I'm a complete film geek; always have been; always will be. In elementary school, I walked around with my lunch box up to my eye, pretending it was a film camera. I even went to film school, an oxymoron I know all too well after trying to find work in the "Biz." At any rate, sometimes I find myself working as an extra or, rather, a "background artist" on films. It's a geek's dream to be on a film set, no matter how you get yourself there. So, every now and again, I'm one of those schmucks standing behind the movie stars in a scene. Cheap thrill.
One day, I learned that the new Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, which is based on a science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick, would be filming in Washington, D.C. Since I live in Baltimore, it would be no big deal to get down there so I sent my photo to the casting director for the film. After being hired as an extra in a ballroom scene, to be filmed in the ballroom of the Willard Hotel near the White House, I was told to report to a warehouse for a costume fitting and a hair cut. Everyone was a perfectionist, as they fit me for a futuristic wool and plastic tuxedo.
My first day of filming was a very hot one in Junenot the best weather for a plastic and wool tuxedo. Call time was very early5 a.m.and it was already hot. An assistant director addressed all the extras about not bothering Spielberg and Cruise when we got on the set. He also told us to go see A.I. when it came out the next week because, he said, it was great. He also told us that we would be called to the set shortly. He lied on both counts. So there I stood outside the Willard Hotel, waiting for my moment of background artist glory. And I waited; and I waiteduntil they finally called me a little before 5 p.m. Tough gig, this extra thing.
The set was a ballroom with a big blue screen, banquet tables, dozens of extras, lights, crew membersand no air conditioning. I was immediately partnered up with an insane woman as my date to the fake lavish ball. Because I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, I can't mention what we filmed, but it was basically a futuristic ballroom party. The crew must have noticed that I was a film geek and kept me yards away from the real action of the scene and Spielberg directing. I tried to listen to him direct, but it was nearly impossible. First, a ballroom with dozens of extras whispering is like the sound of an ocean if you're trying to focus on one conversation. Secondly, the insane woman would always say, "I wish I could hear what he was saying," just at the precise second that I could almost hear something. I tried to politely tell her to close her cake hole, but it didn't work.
Spielberg is a genius and a perfectionist. He would shoot take after take of a scene until he got it exactly the way he wanted it. At one point, Tom Cruise made fun of him when he shot eight takes of a zoom into the blue screen. Even I thought that seemed a bit much, but then again he has two Oscars for direction and I have none.
The humorous thing about this perfectionism is that Spielberg shot take after take of a scene where a secondary character is supposed to be seen in the background for a dramatic moment. On the final take, however, the actress forgot to walk into the shot. When the scene ended, Spielberg yelled that the take was perfect and for everyone to prepare for the next scene. Hell be in for a surprise when he gets to the editing room.
The day ended uneventfully, and I went back to my hotel room. It was fun walking past the White House after a long day of work doing nothing. The second day, though, turned out to be more dramatic. It started the same, getting into the tuxedo and then standing out in the heat. But then I was called to the set to be used close to the camera because I hadn't been seen in the previous day's shots.
I was escorted onto the set and placed between tables to block the view of an open aisle behind me that led to the hallway. The camera was facing me, and all the extras were to react to what we saw on the blue screen behind the camera. This would be funactually borderline acting. So, I'm standing there, and I notice a director's chair near the video monitors that says "Dad." I was told this was Spielberg's because a few of his kids were working on the film. Next to his chair was another chair with a strange name on it. I thought it would be weird to have that name on a chair and couldn't imagine anyone going by that name on the set. This will make sense shortly.
The next thing I knew, I was told to move aside. I looked, and Spielberg walked right past me as I turned. If he had only looked at me, I think he could have seen in my eyes that he wants to direct my film scripts. Damn. Watching Spielberg set up the shot, I was a happy camper. Then Kate Capshaw came up behind me, and I moved out of her way.
Things were going swimmingly. Then I turned around, and Bill Clinton was walking toward me. I've always considered him the Devil, but, like a dolt, I stuck my hand out to shake his. He said hello and moved over to his director's chair, with his name on it, right next to Spielberg's. The funny thing was that his Secret Service detail was all behind him. I could have socked him in the nose like a good Republican but instead shook his hand. One of the assistant directors told his detail that they were standing in the shot. They immediately apologized and moved out of the way. I know he's not President anymore, but we still protect the bum.
So Clinton sat in front of all the video monitors, looking over shots with Spielberg. He was constantly looking around and stating how incredible everything was, like he had never seen people in formal attire, been in a ballroom before or been around a film crew. The guy probably knows every secretwho killed Kennedy, nuclear war scenarios, aliens in Roswell and yet he was acting amazed on the set. And people were lapping it up. As everyone has said a thousand times, he is the most charismatic mofo you have ever seen.
The other interesting thing about Clinton's visit was that he brought a beautiful blonde onto the set. His mistress, according to the tabloids. She kept looking at me and smiling. A real hottie, but since I didn't want the Secret Service to take me out, I didn't get her digits. (I never use that phrase, by the way, but it amuses me in this context.)
Then Tom Cruise came up and hugged Clinton. Spielberg, Cruise and President Clinton. They were five feet away, but I felt like I was at the zoo watching another form of life interact in their natural environment. Very strange. They look like us, and they're carbon-based life forms like us, but they ain't us.
So, I was standing there, and the cameramen were preparing a shot and this beautiful make-up woman walked close to Clinton and did a little touch up on an extra. Clinton sat in his director's chair with his head resting on his palm like Rodins The Thinker. And he started staring at the make-up woman's ass, smiling a devilish grin. The only thing that would have made it more of a Clinton caricature would have been if he had bitten his bottom lip. Outrageous. If you had seen this on Saturday Night Live, Conan O'Brien, Letterman or Leno, you would have thought it was a bit much, but here it was happening right in front of me. I watched it all, amazed. Then Clinton saw me watching him do this, continued to smile and went back to staring at her ass. I don't know if it was defiance, "What ya gonna do, impeach me again?" or if he is self-destructive or what. Amazing. We filmed a few takes, and then some of us were ushered back to holding.
Back outside in the heat we sat. Then suddenly I noticed a commotion and walked around the corner. Clinton was leaving the hotel so I grabbed my camera to get a picture with the Devil. I pushed through the crowd and asked him for a photo. He agreed, and I handed my camera to a kid. Within this three-second exchange, Clinton told a female extra that she looked beautiful and he wanted a picture with her. I turned around, and he had his arm around her. She told me to get in the picture, too, and I put my arm around her (she was in the middle). Click, the photo was taken. Thank you, Mr. President. And he's gone.
The girl was excited. I told her the good news was that she could crop me out of the photo, but she assured me that she wanted me in the photo, too, because one day we'd all be famous. I didn't tell her, but I thought President Clinton might have us beat on the celebrity thing.
Then filming wrapped, and we were told to change out of our clothes and sign out. I really wanted a photo with Spielberg so I went back to the set after changing, where they were setting up the last shot. Since Spielberg is such a perfectionist, I knew this would take an hour or more so I walked over to the White House and watched reporters broadcasting from the grounds. A Secret Service agent on the other side of the White House fence walked up to me, and we started talking. I told him my story and said that I thought Clinton had shown up on set with his mistress. The agent looked at me and said, "I'm glad those days are over." I asked him to explain more, but since I'm writing this article about being an extra, I guess youve already assumed that he didn't say anything else on the subject.
I returned to the film set and waited for filming to end with a fellow star-struck extra. (Is there really any other kind?) Finally, it all came to an end. I looked for Spielberg, but he had disappeared. My extra friend ran after one of the actors to get an autograph. Then I noticed him zip down a hallway so I followed and caught up to him. He told me Spielberg had just stepped outside. I went outside but couldn't see him anywhere. Then I noticed one of his children walking toward a Jeep and motioned to my friend, pointing to the kid. It must have looked like a kidnapping attempt. Then I saw Spielberg step out of the Jeep and asked if I could get a photo. But just then some weasel sitting in the back seat bugged him about something. Spielberg waved to me and got back into the Jeep.
So, to recap, I didn't get a photo with the man who inspired me to go to film school and get into film, but I did get a picture with a man I consider to be the Devil.
After returning home, I went to get my film developed. Being very anal retentive, I asked them to make sure they handled the film properly and were real, real careful. The next day when I picked up the photos, however, the one with Clinton was pitch black.
The dumb kid I handed the camera to had accidentally put one of his fingers over the lens. Middle finger, I'm guessing, which would be appropriate. An extra always gets it one way or another. But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a little story to tell. A film geek with something to say, now there's a frightening thought.