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Strictly Background (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Virtually everyone knows Brad Pitt and George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow and lots of other names of stars of the silver screen. But I’m confident when I say that nobody outside of their immediate families and friends knows Terry Bolo and Cary Mizobe and Tafan Nieves. But without Bolo and Mizobe and Neives and their ilk, Pitt and Clooney and Paltrow would be unable to ply their trade and they would be equally unknown.

So who are Bolo and Mizobe and Neives? They are the people gambling in the casino when Pitt and Clooney were figuring out how to take down Las Vegas on the “Ocean’s” series. They are the people in the Old Globe Theater in London when Paltrow was William Shakespeare’s love interest in “Shakespeare in Love.” They are all the other people seen in movies who are uncredited and unnamed, but without whom there couldn’t be a movie because all we’d see would be stars without people surrounding them. Movies wouldn’t last long as an art form if all we saw were the stars all by themselves without the ordinary people who inhabit the world. Extras bring a movie to life by contributing a real world environment.

Young filmmaker Jason Connell (who produced, directed, and edited) spent several years interviewing ten extras, including Bolo, Mizobe, and Neives, who have worked at the profession full time for years, sometimes decades, to bring their lives and careers before the public for the first time. And their stories are fascinating. Connell has made an informative, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, film that shouldn’t be missed by any movie fan.

To make you more familiar with the ones mentioned above, Bolo is an attractive woman who debuted in 1978 in “Big Wednesday.” Mizobe debuted in 1980 in “Enola Gay.” Neives debuted in 1993 in “Conehead.” But to say they debuted and were in several films, one of the funniest parts of Connell’s film is when he shows clips from the films in which his subjects have appeared and greys out everything but the extra, who is shown in color. The clip of Cecilia Hartfeld, who debuted in 1960 in “Tall Story,” shows her appearance in “As Good As It Gets” with a clip of Greg Kinnear in a scene in what looks like the lobby of a hotel. Hartfeld can be seen over Kinnear’s right shoulder, but you can only see the top of her face, part of her nose and her eyes, and only for an instant. That’s it. For that she was paid $64 for the entire eight-hour day, which is the standard rate for non union extras.

Many don’t want to join the union because, even though it more than doubles their take, it reduces the amount of work they get. Producers have to hire lots of extras and they can save money by hiring ones they only have to pay $54 a day (since the making of the film, this has been raised to $64 per day) instead of the union-required $130 per eight-hour day.

Feature Films are required by the Screen Actors Guild to have 50 union extras on the set before non union extras may be hired. For TV, AFTRA requires 20 union extras before non-union may be hired. Most extras opt to remain non union so they can get more work. Jeff Olan, who runs Jeff Olan Casting in the San Fernando Valley (one of the most successful of the casting agencies for extras; most people have heard of Central Casting, the largest agency in Hollywood, but Olan gets lots of business because of the personal attention he gives his clients), estimates that someone working full time as an extra makes less than $20,000 per year. Olan estimates that most smaller movies use 5-30 extras a day while a big spectacular like Oliver Stone’s 2004 disaster, “Alexander,” might use as many as 300-1,500 a day.

All of the extras’ appearances onscreen are miniscule, like Hartfeld’s. Bolo’s credit in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” was in a shot of Pee Wee Herman shaking hands with someone. Bolo can be seen in the crowd behind with her face appearing just above the handshake.

According to Olan, most extras only do the work for about a year or less because it’s just not remunerative enough. The people Connell profiles are all career extras who have been doing it for many years.

Connell has each extra tell his or her story, cutting back and forth from one to another, interspersing the clips of their credits. They tell, in their own words, the struggles they face, the difficulties of getting an assignment, and the pride they feel when they do get a shot that actually makes it into the final cut. They describe their relationships with the stars, and the unwritten rules of propriety between them and the stars.

Their stories are very interesting, and they all tell them articulately. I was fascinated at this glimpse into Hollywoodana of which few are aware. People know that extras exist, but don’t have a clue about their lives or how the system works. This film sheds bright light on a subject that has been shrouded in darkness and neglect.

Shortly after viewing the film, I attended a screening of “Deal,” a Burt Reynolds film about poker. Suddenly, for just a split second, I saw Tafan Nieves standing in the background as Reynolds walked by. It sent a chill of excitement up my spine to recognize an extra and know who he was.

I see hundreds of films a year. Often, people ask me what I’ve seen recently that I can recommend and it’s hard for me to remember what I saw last Tuesday. Strictly Background is a film I won’t soon forget.

May 5, 2008