Monday, October 17, 2011

Bourne Background, Act 1: Cult Orientation

This week on Misanthropy Central, "Bourne Background". Malice Highload spends three days working as a background extra in the new BOURNE movie.

ACT 1: Cult Orientation.
ACT 2: The Stalker.
ACT 3: Girl, Interrupted.

Monday morning, 10th of October, 3:30am. Headed to Penn Station to meet up with my friend Sherwin so we could walk together to East 36th and 3rd where a courtesy bus would shuttle us and a full cargo of assorted Filipinos to College Point, Queens. Over the next three days, the New York Times Facility there would double as a pharmaceutical factory in Manila for the new BOURNE LEGACY movie, shooting under the production name "Marcher".

I'd never done extra work in a big budget movie before. When I was a star-struck kid, I would have loved the opportunity to do something like this. BE IN A MOVIE!!! As an adult, I was doing it for the cash. Not a grand sum of cash, either. But when you're suffering a lean patch as I've been, anything helps. I'd heard about the casting call for Filipino extras from another friend the previous week; sent the casting people a cell phone pic of myself and got the confirmation call the next day. My first movie role and I was looking to stay as far in the background as possible. When I'm facing hard times with my career, the last thing I feel up to doing is meeting new people. But I also have a history of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I had to do this, both for the pittance of money and the sheer experience.

I texted with Sherwin as I walked down to Penn. On the train into Manhattan, he'd met another person who was going to be in the shoot. We weren't even at the bus and we were meeting new people. It was a girl. The last thing I felt like doing was meeting a girl, at 3:30am, on barely any sleep, looking and feeling like hell. I barely made eye-contact as I shook her hand. Her name was Joanne or Joanna. Didn't really matter because on the walk over to 36th and 3rd, she told us that her stage name was "Londin Knight". She had been a stock broker and a road manager for Wyclef Jean and a month ago she decided that she wanted to become an actor. She already had a manager who had helped her pick her stage name, which she admitted sounded absurd. (I suggested she change her name to "Stage Name TBD".) This extras shoot was her first gig ever. This was her paying her dues. She was tired and loopy -- and her delirious enthusiasm helped keep us conscious during those early hours.

The general dress code for the day was a white crew-neck t-shirt, "light" pants, white shoes. We all showed up looking like we were about to join a cult.

As expected, the 12 hour days were an endurance test of waiting. There were maybe 150 extras. Filipino, Chinese, a scattering of South Asians and others. Some were aspiring actors. Some were full-time background artists. Some were older folks with endless free time, just out for a few free meals. There were long lines to check-in in the morning, collect your wardrobe, get your stab at the mediocre buffet lunch, drop off your wardrobe at the end of the day and finally drop off your daily vouchers. The lines snaked about like amusement park rides. Extras with SAG cards got to cut the lines, enjoyed a slightly fancier buffet and a separate holding tent during breaks. (Not to mention a better pay rate.) But in the end, everyone had to wait.

Aside from SAG and non-SAG, there was a hierarchy of extras. The majority of us were in these Pepto Bismol pink scrubs with pink hair caps, blue aprons, blue gloves and white face masks. Essentially scrubbing us of as much identity as possible. (I was fine with this, wishing to remain as invisible as possible to the cameras.) We looked like surgeons in a Keebler Elves factory. We were the lowly workers. Above us were the supervisors, in yellow shirts and khakis. They got prop cell phones and fake name tags. I envied their costumes because it looked like it was easier for them to use the bathroom. There were engineers in blue jumpsuits filling out the corners of the frames. The top tier extras were the security guards. They got fake guns.

These different groups of extras tended to stick together during breaks. SAG, supervisors, engineers, security guards. The hierarchy seemed to affect people's personalities off-camera, too. Nothing like a fake gun to prop up your ego as you cut the lunch lines. And then there was the rest of us non-SAG, pink-and-blue cloaked worker drones.

Sherwin, Londin and I stayed together through those long, dead stretches of that first day. I fought hard to remain standing during those early hours. Getting up at 2:30am meant that I had to go to sleep a lot earlier than I'm accustomed to. To help myself along, I'd had a few drinks in the late afternoon. Did the trick. I fell asleep all right but as I began the work day, I was vaguely hungover AND exhausted. Londin -- tired and loopy -- pranced about the New York Times factory. I flailed my arms back and forth like a robot, trying to keep my blood flowing and stave off a coma. The three of us joked about what exaggerated movements we could do to make ourselves more identifiable in the final film. Londin sauntered up to an old crew electrician and asked him for advice on how to make it in the industry. All the other half-dead extras quietly, curiously gawked at us.

It was a long wait before we were split up and gradually placed in positions throughout the factory.

We were given plastic bins and various pill bottles filled with dry beans.

Yellow packing slips were in the bins and we were told to pretend to read them as we pretended to work on these production lines. "Work" in this factory mainly consisted of shuffling pill bottles from one bin to another and back again. It didn't really matter much as long as the effect of hard work was sold through wide shots. "HIGH ENERGY!" was the prevailing direction given to us throughout. We were sweat shop workers: we had to look like we depended on these jobs.

During one of the breaks, I caught up with Sherwin and asked him if he had a backstory for his character. "What character?"

"Factory sweatshop worker in Manila. I've got a whole backstory for us. You and I have been working at this factory for ten years, trying to save up enough money to open up our own G.R.O. club."

This is what you do. Anything to help kill the seemingly endless hours.

I originally thought I'd get some writing done while I was working this gig but it wasn't the best writing environment. You had to leave all your possessions in the holding tent when you were called onto the set. Beneath our aprons, the costumers pinned large Ziplock bags where we could store items like our gloves and caps but nothing much more significant than that. I kept my cell phone in my pants pocket beneath all the layers of pink and blue. I took pictures. A lot of people took pictures, and more blatantly. With all the forms we had to sign, they never made us sign any non-disclosure forms. As long as you weren't taking flash pictures on set (as one poor girl accidentally did), everyone cast a blind eye on all the picture-taking.

The stars of the movie, Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz, floated in and out without much fanfare. I don't think a lot of the extras knew who they were. Their stand-ins blocked the shots and were in the fray a lot longer. The extras, in general, seemed to regard the stars and their stand-ins about the same way: film equipment you were to avoid.

By the end of the day, Sherwin and I lost touch with Londin (without getting her contact info) as we weathered the long lines to return our wardrobe and turn in our papers. He and I had a drink and some food when we landed back in Manhattan, sharing appraisals of the experience. We both agreed -- the hours and the waiting took a unique physical toll.

When I got home, I checked the production website for the next day's call-time. It was half an hour earlier. I texted this fact to Sherwin and he immediately backed out of the whole affair.

Suddenly, I was questioning whether I really wanted to do this for two more days. Yes, I'd agreed to do three days and I was making a (small) paycheck, but I wasn't getting any writing done -- which made this entire thing seem more frivolous and wasteful. I weighed the pros and cons for a short spell before setting my alarm clock for 2:00am.

I'd signed up for three days, I wasn't going to bail after one just because I didn't have a friend with me. And who knows what could happen in those two extra days. The universe told me I had to see this through.

[continue to ACT 2...]
[continue to ACT 3...]


Post a Comment

<< Home