how to act and are faithfully portraying the surprise and bewilderment at this disturbance; it's because most of those people are scrapping to get some 'face time'.
How thoroughly unprofessional, I mutter and shake my head. (Coming from one of the juvenile gang who would whisper 'I like' in a Borat voice whenever Sacha was nearby, and giggle hysterically.)
Other times, the same sort of people would say 'You're blockin my shot! I was PLACED here!', despite the fact they were 20 metres from the action, or the camera was even pointing the opposite direction. Perhaps they thought 3D was shot with some kind of magical camera that's everywhere at once, like God himself were filming it.
Speaking of all-powerful beings who are worshipped by many, you do get the feeling that some of these movie guys think a bit too highly of themselves, or that those working alongside them think that. Now before any of you start shouting 'But Scorsese IS a God, dude!' I'm not disputing that he's a bit of an icon, but… well, here's the thing. When the director emerged from his little den at the edge of the set, the 1st A.D. would shout 'Make way!… I said move!' and literally push people out of the way, like we were in fact witnessing the Second Coming. What I did witness was two elderly Extras falling to the floor. Personally I'd go for a polite 'Please' first, and then start shoving…
I'm a bit gutted I didn't really see The Man in action, I mean actually giving directions to the actors. All I saw, from well out of ear-shot, was a brief interaction with Asa and Chloë, but that was all. Most of the time he was in his tent, watching the monitors and giving directions from there. I recall once seeing a black & white photo of him with Harvey Keitel and de Niro on Mean Streets, and thinking That looks like a pretty cool thing to be eavesdropping on. Sadly a lot of our scenes were more about directing an actor through a crowd of people, all of which would've been thoroughly story-boarded, and not so much about directing dialogue.
Still, that doesn't mean he didn't get properly involved. Lost in his own film-making world. One day we didn't break for lunch until 4pm. 4pm! A mere 10 hours after breakfast. I'm pretty sure he would've just kept on going unless someone had told him that the Scum had to eat. Maybe he is in fact God! Or Jehovah, or Whomever. Doesn't need to eat. Just survives on cosmic radiation.
I understand, though, how you can get so engrossed in creating a movie and be blissfully unaware of the world around you. My experience of directing is quite limited – a documentary of sorts and a couple of home porno's – but I did find myself lost in it. Not so lost that I forgot about food, though…
Moving on from food et cetera. You gotta laugh at some A.D.s haven't you? You really do. Mainly 'Anvil Head' from Gulliver's Travels, because he was born to be laughed at. But others too. One girl on Hugo was on duty around the station stairs, and during the shot one of the Extras fell down them. So she stepped over their prostate body, and didn't say anything until another of the crew made her aware. "The steps can be slippery," was her response, with a look that suggested the poor guy should've known that.
And then there was The Guardian of the Covered Way. The 'covered way' was an area between set and our marquee, where we gathered for drinks, and in summer this was a nice, cool, shady spot, but when Autumn came it was a 100m icy wind-tunnel. Regardless of the weather, it was like Guantanamo Bay in its lack of concern for the inmates. Here's a typical conversation:
Hi, can we go back to the marquee for a bit?
'No, we could be on set any minute'
When are we filming the next scene?
'We're 45 minutes away, minimum. You're not needed until then.'
Okay, can we go back inside where it's warm then?
'Listen, Buddy, did you not hear what I just said? We could be going on any minute!'
The conversation goes on a loop…
When we did get to go hang out in the marquee, though, it was always fun & games. There was this girl called Sophie. She was moderately attractive, with this half-snooty-half-amused look as if she'd just farted but nobody around her would ever believe her capable of doing such a thing. The sort of woman who would be all 'Oh hiiii' and apparently pleased to see you, but was a charlatan, the sort who just liked being liked.
Some people liked her perhaps a tad too much. There were these two guys, let's call them A and B, (not because I'm protecting their identities, but because I really can't remember their names). A was a bit of a dick, and B was a bit socially retarded. A wound B up by telling him he'd informed Sophie that he was gay, and so B over-reacted and ultimately punches were thrown. It wasn't much of a spectacle though. Not so much Raging Bull as Raging Bullshit.
Speaking of bullshit… after a couple of months on Hugo my Don't-Give-A-Fuck-Ometer had gone up to 11 and I was starting to lose interest not just the movie but in life itself. One morning, after 4 hours' sleep, I was sitting on the floor of the set between takes, leaning against a not-very-realistic pillar. This costume lady, very witchy she was with a hooked nose, came up and told me to get off the floor because my costume would get dirty. I told her I could brush myself down, because I'm an adult. She said no I might still have some dust on the back. Oh that's right, because these magical HD 3D cameras can spot a tiny speck of dust on an out-of-focus Extra that the audience aren't even looking at. My mistake
'Everyone else is tired but they don't sit on the floor.'
'I don't care.'
'I don't care'
'Oh! Well I'll go tell an A.D. that you don't care!'
And she harrumphed off. Sod it I thought, I'm switching to War Horse next week so I don't care if I get kicked off.
I've no idea whether she was going to grass on me or not, because moments later the shout of 'Number Ones!' rang round, and off I went to fetch that boulder.
Next Time: Trenches, explosions, mud and face-fucking on Spielberg's War Horse.