Every Director Should Spend One Day as an Extra

My day as a background player, bowling

First off, a shout out to the cast and crew of the NOVA special I participated in as an extra. Very professional, very ambitious. I can’t share the name of the production, but for at least the part of the script covered by this shoot, physics and bowling are natural bedfellows.

Now, as a writer/director I spend what time I’m involved with film/video projects behind the camera. Despite some limited experience in acting classes and helping friends out, I’ve never really held performance to be a personal ambition. However, when a friend of mine who was art directing a program for WGBH approached me about doing a day as a bowling extra on a program that two other friends of mine happened to be working on, I said why not.

Despite all the familiar faces on set, everyone was naturally far too busy achieving an ambitious day’s work to chit chat with me. Having been in their shoes, I fully expected that, so I contented myself by assuming the role that I myself have put others through over the years, sitting around waiting for my scene to come up. Predictably, despite the 10 a.m. call time (the last feature I directed demanded 5 a.m. call times for sunrise shoots, so this was luxury I hardly deserved), we three extras weren’t needed until 5’ish, so I read my novel, chatted with the other extras in hushed tones, ate my free lunch, and took in the activities of the set.

At key points during the day, the producer and director were careful to let us know when we were likely to be needed, and to update us with inevitable rearrangements of the schedule. I felt I’d dodged a bullet in costuming when one of the combinations of garments I brought was enthusiastically endorsed by the director (I somehow had a feeling that the red bow tie would be a winner…). Everyone was considerate, professional, and overall it was a pleasant display of how nicely a shoot can be run, even with a hard deadline and an ambitious shot count for the day.

For myself, it highlighted the importance of providing a calm, inclusive atmosphere for everyone, even the extras who are stuck sitting around all day waiting for their scene. It was also a reminder of what it’s like to be the one sitting there, and while I’ve always made an effort to be considerate of everyone on the set of one of my projects, in future I’ll be even more mindful of the scheduling and handling of the background players.

It’s so easy to be caught up in the minutia of directing the scenes at hand–especially on lower-budgeted shoots with small crews and a blurred line between producing, directing, and assistant directing–that necessary pleasantries and interactions with the larger crew can fall by the wayside, when in fact even three minutes spent making someone who’s waiting around feel like they’re part of the proceedings can result in hugely better attitudes all around. And better attitudes pay real dividends when its someone’s turn to be on camera.

I’m glad for the experience.


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