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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?


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! 😉

LAPD field trip, part II

A KOD member shooting a TASER

Ever wonder if a police officer’s been on the wrong end of a TASER? Do they even understand what kind of pain they’re inflicting? Well, as a matter of fact, yes. At least in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), where every recruit gets a real shock during training.

Tuesday’s post was all about my morning with the LAPD while I was out in Anaheim for the RWA National Conference. But that only covered what we did before lunch. More fun awaited us in the afternoon at the Edward M. Davis Training Facility in Granada Hills.

My group started with a TASER demonstration. I won’t go into the specifics on the TASER since I already covered it in my post on the Fairfax County PD, but getting to see a TASER in action was new. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that weapon!

Prepping for the FOS

The real fun came with a demonstration of the Force Option Simulator (FOS). The FOS is like an oversized video game where you react to what’s happening on the screen. My partner and I were issued simulated weapons–heavy like a real handgun–and stood before a large video screen where a scene played out with a bank robber running from the building with a duffel bag. When he pulled a gun, I shot three times, missing the first time, hitting him in the lower leg the second, and getting him in the chest on my third shot.

I was proud of my aim, but unfortunately, his getaway driver—whom I hadn’t even noticed—shot me. Oops. Situational awareness, anyone? Sadly, my partner didn't manage to get her gun out of the holster. The pictures of us in action didn’t come out, but I have a shot with my red “gun” for posterity.

Street weapons (L), LAPD weapons (R)

Next up was the live shooting demo. We got an overview of some of the scary weapons officers face on the street, and a rundown of some of the firearms they have in their arsenal. A couple of officers from the LAPD shooting team demonstrated the power of a Springfield Armory 1911, .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol), and a Benelli M4 Super 90 semiautomatic shotgun (see video).

Showing the minimal spread of buckshot on a target

Apparently, a lot of people think a shotgun sprays pellets all over the place and will take out several people with one shot. According to the target (see photo, the groin “injury” is not related…) that’s not the case. While the shot does spread out, it still stays pretty tightly grouped. Devastating to the target, but not so much to anything around it.

Probably the most exhilarating part of the day was on the Emergency Vehicle Operations Center (EVOC) driving track. This is where trainees learn how far they can push their vehicles, and current officers practice their skills. It’s also where I turned a bit green after half a dozen high speed turns on the winding, hilly track at 50-60 mph with the lights flashing and the sirens screaming. (There’s a reason I don’t like to sit in the back seat.)

Talk about pulling Gs! Nauseating, but in that fun, can’t-stop-laughing-and-screaming, roller coaster ride sort of way. Every time we took a tight curve I swore the car would flip. The tires chirped and my gut rolled, but we held tight to the road.

Getting ready for my wild ride on the EVOC track

I had fun on the FCPD track in the spring, but this ride was beyond awesome.

My stomach got a chance to relax with our last presentation of the day, a visit with the Volunteer Surveillance Team (VST). The VST is a group of civilians living in the area they serve who get special training to watch for and report criminal activity.

What a cool concept. When crime goes up in an area—say burglaries or graffiti tagging—the LAPD can send in the VSTs. These men and women use their own vehicles to surveil assigned areas and call in crimes in progress. Unlike cops, they go unnoticed by the criminals, giving the police a chance to catch the bad guys in action or just after they commit a crime. Often the culprit wonders how the police knew he was there because the VSTs never get involved in the actual apprehension.

They brought up the common scenario of thieves knocking on the door to a house and then breaking in when no one answers. My question: What should I do if I’m home but don’t want to answer the door? The answer: Make noise so they know someone’s home.

It might feel rude to let an innocent salesperson know you’re deliberately ignoring his or her summons, but it beats being burgled or robbed! Besides, you didn’t ask them to knock on your door to sell you vinyl siding, tree trimming, or a faster Internet connection.

My new favorite mug

That locks up my day at the LAPD. I hope you enjoyed the recap. If you ever get a chance to visit your local police department or be part of your citizens police academy, I highly recommend it. Writer or not, it’s worth your time.

Photo credit: All photos are my own work except the one of me in the helmet, which is used by permission from Kristina Allew.

LAPD field trip, part I

When I was a kid I loved field trips. That hasn’t changed, which is why I arrived at the RWA conference a couple of days early for the Kiss of Death chapter’s annual tour.

Every year we see something different. In 2010 it was parachute riggers and NOAA storm chasers at MacDill AFB. Last year we visited the Coast Guard in New Jersey. This year we got a glimpse into the workings of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

It was sort of a mini Citizens Police Academy like the one I attended here in my county, but squeezed into one fun-filled day with 50 other writers of romantic mystery and suspense.

We started our day at the Elysian Park facility, which is no longer used to train cadets, but is used for inservice training. Several units set up stations around a running track, happy to talk about their jobs and answer questions. My first visit was the mounted unit. That’s right, the LAPD has horses! Part of the Metropolitan Division, the mounted officers provide crowd control for protests and large events, crime suppression, enforcement at public parks and beaches, and search and rescue support in the mountainous areas of L.A. The big wooden sword the officer in the photo is holding helps him keep people away from the horse (and himself) without causing unnecessary injury.

Sage was a friendly bloodhound

My next stop was the K9 Platoon. Patrol dogs specialize in criminal apprehension. These are your German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. They are let off the lead to pursue a criminal in a controlled area, and are trained to bite and hold the suspect. They don’t look for a particular person, but rather for any human in the area, though we were told that they’ve learned to go for the one who smells like fear.

So, if you failed to hear the police when they broke down your front door, and you’re sitting in your back yard smoking crack with headphones on when your buddy runs outside to hide behind the shed, the dog will likely skip right by you and go for your partner in crime.

The UDU has to tag and photograph evidence just like CSIs on dry land.

The LAPD uses bloodhounds for tracking and trailing. Tracking refers to following the path of the person, but not necessarily using their scent. Trailing is the process of following the specific scent of one person based on tissue and skin cells given off by that person, whether on the ground or in the air.

Once given an uncontaminated scent-item belonging to the missing person—such as a piece of dirty laundry worn by them—the dog follows that trail to the exclusion of all other smells, tracking only when needed to pick up the scent again. Bloodhounds are kept on a lead, and their handler must have experience to know when the dog has lost the scent or found a weaker trail of it.

According to the officer who spoke to us, it’s actually easier to follow a trail that has settled for about two hours than a fresh trail. That’s because the settled scent is stronger and less dispersed.

The oasis behind the LAPRAAC

Next up for me was the Underwater Dive Unit (UDU). Never having given any thought to such a team, I was fascinated by the concept of police divers and their mission. Working on call, much like SWAT, the divers are responsible for performing random underwater patrols of Los Angeles’ busy harbors, looking for smuggled items and people hidden on the hull of a ship—sometimes in welded-on boxes or in the air-tight well behind the propeller—in addition to explosive devices on ships or out on other structures in the harbor, such as pipelines.

The UDU also performs underwater crime scene investigation, and evidence and body recovery. In addition to the ocean, they work in L.A.’s many lakes and reservoirs. Some of the waterways are contaminated, requiring divers to use a hazmat dry suit and mask instead of standard SCUBA gear.

Mural representing the history of the LAPD

After the UDU, I got a glimpse of LAPD’s first and only female SWAT member and the big armored truck before rejoining the group for a quick history lecture and tour of the grounds behind the dining hall, which is part of the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club (LAPRAAC).

The outdoor area was designed by the same person who created the Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, and is a beautiful oasis where weddings are apparently common.

We followed that with a detour through the gym to see a mural representing the history of the LAPD, before eating lunch and hitting the gift shop for reminders of a great day. On Thursday I’ll tell you about our afternoon at the Davis Facility in San Fernando Valley.