Wednesday, 27 February 2008


There are professional extras (Supporting Artists) and part-time extras and people who turn up on the day when there is a big crowd scene because they saw the ad in the local paper. It is harder for the ADs when the extras have not been on set before, especially if the scene takes longer than a day; most new extras will not return the following morning after 14 hours in the freezing cold wearing a summer outfit, miming interesting chatter in the background from ten different angles while all the fun goes on 100 yards away and you are shouted at through a megaphone when your phone goes off after lunch. 
If the big scene involves food and it is summer, it will be rotting under its coats of glue by the third day and if it is indoors, the flies and the smell will be overwhelming. The costumes will have sweat patches and stains of unknown provenance, the make-up department will have transformed you into something your mother would approve of and you will have to queue for your food in a separate line and eat in a tent without a floor while the crew sit and watch you from the heated bus. 
For a rare few extras, this will be their introduction to a dream job. Being an extra means always having time to finish the crossword, belonging to a family that you never have to spend time with over Christmas, eating three square meals a day without doing the washing-up and working with actors that your friends admire. 
Extras are actors themselves, though they rarely get any glory or any lines, they might be asked to react to the main action or studiously ignore it, to dance without music to a song that hasn't yet been chosen, to fight, laugh, scream, fall in love, always in the background. Good extras can make a scene come to life as surely as misdirected extras can kill it. Extras are not 'extra' in the sense of 'spare' or 'unnecessary', they are 'additional' and yes, sometimes, 'extraordinary'. 
Even if you haven't officially signed up for the job of being an extra, you may find that you are working as one. Small parts in big movies will involve much background work and signing up as the actor who dies in the plane crash at the beginning of the film might lead to weeks of decomposing in the rubble. Actors make terrible extras; giddy with the freedom of having no dialogue and wondering why their make-up artist is ignoring them just because the camera is in a helicopter hundreds of feet above the stadium.
My own experience as an extra was not exactly covered in glory. In my teens, I got a one week job on a film playing a girlfriend at an American party. I didn't have any written dialogue, but as a named extra, I was supposed to dance and flirt and make idle conversation so I practised my accent and improvised when I was on set. Late in the morning on the first day, the actor I was working with called his buddies over, "Hey, come'n'listen to this guys." He yelled and a bunch of extremely large men huddled around. "Do that accent again darlin'" prompted my 'boyfriend'. "Oh, fuck off." I replied and before he could answer, lunch was called. After the break, one of the ADs approached me. "Congratulations" He muttered "You're not fired". During lunch, my dance partner had spoken to the director. "When I come back from lunch, I don't wanna see that girl's face." He'd said, with some vigour. "I don't wanna see her in the fuckin' crowd scene." The rest of the week was a bit tense.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Assistant Directors

The title of assistant director covers a multitude of jobs. It is probably most accurate in the theatre, where the assistant director actually assists the director and sometimes works with the actors. During rehearsals, the theatre director and assistant will sit with the deputy stage manager behind a table and laugh, sorry, take notes, as the actors try and figure what they are doing. Assistant theatre directors will oversee understudy rehearsals and will give notes from the director during the run. They are often training to be directors themselves and are usually more interested in the creative than the logistical (economic/organisational) side of the production.
Quite the opposite is true of assistant directors on films/television. There is a highly structured assistant director universe and the rules are manifold. The three tiers of assistant director have completely different jobs. The 1st AD helps to prepare the script breakdown and the schedule and is always on set once principle photography has started. Sometimes with a megaphone. They control much of the ebb and flow of set life and call out the 'Standby' and 'Turnover' instructions and sometimes even 'Action' if the director is too shy or forgetful to do so. They know pretty much everything that is happening on and around the set at any one time and they entirely rule the lives of the 3rd ADs. Some directors like to work with maniacal 1sts and some prefer the quiet but firm types. They are usually men. The 1st AD does not work with the actors and is not usually interested in being a director; they will be more likely to go into the production side of filming. If the 1st AD is a bastard, life on set is miserable.  
2nd ADs are hardly ever on set. They stay at the unit base (often a collection of motley caravans in a car park) and work in their office. Occasionally they emerge and hand out the call sheets they have spent all day changing as the schedule finds new and inventive ways of collapsing. They liaise with the costume, make-up, facilities and catering personnel at the base and try to get the actors on to set when they are supposed to be there. Sometimes they have a bus full of extras to keep warm and feed. When things are going wrong at the base, everyone complains to the 2nd AD. They have thick skins.
The 3rd AD is told what to do by everyone, except the extras, who they direct. They are often on set, unless someone has forgotten something back at base. They have walkie-talkies with earpieces so that no one else can hear the obscenities and indiscretions being yelled at them by the 1st AD. In the middle of a conversation about just how drunk they were the night before, they will suddenly press their hand to their ear, go white, then red, then run somewhere. They must keep the actors in their line of vision at all times, even when they go to the bathroom. Actors wander off. 
The runners answer to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd ADs. They work the same hours, they are paid less. They have to really want the job.
As an actor, you spend time on set with the 1st and time at the base with the 2nd but your every moment on standby is passed in the company of a 3rd or a runner. This can be many, many hours. They will get water, tea and coffee for you. They will relay messages, make sure you are comfortable, even laugh at your jokes. This is not because they like you; they just don't want you to leave the standby location. If you leave, they will have to follow you. They will also have to explain to the 1st why you have left and where you went, if you are called. Sometimes actors get upset they are being followed everywhere, then the 3rd will still follow them but they will hide. If you turn around quickly you will see a 3rd ducking into an doorway some 50 meters behind you. When the actor goes on set, the 3rd will announce their imminent arrival on the walkie-talkie. 'On their way!' Goes the cry. '1 minute!', '30 seconds!', 'Stepping on!' and there you are, how nice. 
Finishing a film is a series of small adjustments but one of them is getting used to being unannounced when you enter the kitchen.