Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adventures in the Background

In my second ever post I explained how I had taken up doing extra work as a way to get onto film sets if it wasn't in the cards to get a crew position. Well the two productions I've worked on so far have been released this past spring! There is something awesome about the fact that I have been seen by literally millions of people (even if I wasn't noticed.)

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My dazzling big screen debut, in My Name is Khan, the tale of a Muslim man with Aspergers who, after suffering from post-9/11 backlash/racial profiling/general humiliation makes a cross-country journey to clear his name and deliver to the world the simple message "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist." They handed me an Islamic prayer cap and said I was an "Islamic Supporter." Got to be a Muslim for the day. Awesome. Except I got sunburned horribly. I prefer my hats with brims thank you very much. I also was wearing a hoodie in 100 degree plus weather - they said dress like it's spring in San Francisco. So I did. Apparently the Sacramento valley region does not share this same climate. They also stuck me right in front initially, about 10 people away from the star, Shah Rukh Khan (who is "the Brad Pitt of India" as I heard it...) The guy behind me wanted to switch positions with me. Naturally I refused, citing continuity (wouldn't matter in the end, look how my position relative to the woman in the red hijab - who was very nice, btw - changes between shots.) He eventually backed off, whispering in a dejected voice, "you have no idea how lucky you are..."

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Whenever we came back from a break (and there were lots of breaks, including lunch, where they served delicious Indian food!) someone had inevitably taken my previous spot until I was about 3 people back and 5 people to the left from my original position (which was okay since that spot would have put me out of frame in this instance.)

By the end of the day there were thousands of Indians/South Asians crowding the barricades (which were initially caution tape, then low fences), sneaking onto set, snapping photos.

This was a two-day shoot, and even though they requested that I wear the same wardrobe, there was no way in hell I was going to subject myself to the misery of wearing a jacket in Sacramento heat (some of the actors playing police eyed me with pity whenever they saw my tomato-red, sweat-drenched face.). The next day I wore a beige bucket hat and a thin cotton work shirt. I looked ridiculous, but I didn't care. Being placed further back in the crowd gave me a chance to socialize with the other folks around me, and I met some pretty cool people. It's amazing the fun you can have mingling with other extras...we would make up fictional biographies for our "characters," or pretending to be more important than we were ("Mr. Johar, I'm ready for my closeup now..." "Oh geez, I messed up, we'll have to go again from the top, sorry everyone, my fault...") or taking turns sarcastically ordering eachother around like we were crew members ("Ahem, you didn't hit your mark that time! Now we have to start over!").

At one point I was one of 12 people an assistant gathered up for what I suspect were some closeup insert shots (crowd reactions, that sort of thing) but ultimately they chose not to film that.

A couple months later I got called for another scene, a post-9/11 candlelight vigil. My candle was defective and dripped hot wax all over my knuckles. This annoyed me to no end. Notice how angry I look:

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Apparently somewhere between this moment and the end of the film, my character converts to Islam (since this scene takes place in 2001, and the previous scene I was in takes place in 2008) Personally, I think my character arc should have been the main focus of the story.

I was hoping this scene would take all night to film, but we wrapped at 3:00 AM. With no ride back I wandered the streets aimlessly and eventually dozed off in someone's driveway. I suffer for my art.

All in all, I worked 3 days on this film and made about 300 bucks. I wonder if it's feasible to make this a full time job? At roughly 100 bucks a day (shoots almost always go overtime), I could probably work 5 days a month and be able to live comfortably off that. (I keep my expenses extremely low...frugality runs in the family.)

A couple months later I finally got on the now-canceled Trauma. I had been trying to get on board that show for some time - the first time they called me I couldn't make it, the second time they wanted me to drive...and I don't drive. Anyways, this was episode 15, "Scope of Practice." I was a "student fan" in the stands at a high school basketball game.

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As "Student Fan #56", I literally carried this entire scene. Seriously, this episode would have crumbled without me.

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...Suddenly some cheerleader loses her balance and faceplants and we all react with horror and panic.

This was fun. Once again I hit it off with those around me, including a union extra who bragged about all the stuff he's worked on, and an AFTRA couple who I worked out a little scene with: after the cheerleader falls, they all turned to me and frantically begged me to call 911. I'd pull out my cell phone, pretend to dial, and then pretend to order a pizza.

I noticed the jacket on the guy in front of me still had tags on it. Smart.

Because this was TV and not a film, they fed us PB&Js with potato chips. Seriously.

But ultimately the real reason I was there was not to eat free food, not to make new friends, not even to get paid - but was to experience how a real production is operated. And in the 40 some hours I have put into doing extra work so far, I have learned more than 5 years college as a film major. Which, btw, I'm done with. I graduate tomorrow.