While I wait, I surreptitiously take notes. That’s when I miss my cue to walk.
The signal to begin occurs when the first assistant director yells, “Background? Action!” And, yes, a man claps together a piece of board in front of the main camera for every take. The first assistant director stands beside James Brooks, who sits in his director’s chair, looking at the filming via a monitor. He rarely moves from the monitor except to talk to the stars.
This scene takes a lot of time because a special-effects manager keeps spraying down the street with a fire hose attached to a hydrant. It rained while taping adjacent scenes the night before, so every scene tonight needs to have “rain” on the sidewalk and cars for continuity.
Someone yells, “New deal!” That’s the cue for technicians to set up the cameras for another angle. Mr. Special Effects sprays the sidewalk. We do two angles for the same scene. The scene itself lasts about ten seconds. It takes an hour to finish it.
Someone carries around trays with snacks—wraps, pita bread, hummus. Someone else hands out soda and water. There’s a stand with dozens of snacks, including make-your-own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. You never starve on a movie set.
Someone wheels by a cart filled with clothes. The stars need different outfits.
A production assistant’s index finger appears in my vision. I’m chosen for another scene. I partner with a backgrounder who in real life is a real-estate developer in Northern Virginia. We’re told to walk away from the scene. So that will be my backside facing the camera.
At 9 pm, we’re sent back to holding. I change into my next outfit—a black-and-white-herringbone sleeveless dress with a silver belt. And it’s time to eat again—a Chinese meal with seven different entrées.
At about 11 pm, I go outside for fresh air. Another production assistant walks out with about eight twentysomethings. He says to me, “You come with us, too.” We’re off to our next scene.
The Movie Opens With . . .
There’s no way this next scene will be cut: It’s the first scene of the movie. Wilson and Witherspoon walk out of a bar, and Wilson is surrounded by five twentysomethings who want his autograph. Witherspoon angrily walks away. Wilson yells for her, then runs after her. It takes about 30 seconds.
I’m paired with a 25-year-old hunk. Our instructions are to hold hands and walk past Witherspoon and into the bar. Again, my backside will be on camera.
We do 26 takes. Mr. Special Effects has to spray the pavement and cars five times. Wilson talks to the hunk and me. Witherspoon is deep in thought—director Brooks keeps discussing the scene with her. The guy with the food tray passes us several times.
The “lead greensman” comes up to talk with us. He’s a scruffy guy with a mustache. Greensman is in charge of every tree, light, plant, and flower. I thought the mini-trees with the twinkling white lights around the bar and hotel were normally there. He explains how he relandscaped 15th Street.
Greensman tells me about “set crushes”—when the crew members get bored, they pick cuties in the background or on the crew. I was his tonight. My hunk laughs.
Everyone except the backgrounders and stars wears headsets. Rumor has it that some big stars—including one in our movie—wear an earpiece to feed them lines. But I see no evidence of this. The crew’s headsets are used to communicate when scenes start and end—and to chat with one another during downtime. There’s a lot of downtime.
The scene is done, and we’re sent to join the dozens of other backgrounders who are now inside Bobby Van’s Steakhouse waiting for the next scene.
It’s 3 am. It took three hours to complete that scene. Some backgrounders are asleep in the booths. The production assistant arrives and chooses who will be in the next scene. New blood and looks are needed. The handful of us who just came off the set get to chill with the other unchosens.
I meet Larry, the liaison between the movie people and the union. He’s a retired deputy sheriff from Fairfax County. Tonight he’s a backgrounder, but tomorrow he’s a stand-in for Jack Nicholson. He tells me that one day he was scheduled to be a stand-in but they never had time to shoot Nicholson’s scene. Larry got paid 14 hours to read a novel.
I also meet Kristin, who works as an accountant. And Rob, who wants to be a famous actor someday. Jim runs a nonprofit that coaches people in life and work. Carol was a TV anchor in Ohio. Annie worked on Broadway in Les Misérables and 42nd Street. Dori works at the Newseum and is married to a national radio correspondent.
At 5 am, we’re told we’re done for the night. I stop by props to hand in my shopping bags. We stand in line to submit our invoices. There’s more food—breakfast rolls, fruit, granola bars. We’re to call the casting office tomorrow to see if we’re needed.
My Big Scene
They need me. And my car. Call time is 8:30 pm. The shoot is at night because that’s when the scenes take place in the movie. To look different, I put my hair in a bun. It works.
I arrive at the holding location in time for dinner. Tonight Chef Frank has conjured up the Middle East. Lamb, eggplant, seafood paella, lemon potatoes—all terrific.
The wardrobe lady likes my strapless black dress with flowers. I head to the filming location.
As I’m talking to another backgrounder—Owen Wilson is about three feet away, relaxing at an outdoor table—a production assistant comes in and chooses both of us.
This is my lucky scene, although I don’t know it yet. Jack Nicholson and the doorman walk from the apartment building to the corner. The doorman hails a cab. Nicholson talks on his phone. The doorman walks back to the hotel and holds the door for someone exiting the hotel, then for me.
On the second assistant director’s cue, I walk down the sidewalk behind Nicholson, then into the hotel.
We do it about ten times with the stand-ins. Then we wait—Nicholson is late. We’re told the electricity went out in his trailer while he was getting dressed. His star status ensures he doesn’t work early hours. He doesn’t work in the rain. And he doesn’t work past a certain time.
Nicholson arrives with a tense, quick walk, lost in thought. He meets with the director. We do the scene 15 more times. At one point, a real DC taxi stops to pick up Nicholson. Production assistants frantically motion the cabbie to drive by so our backgrounder cabbie can do the movie pickup.
Every time I enter the door to the lobby—a total of about 20 times—I see a cute backgrounder named Wally. I’ve found my set crush. Wally is a six-month-old black miniature schnauzer. His owner gets $35 for his work. Four dogs are on the set: two big ones, two small ones. Two are stand-ins.
After we finish the last take and someone yells, “New deal!,” I thank the doorman. He says, “You got a bit.” I have no idea what he means. I ask Larry. He says the doorman has an earpiece and apparently has heard that the camera focused on me for some time. It’s a “bit part.” Cool.