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Extra…extra… read all about it!

by larrydachslager on July 30th, 2014

I have an old friend (and former theatre student) named Josh Brener. Josh and his fiancé, Meghan Falcone, are both professional TV/movie actors and they recently came to Chicago to appear in a movie being filmed, in part, in nearby Naperville. I had never met Meghan before, so it was a real joy to get to know her and catch up with Josh while they were here.

Josh Brener, Meghan Falcone

The movie is an independent production called B-Roll, and I asked Josh if I could visit the set and watch some of the filming. At Columbia, I’ve witnessed and been involved in the production of several student films, but had never actually seen a professional film set up close.

On the day I went to the set, Meghan had already finished shooting her scenes, so she picked me up from the train and drove me to the film’s base location, a Naperville church. When we arrived, Josh was in hair and make up, so Meghan and I waited for him in his trailer which contained a sleeper sofa, a full bathroom and shower, and… a double take-inducing remote control-operated artificial fireplace? Josh showed up and, after assuring me that a fireplace is not a usual feature of a movie actor’s trailer, we visited until a production assistant named Brian came to inform us that we would all be driven to the day’s filming location.

Broll 10

The first location was a local high school which, for the needs of the movie, was representing a college campus. Though the project originated in L.A., the set was populated with local production staff including several Columbia alumni. At one point, the film’s location manager approached me and asked, “Weren’t we in a class together last year?” He had since grown a beard, but I recognized him as Tom Lounsbury from my Cinema Studies course. It was heartening to have a school connection on a professional movie set.

Another connection, one that I thought about the entire day, was my brother Saul Dachslager who also studied film in college and has worked as a professional production assistant for many years in Dallas. Watching the P.A.s on B-Roll gave me an up-close appreciation and nsight into his job that I’d never been privy to before.  Someday I hope to visit one of his sets, as well.

The scene being filmed involved Josh and three other principal actors (Kurt Bronohler, Adam Herschman, and Karan Soni) talking as they exited the school building. A handful of young Naperville locals had been recruited to serve as background extras to further enhance the illusion that we were on a college campus. While the director consulted with the principals, the production assistants asked the extras to gather for their assignments and placement. Meghan leaned over to me and asked if I wanted to be an extra in the film. I had assumed I’d spend the day doing my best to remain invisible and out of the way, and I was suddenly being offered the chance to be, in a sense, “front and center,” I said I’d love to, as long as it was okay with Josh. It was, and I joined extras and waited for instructions.

We were each given assignments. Two extras tossed a football back and forth. One was presumably sunbathing on the grass. Some were given books to carry and were paired up to stroll across the sidewalk at predetermined points. My traffic pattern entailed walking past Josh and the three principals during their dialogue. As I waited for the production assistant to cue me, I suddenly became very self-conscious. I was carrying my “Emery Theatre Department” bag with the rubber chicken emblazoned on the side. My decades of acting training gave me the presence of mind to turn the chicken side away from the camera lens.

As my cue approached I then became very apprehensive about my walk. We don’t typically pay much attention to what we look like when we walk. I started to worry that my natural gait would somehow look foolish and if I tried to alter it, I’d appear unnatural and affected. I imagined the director yelling, “CUT!!!!! Get that no-talent walker-wannabe out of my movie!!!” Ridiculous as it sounds, I quickly realized that the only way for me to appear and feel natural would be to make specific decisions about my “character.” I decided that I was a professor who had just bought a new car and was heading to the parking lot after class, excited for the drive home. I know it sounds extreme, but thinking in those terms and being “someone else” really did quell my anxiety for those few steps. We ended up walking our traffic patterns five times so the scene could be covered from various angles. After the second take, the production assistant turned to me and asked, “Have you done background work before?” I said, “Never. Does it show?”

Thankfully, Meghan was pro-actively taking photos of my “performance” as we shot the various takes.  (Josh is in the red jacket.)

Larry Dachslager, Josh Brener, B-Roll

When I saw her pictures, I was immediately reminded of another person who occasionally strolled through scenes.

Vertigo Hitchcock

The director decided to get the entire scene from a different angle, so the entire set up was shifted to another part of the campus. This time, a bench could be seen in the background, so Brian asked if I would, upon hearing “action,” count three seconds, approach the bench, sit down, and “act like a teacher.” He asked if I had any papers in my bag that I could pretend to grade. I said I had a book of acrostics. “That’ll work,” he replied. For five or six takes, I sat down on a bench and did acrostics. Between shots, a production assistant brought me a water bottle. I felt like a real movie actor.

Larry Dachslager, B-Roll

Larry Dachslager, B-Roll extra

Here’s the take as seen on the director’s monitor.  (The guy in the blue shirt is the director, Travis Long.)  So if this shot ends up in the finished film, push the freeze frame button and look to the far left.

Larry Dachslager B-Roll Extra Once the scene wrapped, it was on to the next location – a Naperville horse farm.  We were among the first to arrive at the farm. Tom told us where to park and I watched as a large crew calmly, but quickly and efficiently erected various tents, a green screen, and other equipment, transforming the vast farm near a railroad track into a house in a suburban neighborhood. There were no extras required for this scene, so we waited beneath a tent with chairs and a table replete with snacks. I chatted with the principal actors, crew, and co-screenwriter Lenny Miller, all of whom were extremely cordial, inclusive, and non-stop funny. Once shooting began, I watched the scene being played out, both live and on the monitor. The scene being filmed involved the ringing of a doorbell which short circuits and catches the house on fire. The housefire had already been filmed earlier, and the doorbell was just a button on a post.  The house the doorbell was attached to was in the actors’ imaginations. Ah, the magic of movies.

At 5p.m., the shoot broke for “lunch.” (They would continue shooting into the night.) I wanted to get back to Chicago before dark, so I decided to leave after we ate. I don’t know what I expected on the set of an independent film, but the meal set up was spectacularly unglamorous. Salad and pasta from foil containers and drinks from a large cooler. It reminded me of the meal breaks on the middle school productions I directed. Throughout my visit, ending with the meal, I was constantly struck and impressed by the easy, relaxed, respectful, professional, and totally non-hierarchical interaction between cast, crew, and production staff. And I was made to feel completely welcome.

On the way home, I thought about life. When I first met Josh Brener in 1996, he was an eleven-year-old Little League baseball player auditioning for his first school musical. Eighteen years later (depending on the outcome of B-Roll’s final edit) I “shared the screen” with Josh for a few seconds. I pondered the warm, “happy ending-esque” quality of this turn of events as the train I was on literally headed into the sunset. Just like in a movie.

One Comment
  1. Elaine permalink

    I felt as if I was there on the movie set, too. Thanks for an fun and well-written blog entry.

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