The crane offered the first sign that the Hollywood machine was operating nearby. It stood against a gray loft building in downtown Los Angeles, a powerful light perched atop it. Further down Main Street toward 7th, tents, trellises and vans lined the opposite side of the street. A small crowd stood in front of a fancy, historic hotel, their arms crossed and cameras out,scanning for famous faces. It was a common LA scene.
I don’t care about actors, but I am nosey, so I stopped to watch, too. The scene reminded me of the time two friends and I were walking down Sunset Boulevard in the early 1990s. It was Spring Break. We came upon a crowd. On the sidewalk, a camera crew surrounded a piano, and who stepped out of a nearby trailer but Little Richard. Little Richard! One of the architects of rock and roll!
I leaned against a fire hydrant and looked up at the hotel marquee. The New Yorker, it said. I thought, There’s a New Yorker hotel here like the one in Manhattan? That didn’t seem right. As my eyes started to glaze, a blonde man in cargo shorts stopped while shuffling past me. “Are you with us or background?” he said. He stood at an angle, leaning back mid-step.
“Background,” I said. I figured, Why not? Let’s see what happens.
He waved his hand. “Okay, come with me.” With a determined shuffle, he led me across the street. “I’m going to have you do a walk here,” he said. “Why don’t you take off your backpack and set it somewhere.”
I tried to play it cool. “I was wondering about that, but no one could tell me a good place to keep it.”
He looked me up and down, tilting his head. “Or you can just wear it on one strap. It looks cooler that way.” We stepped onto the curb and into a cluster of cameras and crew members. “I’m going to give you to Stephanie. She’ll take care of you.”
A rush of adrenalin buzzed my extremities. As he recrossed the street, I looked at the two other extras standing beside me. I intended to say hi, to acknowledge our linked destinies with a friendly nod and revel in the fact of our accidental brotherhood;instead of glancing at me, they watched the cameras.
Cameras, extras, playback monitors – was this actually happening?I looked around for proof that I hadn’t lost my mind, and I texted my girlfriend: “Snuck on a movie set and am going to get my ass on film.”
“OMG!!!” she replied. “Which one?!?”
I texted: “I have no clue!” That was the best part.
As vain as I am, seeing myself on screen has never been one of my fantasies. Unlike many Americans, I’ve never read an article in People or US Weekly. I never wanted to be an actor. Most celebs are as boring as the blockbusters they star in, and I wouldn’t recognize half of them if they were standing inches from my face. I do like mischief, though. Since I was on vacation and looking for fun, I decided to see where this madness would lead, because now that I had penetrated the set’s inner sanctum, my objective became simple: remain undiscovered long enough to get on film.
While waitingfor this Stephanie person, my fellow extras paced around, taking the slow, self-conscious steps that people in movies take while killing time.One was a dark-haired teenager wearing khaki pants, a plaid shirt and black sneakers. He kept his hands in his pockets and arched his shoulders, looking both insecure and like someone whose parents made him do cereal commercials as a kid. The other guy was in his thirties. Dressed in a brown sport coat and poorly tailored trousers, he had buggy eyes and wore a stereo earbud in one ear like an FBI agent. Maybe he was listening to a sporting event. Maybe he thought it made him look important, like he belonged beside the cameras, instead of with the other extras across the street. If so, he needed to remove his dumbstruck expression by closing his mouth. It hung open like a chimp’s.
Like me, these two guys were acting. While I tried to look natural in order to avoid detection, they tried to play the role of the seasoned professional, projecting a mixture of distance and engagement, ego and aptitude, a vibe that acting coaches might call “casual.” But as they did their best to seem blasé, their rapid eye movements revealed just how closely they were paying attention.
Inches away, the actors rehearsed. A blonde woman in tight pants and a dark-haired man in tight pants pulled up in a blackvan and parked on the curb. The man driver got out, clutching a small metal case. The passenger stayed seated. Then a black town car slammed to a halt, and its passengers stepped out to block the man’s passage. One had a pistol tucked into his belt.
From what I gathered, the bad guys in the town car were trying to get the suitcase from the good guys. Beyond that, details were hazy:who were these people? What was in the case? And what movie was this? Whatever it was, it looked like some real bottom of the barrel sci-fi stuff, one of those straight-to-DVD franchises whose target audience was single guys who drank energy drinks at clubs and wore too much cologne,in which case I’d never find it unless I got the name. I couldn’t ask anyone. That would reveal me as an intruder. I had to be sneaky. Imagine my disappointment if I left this set without the most basic information. Unable to tell my friends what exactly I had done, to know the key detail about what I’d wandered into, I’d spend the rest of my life denied the small satisfaction of this trivial triumph. And I’d never be able to view footage of myself! It was already disappointing that fate had delivered me onto such a low-grade production.
Stephanie showed up. She wore practical shorts and a brown ponytail and gathered us beside one of the cameras. “You’re people on the street,” she said. “You’re going to walk through here, past the van. Okay? Between the cars.” The three of us nodded. “See that guy in the hat?” She pointed to a guy on the other side of the shot. “When you get to him, stop.”
Butterflies filled my stomach. I’d never acted before.I mean, besides during bad sex, boring dates, job interviews, college classes, to cops giving me tickets, in court before judges, as a teenager lying to my parents, and returning food to grocery stores.
“You got it,” I said. Only when she scurried off did I realize that she hadn’t told us what route to take. Should we walk to the left of the neighboring camera, or the right? When she said “between the cars,” did she mean we walk between the van and car and actors, or just past them on the sidewalk? The former seemed weird. What kind of pedestrians walked diagonally across an empty street to pass through the center of a violent showdown?
A water tanker drove by and wet the pavement, leaving behind a dark glossy surface. A man with a headset directed cars to line up along the curb. On 7th, police redirected pedestrians around the barricades. To me left, one cameraman asked another, “What’s your mark?” and someone set down an orange cone.
I kept debating where to walk. If I stayed on the sidewalk, should I go around the tree or over its knobby roots? The way the camera stood beside the tree, it blocked easy passage. I’d have to be careful not to bump it.If I bumped the camera or stumbled on the roots, I’d ruin the entire shot. All those extras by the hotel, all these lined up cars, the way they drove off in sequence to resemble real traffic, and the way the good guys parked their van in a specific place – they would have to redo everything. That was a lot pressure. My chest tightened considering it.
Part of me wanted to leave, to just say Forget it, it was a funny idea that didn’t pan out, and split before I messed things up. But what would be the worst that could happen? I tripped. Someone yelled “Cut!” I looked like an idiot, and they hid me in a group shot. Big deal.
Men in pinstriped suits gathered in front of the hotel, dressed to resemble people in Midtown Manhattan.Watching them, I wondered what expression I should use in my shot. The face of the vacant walker was what, distant? Unaware? Maybe I should look annoyed. This was “Manhattan,” after all. With the crowds and cabbies and unaware tourists,walking there could be irritating. But shouldI look down at my feet, or look up at the street? Maybe I could fix my gaze on some distant point, act like there was something down there, like, Oh, hey, a three-legged dog, how adorable. Here on the edge of LA’s Skid Row, there could very well be a three-legged dog, companion to a one-legged man.No, that was a sure sign of bad acting. I knew enough to know that it was a no-no to remotely acknowledge the camera, yet part of me still wanted to angle my face in a way that would make me as visible on camera as possible, to frame myself so that anyone watching whatever shitty movie this was would see the screen and, not knowing I was in it, say, “What the hell? I think that was Aaron Gilbreath, the guy I used to work with at Subway Sandwiches!” And by the time they recognized me, I’d be gone, poof, already off screen, leaving an even stronger air of mystery than my split second appearance had. Those startled viewers would have to rewind the movie to confirm what they saw, and when they did, they’d find a blurred profile of my aging face egging on the camera, taunting this production and the entire film industry with eyes that said, “You suckers got a hole in your security perimeter so wide that any jerk off the street can walk right in.” Thinking this only made me want to taunt the camera more, to look at it and pucker my lips in a kiss, all sultry like, Yeah, baby, it’s me, Mr. Can’t Act AG. Totally invading your air space, messing around where I’m not supposed to be. But I couldn’t get away with that. Plus, I had a huge, red zit next to my nose that was hideous. Maybe it was best not to look in that direction at all. I should probably just try to look expressionless, like I wasn’t thinking about anything, let blankness be my mood. The only hitch then would be appearing too self-aware. Part of the trick of acting, I assumed, was making it look like you weren’t trying at all.
I decided to go for “absorbed.”
The sun had set and turned the damp air cold. I started to shiver. I was the only extra wearing shorts. That made me nervous because it made me stand out. Crew members shuffled by, carrying coffee cups and equipment, and I kept expecting one to ask for my credentials. Instead of discovery, I stood there and looked at the kid in the khakis and the chimp in the suit with the gaping mouth, and I realized how we three were competitors. Our refusal to acknowledge each other felt like a declaration of war: I’m getting in this shot whether or not it means pushing you aside. After Stephanie left, the kid moved close to the camera as if to ensure that when it started rolling, he would walk out first – the little punk ass. I decided to let him. He had the cocky air of the semi-seasoned. I’d watch where he walked and copy him.
Someone with a bullhorn yelled, “Okay, lock!” Others said it too, moving the word through the crew like the wave at a football game. When he said, “Rolling!” another chorus rose up, the word “Rolling!” echoing down the street.
Extras in suits started pacing Main. The men at the hotel’s outdoor restaurant started eating prop dinners and fake talking. Cars launched from the curb in succession, impersonating Manhattan traffic. This is really happening, I thought, holy crap.
Beside the second camera, Stephanie stood behind the kid. He pulled his hands from his pockets and didn’t know what to do with them. The good guy’s van pulled up beside us. The bad guys arrived soon after. Stephanie placed her hands on the kid’s back, and his body went limp and expectant. She watched the scene unfold, waited for the right moment. When she shoved him forward, he took a few stumbling steps and stopped, turning to face her. His eyes registered fear. He seemed to need reassurance but was too nervous to look at her directly. He raised his hands as if to say “What, now?” and she waved at him like a cowgirl shooing cattle – arms out, wielding knuckles.
I’d misread him. He was as inexperienced as I was. At least now I knew where to step.
For all his resistance, the kid’s pass took seconds. When he stopped on the opposite side, he looked shaken, his eyes darting around like he’d just dodged a spray of bullets. I stepped beside Stephanie and took his place but someone yelled “Cut!” before she sent me out. The crew reset the shot. Extras resumed their positions. I worried that they’d get what they needed before I got on camera.
A guy with the headset called out, “Security, scoot back! Can you scoot back please?” and a man in a uniform backed deeper into the hotel parking lot.The crew locked. They rolled. The chimp in the sport coat crossed during the next take, and again they yelled “Cut!” before I crossed. Standing there taught me what I’d never known before: that acting amounted to boring repetition and a squandering of resources to produce to a few seconds of footage from one dumb angle.
During the next take, crew yelled “Rolling!” The kid crossed again, and with the chimp staring with his mouth open on the other side of the set,Stephanie took her position behind me, waiting to send me on my maiden voyage.
From the corner of my eye, I saw her arms rise. They hovered behind me like the front blade of a waiting bulldozer. I waited, too, expecting to feel the hard bump of palms on my shoulders. I stood straight and attentive, my entire body like hairs electrified by anticipation. The actors sat in the van, acting. Or maybe they fumbled out of the van, holding the suitcase. I don’t remember. I was so terrified that everything I looked at I looked through, as if it was already an image on screenrather than something I was living, which was when Stephanie’s hands touched my back.
She pushed, and I stumbled forward. Over the tree roots. Around the camera tracks. Through the frame and into the shot. I’m here, I thought, I’m on camera! Then the voice of reason: Look casual. Look regular. Another distracted dude on the street.
For seconds that felt like minutes, I was doing it, strutting calmly through the shot, acting like a guy not acting, just one of the one and a half million people in Manhattan. Projecting calm like, Ah, you know, just another day on the set, could take it or leave it, I strut right past the actors as they faced each other in their phony looking standoff. Then someone yelled, “Cut!” or “Reset!” – some term that you don’t want to hear in the middle of your first cross – and the actors went limp.
I stopped by a playback monitor and thought, Stephanie, you idiot, you sent me out prematurely. Didn’t she know how to do her job? My one chance to get on film, and she ruined it!
She stood on the other side of the cameras, talking to another crew member, as I and my fellow extras watched her like obedient puppies. Someone important said something about breaking it down for the next shot, and bulky men in knee-length shorts started dismantling the set. With brisk, efficient movements, they collapsed mounts, moved lights, shifted camera tracks to new positions, set up silk diffuser panels beside the van, passed each other sealed bags of sand, and unfolded equipment that resembled archaic dental devices.
I moved to a spot against a wall and watched. This was going to be a close up. I feared that I’d missed my chance. I also figured that if I hung around long enough, another opportunitymight arise.
While crew prepared the shot, Stephanie shuffled across the street to the food station. A long trough on wheels, it stood in the hotel parking lot. They weren’t using extras, so I walked over to scan the offerings. Bottled water, soda, yogurt – I reached in and grabbed some carbonated lemon Arrowhead water from a pile of ice. As I debated whether to take a sandwich or a cup of fresh fruit, a short, bulky man in knee-length jean shorts and a dark tee appeared. “You both with crew?” He held out his hand. “Got your union cards?”
The chimpy background actor with the sport coat stood beside me. “No,” I said, “we’re background.”
“We’ll have a station set up for you on the other side soon,” the man said.
I held up the water. “You need me to put this back?”
“No. You can keep that, buddy.”
I thanked him and entered the hotel restaurant, which served as the extra’s temporary headquarters. Actors packed all the booths. They lined the lunch counter, occupying every stool. A kid slumped against the counter, his chin resting on his hand. All the skin on his cheek bunched, and when I stepped into his line of sight, his blank eyes met mine, the expression unchanging: bored. He made no attempt to hide it.
Voices filled the room. “I wonder how much they pay the restaurant to take over this place,” one man said to another. Another guy with sandy hair and a strong jawline told a short, cute brunette about the yoga studio he went to, how he wanted to open his own studio, and about “the importance of water in human metabolism.” Beside me, a pudgy white guy told a young man with dreadlocks, “I have a few other jobs lined up.” He listed some recent background shoots he’d done, one involving the reggae-rock band Pepper. He dropped the band’s name as if it was supposed to impress, but the guy just nodded his head and kept his eyes on the floor. “I’ve been pretty busy,” the first man said.
To get away from the inanity, I went over to the table of food in the corner. Extras stood around it while a tall, muscular man set up a coffee pot. I eyeballed the selection: small bags of Frito-Lay brand chips, generic shortbread, chocolate chip, lemon and oatmeal cream cookies. Next to this spread, my bottle of Arrowhead resembled a trophy, a symbol of wealth and privilege that reflected a film set’s social hierarchy, as well as the treasure that awaited those who worked hard enough to rise through the ranks. It was late and I was hungry, so I ate a few cookies and a bag of Sun Chips.
As I crunched, the guy beside me lifted a container of chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies, the kind whose waxy sides turned reflected light dull. He studied the label with pinched eyes and an amused grin. “This is Dollar Store food. The packages look like they’re from the 1980s.”
I said, “They taste like they’ve been on the shelf since the ’80s.” I’d already eaten five cookies. This was dinner. I took an unripe orange and a second bag of chips and stood outside by the restaurant tables.
An extra in a suit leaned back in one of the chairs, arms behind his head. “So I’ll see a check in about a week?”
“Yeah,” another extra said. “Some commercials can take a month.”
The first guy smiled, surveying the set with the relish of a landowner who just recognized the value of his property. “You do enough of these you can get a place down here,” he said. “Not that I’d move downtown if I had the money. This area is weird, man. It’s fine right here. But go that way a little and it gets bad. It’s fucked.”
That was true. Skid Row began on the next street to the east and contained one of the largest permanent populations of homeless people in the US, with some estimate as high as 5,000 residents. Main Street ran through an intermediary zone where Skid Row’s squalor overlapped downtown’s hip, gentrifying edge. It gave me an idea: steal a bunch of food for local homeless people.
A female crew member marched into the restaurant with a checklist, her loud voice cutting through the hum of overlapping conversations. “Okay, anyone who wants to come back tomorrow to work, I need you to raise your hand.” A few hands went up, but far less than half. She scanned the room, tapping a pen in the air to count hands. “Once again,” she said, “who is available to come back tomorrow? I need a show of hands and then for you to come see me so I can mark you on the list. If you don’t step forward, I’m going to have to come around and ask all of you, so let’s make this easy.” Barely anyone moved.
In this, the worst economy in decades, surprisingly few people wanted to get paid to stand around doing nothing. The lack of interest was even more confounding considering how strongly America mythologized film and television, and how many Americans seemed to covet actors’ supposedly cushy lives. Here we were, on an actual set, and most extras wanted to abandon their entry-level position inside the Hollywood circle. To do what, return to their lives in suburbia? Go home and stare at TVs? Maybe they didn’t like their roles. Maybe they thought the storyline was trash. Or maybe the job was more boring than expected – all work and no glamor, too much standing around. Their disinterest reminded me of some line I thought I once heard in a movie, but might actually have made up: “Everyone starts at the bottom, kid. Grab a broom.”
I wanted to come back. Standing around doing nothing here was more interesting than sitting on some crowded beach like I’d done countless times before. I didn’t know how to sign up, though. The woman with the clipboard had the eyes of a pit bull. When she saw that my name wasn’t on the list, she’d spot me as an intruder in a flash. I needed a script, a plan.
I leaned against the lunch counter and tried to devise a strategy. Maybe I could sneak a peek and pluck a name from her list: Joe So-And-So, yeah, that’s me. That only seemed to work in movies, though. To complicate things, half the time extras gave their names, she’d mark them off the list and press the clipboard to her chest, blocking any view. Over the din of chatter, I tried to listen to what other people said while signing up. To look legit, I figured I could copy their lines. She left her position by the door and walked through the room, asking for volunteers. As she circled back, she stepped close to me and seemed ready to ask for my name. I moved away before she could. This was tricky. The other challenge was slipping more chips, oranges and cookies into my bag without anyone seeing.
While eavesdropping, I heard the woman ask an extra which casting agency he’d used. When he muttered his answer, she said “Central?” and marked him off the list. I’d seen enough movies to know that “Central” must be insider slang for Central Casting. When she walked outside, I made my move.
Trotting up behind her I said, “Hi. Excuse me. I have a little problem.” She turned to face me, offering a broad but superficial smile. “I want to work tomorrow, but apparently I’m not on the list.”
She leaned back and clutched the clipboard. “You’re not?
“No,” I said. “Another crew member spotted the error earlier.”
“Who’d you go through?”
With the ease of a veteran I said, “Central.”
“Central?” She studied my face, lingering on my eyes as if searching for something – fear, hesitation, maybe. The truth.
I didn’t budge. She didn’t either. We didn’t seem to blink.
What resembled the faintest sign of a grin appeared on her face, the vaguely upturned lips of an athlete enjoying the tension of a contest. She looked at her list, then straight into my eyes. “And you don’t have voucher?”
“I don’t,” I said, doing my best rendition of a disappointed innocent. “No voucher.”
“You did a cross with no voucher?”
“I did. I wouldn’t normally, but when I called, no one at Central could clear it up.”
This is it, I thought. It’s over. She’s going to ask me for ID, ask who I was and what I was doing here. Maybe she was going to raise her voice and use some corny stock lines like,“Who the hell do you think you are, barging onto a set like this?” or, “Do you think this is a game?” Maybe she’d just yell, “Get out of here!” Whatever she said, in the terrifying scenario playing in my mind, I imagined her screaming at such volume that extras would stream out of the hotel to investigate, and the commotion would serve as a warning to all the pedestrians on 7th that sneaking onto a set was a horrible idea, never do it. She might call security. She might even call the cops; this neighborhood was filled with them. If the gig was up, then I wanted her to yell something like “This is a movie. This isn’t some joke,” so that I could give her an equally cheesy reply like, “I don’t even know what we’re filming!” and then run.
She dragged her gaze across me from legs to waist to face. “Well, I can’t have you working without one. You’ll need to go through Central if you want to come back tomorrow. I just called it in. It should be up on the website in about twenty minutes.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
She said, “K,” and walked up Main.
My stomach unclenched as the distance between us increased. This was the point where some people would have left. They’daccept that they’d lied and gotten away with it, and they’d get out while they were ahead. Why push your luck? To me, her reaction wasn’t amnesty. It was the curtain call for Act I, and the show, as we all know, must go on. I still needed to get on camera. I also needed to steal more food.
Back in the hotel, I decided to stay out of the clipboard woman’s line of sight while I waited for the chance to weasel into another scene. I also took the opportunity to slip some oranges into my backpack, then some chips. With my back turned to the crowd, I wrapped napkins around a stack of oatmeal cream cookies and slid them into my bag. These would give a few homeless people a little snack tonight.
After many nervous minutes hoping that nobody saw my thieving, the crew member who pulled me into this mess came inside, cupped his hands over his mouth, and said, “Okay, I need all background outside, please.”
I stepped onto the sidewalk and made myself visible by standing on the edge of the crowd. He stood beside the hydrant. “Can everyone hear me?” The crowd said “Yes” with a loathsome indifference. “This is going to be a group shot. Okay? There’s going to be a bright light from the top of the building, a series of flashes. I need you to look confused and scared. Cover your eyes, shield your face, look away – that sort of thing. You don’t know what’s happening, only that it’s bright and loud and you want to know what’s going on. Look up at the building and point.” Extras started chattering amongst themselves, repeating his directions and often laughing at them. The man’s voice echoed under the hotel marquee. “There’s also going to be a loud noise. You won’t hear that now, we’ll put that in later, but I need you to act like you do. Cover your ears. Look away and then up at the building. You’re scared but want to see what it is. Okay, everyone got that?”
“Yes,” we said.
After a few seconds, one of the extras asked what others were probably wondering, too: “So, just, cover our eyes and ears?”
Another extra answered for him: “Oh no! Alien invasion!”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind!” someone yelled.
The crew guy smiled and nodded yes. With a few waves of his hands, he split the crowd in two – one group to work the north side of the street, one to work the south – and then subdivided the halves. He pointed at me and two people to my left. “I want you three here: one, two, three.” I looked over at my new partners: a brunette in her mid-twenties in a skirt, and a boxy man with stringy silver hair, cut long in the back, and baggy, oversized closes. We smiled at each other and surveyed the set. Extras had parked their cars in the middle of Main, scattered haphazardly to look like traffic had suddenly stopped to check out the lights.
The crew guy led extras to their positions. When he took my group to the south side of Main, he stood us between two parked cars on the edge of the shot. There, alone, we looked at each other and shrugged.
The tanker had driven by and rewet the street. My stringy haired partner said, “For some reason they always wet the street. They think it looks better for some reason. Even if it’s not raining in the shot, they wet the street.” His voice sounded lethargic, which made him seem spacy. When he spoke, he only looked you in the eye for part of the time. The young woman ignored us and stared at some indeterminate point in the crowd.
I wanted to ask if either of them had done this before, and to find out why they decided to be extras. I wanted to say something that would require them to say the name of this movie, without me having to ask. Instead, we stood there and scanned the set.
Maybe the crowd exhibited a sense of confusion. Maybe the other guy’s directions seemed inadequate. But as we stood in our positions awaiting our cues, a short, effeminate director-producer person in cargo shorts climbed onto the fire hydrant and spoke through a bullhorn. “Can you all look over here, please?” He waved his free hand until the crowd quieted, then he repeated what the previous crew member in cargo shorts told us about the coming scene: flashing lights, covering our ears, pointing and looking scared.
While the man rattled on, my partner smirked at me and said, “This must be the ending. Something ‘scary’ happens.” He had a droll delivery, a slow, dry voice that oozed a subversive sense of humor. I liked him immediately.
I said, “I’m definitely channeling that Close Encounters vibe.”
My partner and I mocked our directions: “Look! A flashing light! I’m scared!” The whole thing was a joke to me to begin with, so it was nice to share that irreverence with someone else. We practiced covering our ears and pointing at the building: “Ahh! No!!!” Others around us did the same. The atmosphere shifted from a serious night of work to one of open derision. We were mocking the absurdity of the direction, mocking the corny plot, maybe even mocking ourselves for getting wrapped up in all this for money or fun or fame; yet we were also preparing ourselves for the shot. As goofy as this scene was, we weren’t going to get caught on film acting poorly. We were going to nail it, if only because any errors would be preserved for ages.
The director-producer added that there would be some sort of “raining sparks, like fireworks” that they would add during post-production and that we had to imagine sprinkling from the top of building. He suggested we hold out our hands, palms up, as if it were snowing and collect them. “Collect the sparks?” someone said. Yes, the man said. When he dismounted the hydrant, the young woman in our group turned to us. “That’s the most acting we’ve done all night,” she said. “Besides trying to act not bored.”
“I don’t do scared,” said the man with the stringy hair. “I have one expression: confused. I use it for everything.” He showed us his confused face. Furrowed brow, puckered lips, eyes aimed up – it combined the face of a sad puppy with that of a pious friar from some Baroque religious painting. I could see a certain universality in the expression, a one-scene-fits-all utility. But it hardly looked like a suitable stand-in for scared. He held up his hands. “Not that it matters here.”
The first crew guy came back and moved the woman in our group to an empty patch of pavement between cars. She stood still, arms flat against her sides like a mannequin, and listened to his directions. After he went around telling different groups how to play their parts, he jogged back to me. “Okay, I have a job for you. I want you to run across that way—” He pointed through the center of the crowd of extras “—right across the shot. When the actors come running out of the hotel, you’re just going to run. Hold your ears and cover your eyes – whatever feels natural – but keep running. Don’t stop until you get to that grey car there. That should give the shot some variety. Can you do that?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “And just stop at that car there?”
“Yep. That’s it.” He gave my right bicep one firm pat—“Thanks.”—and darted off.
My partner leaned toward me smiling. “Ready for your close up? Now you actually have to act.” I didn’t mention that I’d been acting like I belonged here all night.
Minutes passed. Crew members made adjustments. Extras chatted and checked their phones. One of the drivers in a nearby car sat in the driver’s seat texting without looking up. Goosebumps covered my calves. I was nearing the end of my patience with shivering.
The man with dreads danced in front of us, posing and mouthing song lyrics to himself while making the sort of darting, rhythmic hand gestures you see in hip hop videos.
Waiting for the cameras to roll, my partner and I talked: about how low-budget this production was, how vague and corny our directions were, how the paycheck was too small for the amount of invested time. He lived in the Valley. When I asked his name we shook hands, and his low, dry voice rendered his answer inaudible.
I’d been trying to figure out a way to get the name of this movie without asking him outright. Surely the company told the actors before filming, along with the basic storyline. But how to do it without blowing my cover? Then, it happened.
The actor in the car behind us leaned across the passenger. “Hey,” he said out the window, “what’s this show called again? Daylight?”
“No,” my partner said. “Daybreak.”
“Ah ha.” He tapped the rest of his message into his smart phone. “Daybreak.”
My partner turned to me and giggled. “It’s not a good sign if your background can’t remember your show’s name. I kept calling it ‘Daywatch’ at first.”
“Sounds like your mind combined Daylight and Baywatch,” I said.
He laughed. “It seemed to do something.”
Finally, voices from behind us called: “Alright, we ready? Background, here we go. Locked!”
“Alright,” my partner said. “Time to look confused!”
I wiped my palms on my shorts, eyed my path, and readied myself to run.
In order to help secure my place on what was apparently not a movie but a TV show, I needed to run as close to the actors as possible. As they rushed from the hotel, I’d trot right next to them, even try to weave between as seamlessly as the frenetic crowd would allow.
A strobe flashed atop the hotel. Hands went up to shield ears and eyes. People pointed at the building in exaggerated surprise. It felt bizarre to recoil from a sound we couldn’t hear, but that’s what we did, or tried to do. When the actors rushed from the hotel lobby, I took a deep breath and darted from my post. Safeguarding my eyes, I snaked between cars, meandered through extras, and passed so close to the main actors that I almost bumped them. When I got to the other side, the flashing continued, so I stopped by a car and covered my ears. Extras beside me asked each other, “Is it over? Do we keep going?” We kept going until someone yelled “Cut!” Crew members gathered by the monitors behind us, likely to assess the footage. “I feel so stupid,” one extra said to another.
I walked through the crowd and resumed my position.
“How was that?” my partner said.
“Exhilarating.” We both laughed. “Did you do your confused face?”
“I did, but my back was turned so nobody could see it.” He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, likely tired from a day spent standing on cement. Once again, a few seconds of action gave way to the perpetual anticlimax of waiting. “Were you on the bus ride down here?”
“No,” I said, “I drove myself.”
“It was crazy. They put us on a giant school bus. The driver didn’t seem to know how to drive the big bus. He broke off a woman’s side mirror, pulled a lever and the back hatch opened instead of the brake. It was a wreck.” It reminded me of a story a guy told me about riding a school bus into the San Gabriel Mountains to film Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop!” video. “I was working at Wherehouse Records in the Topanga Mall,’ he told me, “and this guy walked up to me and said, ‘Haven’t I seen you at some Jane’s shows?’ …And he reached into his back pocket and handed me a piece of paper – the same paper that they have there on the site – and he said, ‘This is going to be awesome. You should go.’ So I called the number and some guy said for me to drive out to a parking lot in Pomona and be there by 8am and that I could bring one other person with me. We got there and there were three school buses and maybe 150 people standing around trying to figure out what was going to happen next. We all piled into the buses and they started driving up a winding road filled with hairpin switchbacks toward the top of Mt. Baldy. We all got out of the buses and wandered into this pool area where they were setting up the stage and grilling food and handing out beer and soft drinks. The band was all just milling around. All of their families were there – Eric Avery’s dad was working the grill at one point – and Stephen Perkins let my friend Jim check out how he set up his drum kit. It was the most laid back affair ever. We were standing on the stage and the band started hooking up their guitars and such and we said, oh, hey, do we need to get off the stage? And Dave Navarro said, ‘As long as you don’t get in the way, stand wherever you want, dude.’”
LA is a weird place.
The actors went back inside the hotel as crew prepared the shot.
“Uh oh,” my partner said, “here comes trouble.” A disheveled man in a dirty blue Hawaiian shirt and shredded blue pants sauntered down the sidewalk toward the hotel. He held a plastic soda bottle filled with dark fluid, and the tatters swaying around his shins and knees made him look like Robinson Crusoe. His shirt was so soiled that you could see the dark patches from a distance. My partner said, “This will be interesting.”
The man walked past the security guard by the parking lot. He raised the bottle at him and said something, scrunching his face and pointing his entire body like a hunting dog. As he walked by, he spun around a few times, making slow circles as if to take everything in. When he arrived at the restaurant, he stopped and said something to one of the extras, then he darted inside.
“Oh no!” said stringy hair.
“He’ll be happy to see all that food,” I said. “I wish I was in there to see how that was going down.”
We waited, wondering if the cameras would start before the man came back out. When he reappeared, he launched from the entrance as if he’d been ejected. Spinning around, he saw the concierge, stopped and started gesticulating in a wrathful way.
“He’s talking to the concierge like he’s a real person,” my partner said. The guy waved his bottle the way an angry preacher waves a Bible. “Whatever’s in that bottle looks disgusting.”
“If he’s a good actor,” I said, “the concierge will politely run him off.” The concierge said something, and the man turned and shuffled off.
We did the shoot multiple times. I would run across the set, stop at the other side, hold up my hands to catch the falling sparks that crew would add in post-production. Then I’d walk back to my buddy on the other side. Each shot seemed the same, my acting as horrible as the previous take. But the crew saw flaws in playback that required multiple takes.
During one shot, I decided I was going to spin in a circle, hands out, palms up, collecting the invisible falling sparks, so after my cross, I spun round and round like a mental patient. I stood beside three extras who were laughing and making comments at such volume that the cameramen and director must have heard. “Oh look,” said the extras, “I’m holding sparks! Sparks are falling! It’s magical, magical I tell you.”
As I waited for the cameras to roll on the next shot, a teenager appeared out of nowhere. “Hi,” he said. He stood close to me, and his gaze displayed an unnerving, dumbstruck vacancy. “Are you guys filming a movie?”
My partner said, “TV.”
The kid’s eyes widened, and the ecstatic, vampiric expression of the star struck overtook his face. “TV? What show is it?”
We both said: “Daybreak.”
He said, “I’ve never heard of it.” Neither had we. The kid stared right at us for what felt like an unnecessarily long time, then pivoted his head to take in the scene: the cameras, trucks, wires, lights. Behind us crew yelled “Lock!” causing my stomach to tense. I’d hoped the kid would hear that and make a swift exit, but he remained there, staring at us as if expecting some revelation.
“We’re just extras,” I said. “Dime-a-dozen, low on the totem pole.”
Crew yelled, “Rolling!”
“Actually,” I said, “they’re filming right now. You should either hold your hands on your ears and look terrified, or head that way off camera.”
The strobe light flashed, and the kid looked at it smiling, as enraptured as someone absorbing sun at the beach. The extras’ hands went up. Mine went up, too. When the actors rushed from the hotel, I made my run. When I returned to my post, the kid was gone. “That was weird,” I said. “That kid. He just walked into the shoot.”
My partner shook his head. “I know. They don’t have very good security.”
Soon after, the crew thanked and gathered us inside the hotel, where the woman with the clipboard collected props and costumes. “Is this a prop?” said the concierge. He tugged on the hem of his maroon vest.
“Yes,” the woman said, “If we gave it to you, it is.” She sent the rest of the extras home and gathered a select group outside for a close up – the last shot of the night. There was no way I could weasel into that. I tried to think of ways to get on that list, but I knew my night was over. I went to grab some more chips and heard a voice behind me: “You still don’t have a voucher, so I can’t have you hanging out.”
Without turning around I said, “I’m taking off right now.”
“Okay,” she said, “perfect. It’s just, a liability.”
When she walked outside, I grabbed more cookies and ate them on the sidewalk, right beside the hydrant where this insanity all started. The air was cool and moist. It was just after 11pm. I texted my girlfriend, “I’m leaving the set,” and savored the privilege of being able to say “the set” with a trace of legitimacy.
I walked north on Main. A few background actors shuffled in front of me, headed to the busses the production company provided. The food service guy stood by a lamp. As I passed I said, “Have a good night, man.”
His eyes registered nothing, but he waved. “You too, bud.”
I turned and took a final look at the set: the scattered cars, the powerful lights casting harsh shadows, the fake New Yorker Hotel marquee. The scene looked small and ridiculous. Real life proceeded around us: people sleeping in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks to the east; hip young people getting drunk on neighboring Spring Street.
Further up Main, the street and I shed our costumes andbecame again what we really were. Free of the industrial bulbs, the deep sense of night settled in. A few dome tents stood against the fence surrounding a parking lot, the low voices of the homeless audible inside.
Up near 4th, I stepped into the vacant slow lane to take a photo of the old Hotel Barclay.A man with a grizzly white beard and soiled jeans staggered up and stopped beside the entrance, preparing to take a leak. When he turned and spotted me and my camera, he zipped up and tried to strike a casual pose. “Howya’ doing?” I said.
He exhaled cigarette smoke. “Hungry as fuck and have two cents to my name.” All his top front teeth were missing.
I reached into my backpack and handed him three bags of chips. “Take these,” I said. “I’m happy to give them to you.”
“Thank you,” he said. “That’ll help. Have a good night.”
“You too.” As I walked away I remembered the rest of the loot. “And here’s dessert: oatmeal cream cookies.”
He took the stack in his hand and smiled. “Thanks again. Have a good night.”
Further up Main, I walked past two drunk Hispanic men outside the New Jalisco bar. They stood cheek to cheek on the sidewalk, reeking of alcohol and swaying like they were preparing to dance and then kiss. Further north, a man in a black hoodie and sweat pants sat alone on the steps of a church, a duffle bag by his side. As he made unusual, erratic hand movements to himself, a small tan dog ran across 2nd into the lawn of the LA Police Department building. I whistled but the dog wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t even turn to look. “Hey buddy,” I said in my soft pet voice. “Come here.” He trotted off and disappeared into the bushes. Climbing into my car on Little Tokyo side street, I felt equally intangible.
When I got online the next day, I Googled “Daybreak” but couldn’t find information. I feared I’d written down the wrong name. It took me an entire month to finally locate it. Turns out, Daybreak is a web series developed by AT&T as a way to cross-sell their smart phones and apps. As the show’s website puts it, “Brought to you through various media and technologies, Daybreak is an interactive story about the magic of technology and its power to transform our lives and aid us in reaching our highest potential.” Meaning, the show is a commercial housed in a sci-fi narrative. The first episode aired on May 31st, the day after my shoot. Some of the shots I watched them film appear in Episode 5 – shots between the 2:37 and 3:06 minute marks, and between the 3:24 and 3:37 marks; the latter is the scene of my failed walk-through. I can’t see myself in the group shot at the 7:05 minute mark, though if the show ever makes a sixth episode, maybe it will include the additional footage. If so, I’ll be easy to spot. I’m the only person in the scene wearing Vans and shorts.