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Quiet on the set: My day as an extra for Russian Doll

Gwen with Suzanne Brockmann

With Suzanne Brockmann (squee!)

Last week, I was in a movie. Or at least my elbow was.

As an introvert, fading into the background is easy for me. As an extra on the set of the indie film Russian Doll, it was my job. The extras were even called “Background”—as in, “Okay, call in the background”—because it was our role to provide atmosphere and a sense that the world was real.

This particular gig was unpaid, but I participated for two main reasons.

First, one of my favorite authors ever—Suzanne Brockmann—is the executive producer. I’ve been reading her books pretty much since the day I found romantic suspense (circa 2008), and her blend of military action, hot romance, and wide-ranging diversity quickly put her at the top of my reading list.

I actually got to meet Suz and her husband Ed Gaffney last year when they came to talk to my local writing chapter about the process involved in their last film (The Perfect Wedding), but it was nice to spend more time chatting while on set. They’re super nice people, and everyone appreciated how much Ed went out of his way to explain what was going on during the filming process.

Second, curiosity is half the reason I write. I’ve always loved taking field trips and getting the inside view of how a place/group/factory/profession works. With Russian Doll filming in the Boston area, this was my chance for the inside scoop on filmmaking.

Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden, Concord MA

The Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden in Concord where part of the movie takes place

So how was it?

Fascinating!

Extra work can be slow. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting to be needed. But that was fine. I chatted with some of the others in the lobby of the theater where we were working. I had expected many of them to be writers—and/or readers who were fans of Suz or Ed—but those I spoke to were locals who saw an article about the film in the Boston Globe.

Extras on set of Russian Doll

Waiting for the next take

The really interesting part came when we were needed on scene. It’s amazing how few people can provide the appearance of a packed house. As long as the camera angle is right, 20 people can look like 100 or more. I was totally mesmerized by the director of cinematography. She would calmly take Ed’s vision for a scene and figure out how to make it happen, adding her own ideas along the way.

In fact, that was something Ed talked about at the meeting last year that really came to life for me on the set. When you write a book, you might get feedback from early readers and revision notes from your editors, but in the end the book is your book. The way you want it. The reader brings her own worldview to the story, but basically that’s it.

Not so with film.

The screenplay is just a starting point. From there, everyone involved puts their own mark on it. The director has his vision for how to frame each scene, the cinematographer has her own way of bringing that vision to life, the actors choose how to play their characters, and so on. The final product is truly a collaboration.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events or have any idea what each of the crew members’ titles were. Grip? Gaffer? Rigger? Best boy? No clue. But I had fun watching them set up for each scene using the fog—not to make it look foggy, but to soften the lighting and provide a noir look to match the film’s tone—hold up giant styrofoam boards to reflect light, cover equipment with dark blankets to prevent it from showing in the scene, take sound readings, take light readings…

Crew on the set of Russian Doll

Crew prepping for the next take

We did several takes for each scene, and it’s surprising how much time is required just to reset after each run, get the camera ready, and get everyone on the same page again.

In the beginning, we—pretending to be an audience watching a play—had to respond to things happening on the theater’s stage. Except the play wasn’t actually running. So Ed, his assistant director, and Suz and Ed’s son Jason—one of the actors, along with his sister who has a starring role—mimed different scenarios for us. We laughed, we gasped, we appeared concerned.

Finally, toward the end of the day, we got some real action. Actors on stage, actors in the audience to respond to events on the stage, and several takes as we reacted to what was happening around us.

I’m already excited for the movie to be commercially available—probably near the end of 2016, if all goes as planned—so I can watch the 30 seconds or so that it took most of the day to film. It’ll be interesting to see how everything comes together in the finished product.

And I can’t wait to spot my elbow in the scene as the detectives race by my seat! 😉

18 Comments

  1. Reply

    Hi Gwen, what an interesting article this is. The son of one of my cousins is on the filming crew of a TV show, but he works in California and I never really knew him. His mother would watch the show just to see his name in the credits.

    Your participation in this film makes me wonder if you plan to turn one of your books into a movie, too? Or is it acting that you are interested in? Do you see yourself doing more acting in the future, on different films? I guess you will have to write your own filmography now.

    • Reply

      Hey, Bob! I don’t really have any interest in acting, or turning my book into a movie–though if someone wants to buy the film rights to it, that’s a whole different story… 😉 I would enjoy learning more about the filming process though. Like I said. Curious. And you never know what will end up in a book!

      • Reply

        Is the filming and set preparation and effects a collaboration of different vendors? For example does one crew/vendor do all the actual filming, but a different vendor (and separate crew) provide stage setup, and yet another vendor and crew provides the special effects?

        • Reply

          Bob: I don’t know much about that aspect of it. As far as I can tell, they just hired a crew to do everything. Plus, with this being an ultra low budget film, Ed and Suz are doing a lot of work themselves. For example, Ed is screenwriter, director, and editor. I don’t know if there are any special effects, per se. Probably too expensive. Kind of made me want to go to film school though. 😉

          • Reply

            It must be high stress for a husband-wife team to not only finance a movie, but also to get it filmed. Your discussions make me want to go to film school too. I’m sure they must have several ideas for new movies and they picked the one they thought most likely to be a financial success. Just the picking process alone was probably the source of spirited discussion. Or perhaps the movie they thought is most likely to make the statement they want. Do you think the movie has mostly their imprint on it? I wish the entire movie great success.

  2. Reply

    Wow! What an entertaining post! Oddly enough, a lot of films keep being filmed near me in the Pittsburgh area, but I keep missing out on the calls for extras. The few I seem to qualify for as far as age range goes have been on days when I have something going on that I can’t reschedule. I hope you get to do it again! My nephew makes a living as an extra in the Baltimore area, and he loves every minute of it.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Sheridan! I hope you get to make an extra call eventually. It really was fascinating, but make sure you take a book or something. I had no idea you could make a living at it, though. How cool!

  3. Reply

    Oh my gosh!! So jealous 🙂 Huge fan of Suzanne Brockmann and her family seems so ‘down home’ kind and caring. A great experience for sure, congrats Gwen,
    Jacquie Biggar

    • Reply

      Jacquie: I can’t believe I actually lived in the right place for this to work out. That never happens! The Brockmann/Gaffney family is SO nice. They kept thanking everyone for coming, made an effort to learn everyone’s names–which they remembered!–and hung out when they could to chat. I hope you get to meet Suz one of these days. She’s awesome in every way.

  4. Reply

    What fun! When my husband was in art school his roommate wanted to go to an audition for a MasterCard commercial, he didn’t want to go alone. As you can guess, my husband go the part! We didn’t have a Television and lived in an illegal Allston loft, so we didn’t even know when the commercial came out. His instructions were to stand on the T and glare at a bridesmaid in a seafoam green dress. Four months later he got a call and he was promoted from extra to principle actor and sent a huge check! You never know, your elbow might just catch someone’s eye LOL

    • Reply

      What a great story, Cristine! I knew a guy who kept taking friends to filmings of The Price is Right because he wanted to be on the show. I think he went at least three times, and every single time the person he took got picked.

      Yeah, so maybe I could be an elbow model. Like a hand model, only crooked. 😉

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