Driving past comfort

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward or scared or uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy

Working as a film extra since last fall, I’ve rarely had to drive beyond metro Detroit for a booking. Which is a good thing, since my sense of direction is pitiful — especially if I’m trying to navigate unfamiliar expressways.

Luckily, my husband Doug has worked in many of the same film gigs. He drives while I squint to read the directions on a Google map.

But two weeks ago, one of our casting agents phoned on short notice to ask if we’d be willing to take a five-day job in Grand Rapids, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from suburban Detroit. And there was another catch: The job required both of our cars for various scenes, so we would have to drive separately.  We’d also have to book a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, since we’d be working at least 12 hours daily on location.

Doug was all set to pack up and hit the road. “We could think of it as a working vacation,” he said hopefully, adding that we hadn’t taken a real break this summer.

Regardless, I could feel my anxiety slamming on the brakes. Working out of town for five days would present some unique challenges — the least of which would be finding convenient laundry facilities for our film wardrobes. My elderly mother’s “early stage” dementia had moved to the middle stage this summer, leaving me vaguely uneasy about leaving town. (I’m not as free as I’d hoped to be at this stage of midlife.)

And what would I do if Doug and I got separated by a caravan of trucks barreling down the expressway? What if, en route to Grand Rapids, my tire blew and my cell phone died? As Doug likes to point out, I can spend hours imagining all kinds of ridiculous “what-if” scenarios.

Stretching lessons

There’s a wonderful quote by Les Brown, one of my favorite motivational speakers: “If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.”

Clearly, I’ve never been much good at stretching — or tiptoeing — beyond my comfort zone. But wasn’t that one of the reasons why I’d signed on to work as a film extra last year?  Feeling cooped up in my newly emptied nest, I had hoped to get out there and meet some new people. I wanted to experience a new creative medium; to learn more about filmmaking. And hadn’t I hoped to be challenged just a little?

So I called the casting agent back and said yes to the booking.

Before I go on, I need to explain that I’m not at liberty to discuss many details about the films I’ve worked in before they’re  released. Since the magic of movies involves an element of surprise, everyone who works on a production is warned against sharing plot details. Taking photos on set is strictly prohibited, too, and I’ve heard several accounts of crew and background extras who’ve been fired for ignoring that rule.

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Though our roles in these films have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs, working with directors, and following protocol on set.”

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But I can tell you that the film is an action-comedy. I learned how car crash scenes are filmed — and even got to drive my car in one. The Grand Rapids police, who’d been enlisted to close several intersections for the filming, were super-friendly and fun to work with. And what a thrill it was when a production assistant handed me a walkie talkie so I could hear the assistant director’s cues in my car. It wasn’t exactly stunt driving, but it was a totally different experience from any other films I’ve worked in. My comfort zone was reasonably stretched, and by the end of the week, I was starting to feel at home in the middle of Grand Rapids’ busiest intersections.

Spending a few hours in “holding” — the place where background extras wait when we’re not on set — is another opportunity to push past boundaries and comfort zones. At times, it can feel like you’re hanging out in a circus tent. At the very least, it’s an intensive exercise in public relations — and a fascinating glimpse into human nature.

In holding, you meet characters you wouldn’t ordinarily find around one lunch table. This type of work attracts everyone from tattooed college students to laid-off auto execs and stay-at-home moms in need of a break. A few have full-time careers in more lucrative fields — and simply took time off work to discover what it’s like to be in a movie. (It’s always a fun story to share with friends.) Others are very serious about becoming film actors.

After working with these folks for nearly a week, it’s hard to return home without fresh insight — and several new friendships.

Shaking up the old routine

Still, it wasn’t easy to wake up at 5:15 every morning. Our call times were rarely later than 6:30 or 7:00, so we’d arrive bleary eyed at base camp to sign in and wolf down enough breakfast to hold us until our late-afternoon meal. Wrapping up around 9:00 each night, Doug and I would grab a sandwich and dash down to the basement of the hotel to launder our clothes. (We had to wear the same outfit every day but one.)  Then we’d crawl into bed, exhausted.

Working as a film extra probably isn’t your idea of pushing past your own comfort zone. But now is the perfect time to take a closer look at your bucket list and ask yourself what’s keeping you from following a dream or trying something quirky, fun, and new. Even if it merely shakes up your ordinary routine for a day or two, I promise you’ll score a few points for self confidence.

All said and done, this turned out to be one of the most unusual “vacations” Doug and I have ever taken. It also capped the one-year anniversary of our foray into film work — and was the 12th production we’ve worked on to date. Though our roles have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs for bookings, working with directors, and following protocol on set. (More about those lessons in upcoming columns.)

On the way back to Detroit, I felt as if we’d been away much longer than a week. In a few whirlwind days I’d seen movie stars and stunt-car crashes and the heart of Michigan’s second largest city. And I’d made some wonderful new friends.

Pulling into our driveway at home, I felt relieved to be back in my comfort zone, and I thanked my car sincerely for getting me there safely. It had worked hard for me, and I can’t wait to see how it cute it looks in the movie. — Cindy La Ferle


Background!

Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me.” — Tim Burton

Most people who work in creative fields are jockeying to land a leading role, a front-page story, or first prize in an art competition. Aiming high, we usually compete for the spotlight. We’re all trying to make it in a culture that worships overnight success and holds its collective breath for the latest American Idol winner.

So, who’d want to work long, repetitive hours as a background extra in films? Who’d get a kick out of working for little more than minimum wage and a few fleeting seconds of screen time?

Lots of people. And I’m one of them.

Thanks to Michigan’s new film incentive program, Hollywood has been sending a variety of productions to our state, creating thousands of new jobs for labor, crew, and actors.

My first gig as a background extra in a feature film began on a lark last fall — another item on my bucket list. Along with my husband Doug and several of our neighbors, I was cast in the opening scene of the big-budget Red Dawn remake when our own neighborhood was used as a film set. Humvees and assorted army vehicles rolled down our tree-lined suburban streets while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a total blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to work in additional scenes in Detroit.

Doug and I had so much fun, in fact, that we registered with a couple of casting agencies, and have worked in several more projects. Among our favorites was the soon-to-be-released Lifetime TV movie, Secrets in the Walls, in which we were cast as a doctor and a nurse in a hospital scene. As Doug likes to joke, “Now I can finally tell people, ‘No I am not a real doctor, but I played one on TV.”

Now that we’re listed with casting agencies, the toughest part is learning to deal with the unpredictability. We might get a call or an e-mail inquiring about our availability a week (or a day) before a particular shoot. At that point, we must commit to a time frame — with no immediate guarantee that we’ll be booked for the job. We’re usually left hanging until the casting agents confirm our roles and send additional details. The agents aren’t being coy or cruel — they’re also waiting for a schedule from the production people.

So it can be hard to plan your life around this sort of work. Last-minute bookings  — and production schedule changes — aren’t unusual. Last year, Doug got an emergency call from a casting agent, asking him to pack a sports jacket and drive immediately to Ann Arbor to cover for another extra who couldn’t show up on the set that morning. (He made it in record time.)

Lights, camera …

Pay rates vary, depending on each film’s budget. As a rule, hourly pay is rarely much more than minimum wage, so I wouldn’t advise anyone interested in this work to consider quitting your day job or ditching your best freelance clients. There’s always a chance that your 15 seconds of “face time” will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, anyway.

But there are untold rewards, especially if you love movies as much as I do. For starters, background extras get a rare look behind the scenes and a chance to learn more about filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can’t help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work and long hours invested in any given film project. You meet some of the nicest people too — everyone from legal administrators to retired engineers and stay-at-home dads will show up for work. And yes, sometimes you do rub elbows with celebrities.

For me, film work provides an interesting contrast to my (real-life) role as a professional writer. Writers are often loners out of necessity — but we enjoy company too. Working in a film, I enjoy the same rush of adrenaline and camaraderie I used to get when I was in theater years ago. I thrived on the nervous hum of activity backstage while the crew geared up and my fellow actors prepped for their scenes.

Last week I worked as a background extra in an HBO television series. I was waiting for my cue from an assistant director half my age when it hit me that this sort of work is both humbling and freeing.

No matter which production I’m working for, I know I’m just a very small part of a much bigger picture. I have no lines to memorize or deliver, and mugging for the camera is strictly prohibited. Unlike writing a story — where I’m in creative control and get my own byline — I’m merely fulfilling someone else’s vision while working as an extra. My role in a film might be as simple as running across the street from an explosion, singing hymns in a church, working at a desk, hanging around the town square, or standing in a corner with a drink in hand.

Years ago, I worked with a director who liked to remind everyone on stage that “there are no small parts, just small actors.” And that’s still terrific advice for every performer.

But hey, I’m not going to get rich or famous working as a background extra. It’s honorable work, and while I’m on set, I take it seriously. I show up on time and follow the instructions I’m given to the letter. Yet I know I won’t be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood. And I’m really OK with that. This is teamwork. This is what I do for fun. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: I’m on the right, hamming it up with Laurie and Bryan Valko, fellow background extras, after getting fitted for a hospital scene in Secrets in the Walls, a Lifetime TV thriller scheduled to air this fall. Middle photo: My husband Doug (left) posting with background extra Vong Lee, the Communist soldier who held us captive on the set of Red Dawn in our Royal Oak neighborhood last year. Bottom Photo: One of several head shots I use for background extra gigs.