Playing along: Bob Dunn becomes movie extra
Bob Dunn sits in the Frances Crowe community room as they film a scene with him as an extra for a small independent movie. Purchase photo reprints »
State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, left, shown here with Gazette reporter Bob Dunn, was invited to be an extra in "The God Question," a film being shot in western Massachusetts.
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Bob Dunn and senator Satnley Rosenberg stand outside the Frances Crowe community room and exchange words about the day as they both audition to be extras for a independent movie being filmed in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Bob Dunn and a crowd of others sit in the Frances Crowe community room waiting for the directors instructions as they audition for parts as extras for a small independent movie being filmed in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Bob Dunn sits in the Frances Crowe community room behind Denis Welker, both awaiting instructions from the director as they audition for a part as an extra for a small independent movie being filmed in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
Dunn and his fellow extras watch the preparations as they wait for filming to start.
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Bob Dunn sits in the Frances Crowe community room waiting for the directors instructions as he auditions for a part as an extra in a small independent movie being filmed in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
On a rainy Saturday in August, film producer Stan Freeman, surrounded by a camera crew and lighting technicians, was standing in a large conference room, rummaging for spare change and writing down license plate numbers.
“I’m the producer, and this is what I’ve been reduced to,” he said, laughing.
About a dozen people had shown up to work as extras, and Freeman — a gracious host — was asking us where our cars were parked and making sure that he had enough change to help us feed the parking meters.
Freeman is the writer and producer of “The God Question,” an independent film that’s being shot in the Valley. Set in the near future, it’s about a group of scientists who are working on a superintelligent computer.
On that Saturday, Freeman and the cast and crew were getting ready to shoot a scene showing a group of scientists at a seminar. A couple of weeks earlier, Freeman had run notices in local newspapers, calling for extras who would earn $15 to be part of that crowd scene.
I’ve done more for less money, so I figured, why not?
In college, I’d briefly entertained the idea of pursuing an acting career, but abandoned it out of fear that I’d never earn any money.
I’d become a journalism major instead — and yes, I appreciate the irony.
As extras, our task was to look like a crowd of research scientists who were learning how to secure grant money.
We were told in advance to dress in business-casual clothing without visible corporate logos. As a surprise to no one who knows me, I’d instantly begun to overthink the assignment.
I wanted to add a little character to my face-in-the-crowd moment without being distracting. What could I do that would raise the bar from generic, 40-something white guy in the crowd to slightly-less-than-generic, quirky, absent-minded research scientist in the crowd?
After I’d made a couple of shirt changes and abandoned the notion of wearing an eye patch, I decided that my character would be the kind of guy who would leave the house wearing a pair of mismatched socks with my shoes and slacks.
I arrived on location at the Media Education Foundation offices in downtown Northampton and immediately saw someone with a much better idea: a carefully arranged row of identical ballpoint pens in his shirt pocket. Now my sock idea just seemed dumb. The fact that this extra also had a shaved head, arms covered in tattoos and bold, thick-framed glasses — making him look like the coolest research scientist ever — didn’t help.
Lights, camera, not much action
Part of the room we were using had been converted into a makeshift lecture hall; the rest of it was a seemingly chaotic mix of scaffolding, wiring and lights.
Lighting techs, who looked more like they were about to go rock climbing than make a movie, were hanging from ladders, stringing wires and placing colored filters called gels onto the lights to get the right amount of brightness and color. The techs seemed oblivious to our presence as they carried equipment up and down the ladders while singing bits of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”
Filming our scene — even multiple takes of our scene — turned out to be the shortest part of our day. Most of the time we waited around while the crew worked.
But for all our non-activity, no one seemed bored. My fellow extras and I did our best to watch what was going on around us while trying to stay out of the way when we weren’t needed. While we looked on, Freeman was making sure everything was running smoothly, the crew continued hauling wires and cables, and cast members conferred with each other, trying to figure out how the scene fit into the story line.
“Have we met yet?” one shouted to another.
Freeman, a first-time producer who lives in Northampton, told me later that most of the cast members have acted in theater, but many are new to film. And he said he, too, was shocked at how much work goes into setting up each scene and how little time is actually spent shooting.
When we talked at the end of September, Freeman said “The God Question” was about 70 percent complete. He was planning to complete it in about three months, he said, and then enter it at film festivals next year in the hope of finding a distributor so it can reach a wide audience. Regardless of how that effort fares, Freeman said, he wants to have local screenings of the film when it’s finished.
The crew decided it wanted to create the perception that our seminar crowd had grown during the presentation. To do that, a few of us were seated in the conference room at the beginning of the scene, while the rest of us were brought in for the end.
There was still more waiting between shots. I spent the time imagining a back story for my scientist, who now had a name, thanks to a prop lanyard I’d been given identifying me as Steven Temple of the University of New Mexico.
I had a hard time imagining that I’d ever work and live in New Mexico — the heat and dry air don’t sit well with me. Then I reminded myself that this wasn’t about me — so I started thinking about Steve’s needs.
Some of my fellow extras read or made small talk during the breaks. State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, who’d been invited to attend, said he’d thought it would be fun and interesting. While waiting for shooting to resume, he was introducing a woman next to him to “Words With Friends” on the iPad he’d brought along.
Our big moment finally arrived. The crew filmed the end of the presenter’s speech. We applauded politely and then walked out of the room so the cast members could continue the scene.
We ran through that shot three or four times before the filmmakers were satisfied. I’m not sure what necessitated the multiple takes, but I figured it was something I did. Perhaps I wasn’t crowd-like enough, or maybe I made the mistake of looking directly at the camera. Or maybe I’d somehow given the audience a look inside the green prop folder that was actually empty and just for show, but was supposedly packed with handouts from the conference.
By the end of the shoot, about two hours later, I figured I’d made the correct career decision and am better off writing about being in a movie instead of acting in it.
I’ve been told that all of us will receive a copy of the movie on DVD when it’s finished. Until I sit down to watch it, I won’t know for sure if our scene made the final cut. As for my future as an extra — if there’s ever a filmmaker out there who needs someone to convincingly walk out of a room, just let me know.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.