In Chapter 3 of Barsam’s Looking at Movies, I found the segment on costumes fascinating. Aside from obvious stylistic creations, I had assumed that accuracy of period costumes was of the utmost importance to filmmakers. This assumption is, in part, due to my singular and ridiculously unimportant role as an extra.
In June ’06 I made my film debut in Peter Schnall’s The Revolution, a thirteen part series made by The History Channel. (Reruns are airing as I type). It captures a few quick glimpses of me in five of those episodes posing as both a middle and lower class colonial woman.
Historical accuracy in this project was not just the main directive, it was a passion. The costume designer was so knowledgeable that she explained where certain pieces of clothing got their name and most of the actors personally owned authentic Redcoat and American Revolution uniforms, seeking this type of film for a living.
After that experience, you might imagine my dismay when I read, “Historical films tend to reflect both the years they hope to represent and the years in which they were created. Nonetheless, they shape our ideas of historical dress” (Barsam 104). I feel so duped and yet at the same time I’m not surprised. When watching a period piece, I have relied naively upon what I thought was historical accuracy, not expecting some link to the present in the name of selling women’s fashion. In fact, I’m fully appalled that studios developed the “Hollywood Beauty Queen wig” and recycled it throughout countless actors, periods and stories. Phooey! Of course, it makes absolute sense as the prime directive in filmmaking is to make money.
Still, this perturbs me as much as the latest trend in advertising. Canon, Nikon, one of them is sending actors to vacation spots. Now you can’t even believe a tourist who asks you to take their photograph so they can show their daughter back home. It’s really just a sales pitch. “Oh, we love this camera. We take it everywhere! We bought one for our daughter too. Look how easy it is to use!” This illusion of film we’ve been conditioned to accept as reality has finagled its way into real life so corporations can prey on unsuspecting samaritans to demonstrate and covertly sell their camera. No shit.
Anyway, I dug up an old email written the day after my stint with The History Channel that recounts conversations with and about the designers, costumers, hair, make-up, set, and lighting folks.
See the October 12, 2005 entry.
A Day in the Life of an Extra
Friday of last week, winding my way home through the hills, fluorescent green, handwritten signs reading “TO SET” were mounted to telephone poles at every intersection. I followed the beacons a surprisingly short distance to Mud Pond Road, one road past my own dead end. When I reached the last sign, I had stumbled upon much more than what I assumed to be an amateur project. There were 15 Port-O-Potties, a camper, a wedding-sized food tent, rental vans, trailers, and a row of small, yellowed military camp tents. Men with ponytails carried muskets and were dressed in triangular hats, wool coats with brass buttons, and knee-high tights. The crew had radios attached to their ears and drove golf carts from field to field. Troops of actors milled about digesting lunch and awaiting their next scene.
While doing construction on our house that weekend, we heard gunshots all afternoon. On Monday, we drove by so Tim could see too. In observance of Columbus Day, the fields were quiet with few people milling about. We found one woman walking with a clipboard and asked her what was up.
She answered, “We’re filming a 13 part series on the American Revolution for the History Channel.”
I leaned toward Tim’s window from the passenger seat and blurted, “Do you need any extras?” After leaving my number, we drove off.
Tuesday morning, I jumped in the car to head for the grocery store but at the end of our road I made a right instead of the usual left. On Mud Pond Road I pulled up behind the first trailer I saw. What was I thinking?
Exiting the car, I was met by a young man carrying a clipboard and a radio. The Gate Keeper. Feeling rather shy, I mentioned their need for extras the day before.
He told me, “Sure thing. Justine Simonson, the casting director, will be down for lunch shortly.”
I stood at the edge of a mile-long long driveway. A handmade sign read, “No vehicles beyond this point – without permission.” I couldn’t see beyond the trees as I stood beside a tent, but roughly 15 people trickled from behind that sign down the hill?and greeted me with friendly nods and hellos.
The man with the radio pointed out Justine, “See the woman with the striped knit hat?”
She had to be in her early thirties wearing many layers on top and a pair of sopping wet jeans, the water mark reaching about halfway up her leg. “Are you Amy?”
Apparently Amy was an extra they were expecting. I was merely a curious local.
Justine’s interest was piqued. “She’s lovely! Thanks for bringing her to me!”
We walked about 1000 feet down the main road, past the pond to the adjoining field where I had seen the second cluster of tents and trailers. On our walk I learned that Justine and much of the film crew were from New York City and that many of the actors were professional “re-enactors” who owned their own costumes, had extensive knowledge of early American history, and were used repeatedly for projects such as this.
That was it for small talk. Justine excused herself to make a call as we continued to walk side by side. “Yeah, Dad, I’m soaked to the knees. I’ve been standing in a field all morning after it rained all week, freezing my ass off… Yeah, I called the shipping company and the order hadn’t been properly placed, but I straightened things out and your birthday present is now on its way. Shit.” Her cell connection dropped.
All I could offer was, “Yeah, I don’t even use one of those out here.”?
At the next field I was introduced to a woman in her costume trailer named Kathryn. She actually owned and rented these clothes, as well as her expertise, to the film crew. Another trailer was parked alongside and filled with racks of blue and red coats manned by a younger man. Once instructed as to how I would be dressed, Justine pointed me toward the food tent. “Grab something to eat and immediately after lunch we’ll get you ready for a village scene.”
Having already eaten, I poured a cup of hot cocoa and found an empty seat at one of the 6 large round tables. A line of costumed actors holding plates swarmed the banquet tables in the tent. A weather-worn white man gave a firm and very black handshake introducing himself as a make-up artist. The discoloration was movie soot from fires and explosions. Another costume coordinator wore a baseball cap that read Band of Brothers. Three dirty soldiers joined our table making a young, clean blonde in street clothes look completely foreign to the time, as did I. She closed her book to join the conversation.
The blonde was Elizabeth, another extra I would be working with. She too was a local and had been there since 6 a.m. Her parents owned the high-end antique shop in Nassau, a bastion for movie set rentals in the area. That’s how she learned about the project. We all heard about how Elizabeth had been living in Japan with her Japanese fiancé but had broken off the engagement after feeling the brunt of national disregard toward women. She was temporarily back with her parents to regroup.
The costume designer, Kathryn, shared her life as an American military brat in Japan, hearing the first official radio call of the Vietnam War and understanding that the first shots had been fired. She recounted the conversation word for word. To whether America should return fire, the reply was “Yes! And then hightail your asses OUT of there!”
I tossed in some of my ex-flight attendant Japanese layover stories about karaoke clubs and Australian pilots, and we all had a good laugh about how I accidentally wore one of the passengers blazers, mistaking it for my own, to serve his dinner.
The soldiers then moved on to the topic of whether a British soldier’s neck stock was made of horsehair or leather, whether they were buckled or laced, which versions were more uncomfortable and how much they cost commercially vs. hand made by a re-enactor
One asked me where I had come from. “Really? You just walked in off the street? You’ve never done this before? No kidding! Good for you! You’ll have a lot of fun. Its nothing more than a lot of hurry up and wait, but you get to wear silly clothes and be someone else for a little while. Just walk in whatever direction they point you in and you’ll be fine. So, what do you do? Where did you just move back from?”
I told him it was a long story and got several stares from around the table. In this moment I learned that we we’d have a lot of time to kill and long stories are a welcomed and expected pastime.
(Funny. As I type this, I can hear the “poof” of muskets firing in the distance.)
After lunch, Elizabeth and I were introduced to Ruth, another extra from the neighboring farm. Ruth pointed out a barn filled with cows. “We sold the Carpentier’s these cows a few months ago.” She had her 6 month old baby with her, as well as her in-laws, all of whom were friends of the man who owned the property, Don Carpentier.
“Have you ever seen Don’s Eastfield Village?” I hadn’t. I thought we were filming with tents and wide open nature, but I was in for quite a surprise.
Carpentier and his wife are avid collectors of early American heritage, and not just furniture. One by one Don has purchased, moved to his property, and restored many historical buildings and their contents, all the while instructing paying students how to do the hands-on work. Now built, he leases the space to film crews. It’s a brilliant example of capitalism. The east field is part of the farm his father left to him in the early 70s, thus, “Eastfield Village.”
Outside the tent, as “extra” soldiers were adjusting their costumes, a safety ambassador was firmly giving instruction. “Do NOT carry your musket pointed toward the ground. If you accidentally tap the barrel into the mud and fire it, you’re going to kill somebody. If I see you mishandling this musket in ANY way, you will NEVER set foot on THIS set, or any other, EVER again!”
When done reprimanding the actors, the man marched in our direction. Surprisingly, his gruff nature turned from grizzly bear to Teddy as he coddled and coohed Ruth’s baby girl.
We made our way to the back of the costume trailer, where Kathryn Coombs told us to hide behind the racks as best we could, get out of our street clothes and strip down to just our underwear, no bras. I wished I had worn more than a thong. I felt like a fatted calf in a refrigeration truck. Holding my arms over my head, Kathryn dropped over me a crisp, full, white cotton slip. I watched as Elizabeth’s and then Ruth’s corsets were tightly laced over their own slips. Kathryn explained that this time period was a particular chore to recreate as the lacing up the back is much more difficult than up the front. At first, I desperately wanted my corset for an added layer of heat, but once tied in, I wished I hadn’t been so eager. I fully expected Kathryn to place her foot on my ass and pull the laces. We all found ourselves yawning for oxygen, unable to take in full breaths.
Not only did our corsets need lacing, but so did our overshirts, bustles, skirts, shoes and bonnets. A second costume designer noted, “This must be where the tradition of women going to the bathroom in pairs came from.” It took us an hour to get in gear.
Over the radio they were calling for “women on set,” but there was just no hurrying. Our thigh high socks somewhat warmed our gooseflesh legs as a man wrestled with tying each of our authentic black-healed period shoes with ribbon and a touch of modern Velcro. British wool redcoats were draped over our shoulders for warmth. Everything we wore stuck out over the HUGE bustle tied around our hips. (Picture one of those neck pillows doubled in size.) Man, we looked FAT.
One by one we were run down to the make-up tent. Erika Onsager, our make-up artist, literally grabbed my hand and dragged me running behind her until she sat me on a stool and whipped my hair into submission. Then came a sponging of foundation. Erica might have looked like a farm hand with her cargo pants, but she transformed us into “proper” women quite skillfully. She thanked me for not wearing make-up, as if I had planned on being there and was ever so thoughtful. Then her nose crinkled into a wretched expression and mine soon followed. The maintenance truck had arrive to pump the Port-O-Potties. I was never so grateful for aerosol hairspray. Erika covered my whole head to create an herbal yet toxic curtain of protection.
Annie, the baby, was stripped from her vibrantly colored fleece, gilded in a fine peach linen gown and wrapped in blankets. They placed a “pudding cap” on her head, protecting the brain from turning to pudding if jostled or bumped.
On that note, donning our underbonnets and tying our overhats in place, we were off and, well, not running. “Step delicately so your shoes don’t come unlaced.”
I needed the restroom but the layers would never fit in a Port-O-Potty. A van was radioed to pick us up and drive us to the set, but all that rushing just left us standing around for another hour. “Hurry up and wait” is right. We shivered on the sidelines watching a soldier nailing a proclamation to the door and others coming up to read it… shot after shot to infinity.
The cold, damp winds howled up my middle class colonial skirt for 6 hours. I hung onto those little shake and bake hand warmers to stop my trembling. We were told they last 9 hours but I think I froze them before they had a chance. My blue lips became the butt of a joke as it was SUPPOSED to be summer in the South. With all the leaves at a peak, it was amazing that there was a green patch left at all.
Finally, somebody called for us. We were paired with husbands and placed as a crowd of town people. We were to listen intently as a man perched on a bench outside a building demanded liberty or death. He rotated side to side making eye contact as he scanned the crowd, arms outstretched.
The camera dolly had been laid out behind us to pan the Liberty Guy gesturing grandly from between our heads. The smell of baby powder on the camera’s tracks wafted through the air, mixed with smoke from a bucket of coals fanned for effect. We “extra” gals made eye contact, unable to speak after a “QUIET ON THE SET.” We were all surely thinking, after hours of preparation, the most that would be seen was the back of our necks?
Being the professionals that we had recently become, we played along as directed. Liberty Guy spouted off a rather long and famous political speech as the camera moved back and forth behind us for 5 to 6 passes. When he ran out of speech lines, he ad libbed while continuing his grand gestures.
“…And the fish I caught was THIS BIG.”
“Here, here! No body part comes THAT large!” A towny raised a defiant fist. Everyone joined in.
“That’s not a fish! It’s a newt!”
“It’s a Gingrich!”
“To Newt or not to Newt! That is the question!”
“Neuter that Newt!”
With Liberty Guy still pivoting above us, someone called out, “Excuse me, Sir. Did you ever work in Macy’s Christmas window?”
Liberty Guy lost all composure… which set me off. The camera ceased panning and the director yelled “CUT!” Never refering to the comments or the laughter, the only criticism was that the man to my left had looked down. Here we go again… New positions. New husbands.
So that’s how I learned that this was a documentary and visual clips, many in slow motion, would be used in conjunction with a narrative voiceover. We could say whatever we wanted as long as we gave “good face.” I pondered this for a moment and asked my second husband, “What happens if a lip reader watches?” There was no time to answer.
The payoff came when the camera track was repositioned in front of us. Now our faces, reacting to the options of liberty or death, were filmed at close range. We were supposed to look hopeful. Some of us were told to nod. Mr. Liberty stepped down to rest his arms but we were to continue as if he were still there. I stared at a window pane where his head had been and tried to be enthused. It wasn’t inspiring, but this is acting.
As the film was rolling, I was directed to shake a fist in the air in support, but failed. Had I done so, the hand warmers would have been visible. My engagement ring, initially twisted front to back, had twisted back to front again. The all too modern stone would have shown. This had all sounded so easy!
I did get another chance, and another, and yet another. The remedy, while having no pockets, was to discretely lift my overshirt and place the hand warmers on the topside of my bustle which, by design, created a sturdy shelf above my hips. My third husband laughed as someone behind me said “Madame, you have a rather large ass… if I may comment.”
It was getting dark. Large cans were extended?aboce the scene?and diffusers were put in place. It was suddenly day. A frustrated voice called from the damp, cold shadows, “This is the first sun I’ve seen all week!”
Smoke was heavily fanned at us until the guy with the coals heard the baby cough. “We have a REAL baby?” I’m SO sorry!” Ethan, the assistant director added, “You mean that’s not a stunt baby?”
Mr. Make-up grabbed the abandonned coal pail’s handle with a towel and brought it toward Elizabeth and me. “Hold your hands over this.” It wasn’t smoking without the fanning and the heat was heavenly. They were quite kind to us, complete with servings of hot cocoa delivered from the pimp-go-cart.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had no time to shop for my house guests. I borrowed a phone to leave a message. “I’m on the set. I’ve been cast as a colonial woman and can’t leave. Can someone get pizza?”
No time to worry. The dolly was repositioned and we were called back to position one.
My fifth husband and I chose a field rock as first position, a home plate of sorts where we returned for each reshoot. At one point we gals swapped some clothes and added some homelier shawls to create new women from towns of less means. The men changed out of their high status coats into our class equivalent clothing with sooty, knee length, long sleeved undershirts. One guy had no alternate clothes but, dressed in black, gray, and white, suggested we switch genres to fifties TV.
We were told to converge around a tree where another proclamation had been nailed by a Redcoat (played by my former second husband). It declared that the townspeople were to report to active war duty, no matter their position or circumstances. We were to look either enthusiastic or disgusted, our choice. My newest husband whispered, as we walked toward the tree with film rolling, that he liked to be woken by 7 a.m. and preferred eggs and toast for breakfast. I told him I’d get right on that after I delivered our seventh child.
And again. “ACTION!” Walk, walk, turn toward the proclamation, gawk, look filled with disgust. I nearly lost my bonnet twice as I got knocked about by my fifth husband’s triangular hat trying to read the stupid tree. We were to look and move on, trying not to walk into the other actors crossing our paths through town. Once my husband and I walked so far before “cut” that we didn’t hear it and kept on going.
We eventually stopped when the director, assistant director and camera man came down the hill shouting, “I need one of the women to volunteer to read a line.” I gestured for Elizabeth since she had been there 12 hours and deserved the spot. This was going to be the only place they would use actual sound. Expounding on the original thought, they alternated lines between TWO women and two men… the other woman being me. We got our lines and rehearsed. I won the tongue twister… and my tongue was as useless as when I eat too much ice cream. I pushed out the five or six words including “obedient adherence.” All the guy next to me had to say was “under the King.”
“Are you all set?”
Distracted by the talking around me, I asked for a refresher. They offered to write it out but it didn’t matter. By then someone with a modicum of historical knowledge reminded everyone that women would never have spoken these words. We were thanked and told we could leave for the day.
There went my SAG award.
We scurried back to take some photos, return to our modern day attire, and pick rubber bands and bobby pins from our cemented hair. I jumped in my car and FLEW home to find our dinner guests had let themselves into our dark and empty home at 5:00. It was now 6:40. I felt terrible but explained my lateness with all the excitement of a kid at Christmas. I also talked super fast because I REALLY had to pee. Thankfully, our guests seemed as excited as I was. We ate mounds of pasta with jar sauce and had a lot more to talk about than if I hadn’t been late at all.