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