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.
So how was it?
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.
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…
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! 😉