Last week I had the opportunity to play a fly on the wall on a film shoot who shall remain nameless in a small Andalucian mountain village that also shall not be named. Having spent most of my work life in the North American film industry, I found it very interesting to observe this European hybrid production, with crews from three different countries working in at least as many languages, let alone all the interesting accents!
It all started when I was at a meeting at the Ronda Tourism office, helping organize an event called Natur@Ronda. Unbeknownst to me, a casting was organized the next day in the same Palacio and the casting director was looking for northern looking residents who could ‘play tourists’ for the movie. As a token foreigner, I was asked if I could meet her the next day. Knowing nothing about the project, I showed up the following morning. Coming around the corner, I saw a row of easily 500 locals eagerly lining up all the way across Ronda’s famous Puente Nuevo. As I had an appointment and were not about to line up for hours in the rain to be an extra, I went to front of the line, probably causing some racial slurs about guiris, the slightly derogatory name for foreigners.
I have worked with many extras through the years, but I have never been at an actual casting nor been an extra before. My work, by choice, has always been behind the camera. I would gladly have joined the crew, but the position on offer was not in the art department, but as a ‘foreign tourist’.
Most extras are blissfully unaware of how production staff perceives them. You are generally treated like cattle, as ‘bodies’ to be dispersed and flung about. Though many aspiring actors hope to and believe they could be discovered once they get to set, the truth is that as an extra you are simply a block of colour, or a fuzzy object moving about in the background. There is absolutely no glamour about it, though thankfully, for this particular production, the casting crew was exceptionally nice and treated us extras not only well, but indeed like real human beings.
As most productions go, the schedule was changed and re-changed, but finally ‘our’ big day came. We car-pooled to the village on the cliff, only getting lost a single time on the way. Once there, it was clear that the movies had come to town. Almost every street in the tiny town had a scattering of production vans, pop up tents, equipment carts or stacked camera gear. I noted that the gear was basically the same as what we use in Canada. They use dolley track, sand bags and wedges, just like we do. The camera gear say Arri and the high rollers looks identical to the ones used on the other side of the pond. I almost got ‘homesick’…
More interesting, the style or shall we say fashion of film crews is basically the same all around the world. The camera assistants and technical crew always seem to wear a freebee T-shirt from some shoot, cut off jeans or army pants and their gloves or roll of camera tapes attached with a pony clip to their belts. There is always lots of black, dusty black that is. Here as well the ‘pretty departments’, as in hair, makeup and wardrobe, are more originally dressed, sporting a slightly grunge look with no visible brand names. After all, we were shooting in the boonies.
As cast and crew emerged, I realized that this was no regular co-production. The directors and DP all spoke American, the latter surely from the deep South. The production crew was mostly Spanish and the camera crew was primarily Romanian, all heavily smoking and with a je ne sais quoi Eastern European style. Add to this that they just had come from shooting in Finland and one could not invent a more curious melting pot!
“Roll Camera!”, the AD would order. “Zet” was the answer from the Romanian camera operator, followed by the Spanish AD calling “Motór!” into her radio. And so the day progressed, shot by shot, retake by retake, with locals peaking out from windows and around corners. And we, the by now befriended-for-life extras, would be sent left and right and there and thither, to cross in front of the camera as a flashing bit of colour while the stars continued their dramatic lovers quarrel in a happy reunion of American, Spanish and Spanglish.