I wrote a while ago about my time as an extra on a short film. That was while I was at film school, after school I still needed to get a foot in the industry. So I joined an extras agency. I ended up on the street..Shortland Street!
Quickly for international readers Shortland Street is a 5 nights a week soap set in a New Zealand hospital. Judge Dredd, Jango Fett and Hercules sidekick have all been there. Lots of Lord of the rings actors. I’m going to mention a few names here to give these people props, others shall remain nameless.
It was a 2 hour commute and the pay basically covered my travel. I didn’t make money from it. being disabled the agency sent me out quite a bit. “You’ll just look like a regular patient.”. Once you get there your herded into a room. You need to take 3 changes of clothes, I just took shirts and hats. Changing pants would take to long. Turned my phone off and I sat and waited.
My first time I was just to walk into the clinic and sit down. Coming out of film school the set was really big and a little intimidating. As I stood there waiting for “Background action!” I must have looked pretty nervous as one of the main actors walked passed me and gave me a pat on the shoulder “Hey bro.” “Hey”. That was it. And then I saw another extra just go to town and screw up the shot.
This guy had been telling myself and the other extras about how experienced he was and that he was known for whacky/zany characters. Whatev’s you’re background bro, stay there. The scene is in reception On the reception desk there is a Canteen bandanna box. The show is promoting the charity. “Background action!” we all move, “Action” the scene begins.
Everything is going fine. Whacky Zany reaches the bandanna box, right where the main scene is happening, and tears into it. WTF are you doing! He proceeds to try on every bloody bandanna. Maybe his character has brain cancer and a magical bandanna can heal him. “CUT!!” “I think we had a scene stealer in that one.” Understatement. He gets directed to walk to the desk and then sit down.
On my last time job I was to be used in a bar scene (A disabled person in a bar on prime time tv. PROGRESS!). I had been in a few times now and had a handle on what happens so I’m comfortable. I’ve never had a mishap or any direction beyond “sit here.” and “Change shirt”. Naturally shit went wrong.
They are running behind. An extras phone goes off. This causes much yelling from the 3rd AD (3rd AD is in charge of extras) nobody moves. The phone goes again, more yelling. Nobody moves. “If you answer your phone now you won’t be fired!” A woman gets up runs to her phone and we get back into the scene.
“You stop looking at (MAIN ACTOR)!” “Did you hear me?!” “Please look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Maybe say a name?
No one is sure who he’s talking to, I’m facing the other way so I can’t see.
“You in the green shirt!”
Evidently it’s me, pretty sure I wasn’t but ok I’ll just focus on my fake beer.
The scene continues.
“Ok next shot that means you out, you out and you out!”
I am one of the you’s who are out. But I know I’m in shot so I stay seated. There are 3 people at my table who all move.
“Green shirt! I said out!” “Please listen when I am directing you!”
I really don’t like this jackass. “I’m in the shot.”
“What? No. Out.”
I start picking up my cane. I’m sure this is wrong but I’m not paid for my thoughts. I’m background bro.
Then it happens. Claire Chitham a long time cast member has a quick look around at the cameras and scene. She stands up
“No he’s right.” “Stay seated.” Brief but epic. The AD checks his notes. Mumbles a sorry.
The scene continues. I move pretty quickly once the scene is over. I’m not needed. On the way home I realise how much I know about sets and things. I decide to quit the agency. I did extra work one last time for a friend. But I’d gotten enough on set experience at that point.
Years later I met Ms Chitham after a play and was able to say thank you.
Also I now direct my extras personally.