|Austin-Bergstrom International Airport|
Working for 8 days as an Extra on Miss Congeniality
by Dan Eggleston
On Monday, July 3rd I attended a "cattle call" for the new Sandra Bullock movie "Miss Congeniality." The film's $55,000,000 budget allowed Third Coast Casting to sign up everyone who could commit to being available for 12 hour plus days from July 5th through July 14th. Two days later I arrived at the assigned parking lot on Manor Road at 5:11 a.m. for a 5:15 a.m. call time to find a long line of cars waiting for the parking lot to open. Twenty minutes later the seven-block line began moving. A fleet of vans transported us to Bass Concert Hall (on the UT campus). I arrived at 6:00. Laura, who sat next to me in the van, was a familiar face from house concerts and book signings and was a former student's mother. The van dropped us near McCullough Opera Theater. Signs directed us to a room in the back of that building, normally used as a dance rehearsal studio where a long line of extras waited to check in.
As we waited, women from the wardrobe department checked the "dress" clothing we had brought. My ensembles were rejected and I was told to report to the wardrobe trailer after signing in. After I picked up a voucher (a daily procedure), I went outside to get in another long line outside the wardrobe truck. Two of us were set aside for further reflection on their part and they finally decided to change me from an audience member to a pageant employee (for which I only needed black pants and a black shirt embroidered with "Miss U.S. Pagaent.") The Production Assistant (one of about seven in the company) (PA) in charge of us was Katie who told us no personal cameras or autographs. At the back of the holding area were two small dressing areas enclosed by a plastic curtains measuring about 20 by 10 ft. By the time I changed into my costume the holding area was mostly empty and I was told to report to the set.
When I entered Bass at 7:20, there were about 200 audience members seated in the first ten rows. I was told to wait for someone to seat me; after five minutes, I was placed on the aisle halfway back in a row all by myself. In front of me was David, playing a photographer for the movie and one of several extras from San Antonio. During the morning cardboard cutouts of people dressed in formal attire were placed throughout the back two-thirds of the auditorium to give the illusion that all the seats were filled (There's a "sold-out" sign in the lobby). There are about 30 different versions of these cut-outs which are made from photographs of Houston film people. These were strangely realistic. At times I would forget they were cardboard and think someone was sitting in front of me.
A first rehearsal was held at 9:15 and lasted 25 minutes. A second rehearsal was held 10 minutes later. The scene consisted of 19 of the beauty pageant contestants coming down a spiral staircase inside a model of the Statue of Liberty and doing a dance routine while the other contestants cross behind them. Then all the contestants took their places at the back of the stage. William Shatner (playing the M.C. of the pagaent) entered, and introduced the "host" Candice Bergen. The two of them then read the names of the 10 finalists.
When Miss New Jersey's (Sandra Bullock) name was called she tripped and fell before reaching the front of the stage. Finally at 10:15 A.M the first take was filmed, with some wonderful fireworks added from Miss Liberty's torch and two pit areas near the front of the stage. At 10:35 they shot a second take and, finally, at 11:40, a third. During all this everyone in the auditorium sat and watched.
At 12:30 the director Donald Petrie (best known for "Grumpy Old Men"; his father is an excellent director ("A Raisin In The Sun"), aged 80, and still working) called 30 minutes for lunch. The crew ate lunch on the third floor in the lobby, and extras on the fourth floor. There were about 275 extras and the lunch line was very slow. We resumed shooting at 1:45. (Later I realized that we are given a 30 minute lunch on our vouchers, even though it actually may take longer to feed all of us.) Those sitting in the front were asked if they could return on Friday and about 12 who could not were moved to the back and replaced with some of the extras sitting at the back amidst the cardboard cutouts. Manuel, an actor from Dallas, chatted with me while sitting in a row behind me. I first thought his name was Edward, but that was a nickname given to him because he resembles Edward Norton. Another actor was similarly nicknamed Brad, after his resemblance to Brad Pitt. After another rehearsal some steadi-cam shots were filmed of the same scene. We sat and watched until about 5:30 and then we were released.
When I got back to holding, I had to change, turn in my costume and pick up my voucher from wardrobe, a daily procedure; those who supplied their own costume were already in line. There were three long lines where the casting assistants completed some information on our vouchers. We were then supposed to get in another longer line to find out when we would report back. Luckily, since the pagaent employees were needed every day, I didn't need to get in the second line.
Thursday there was a much smaller group. Sometime during the morning I had a photo taken of myself in my costume, not knowing if I'd ever get in a shot in the movie. I was issued a prop (a laminated all-access badge) which I wore each day. I had to pick it up each morning and turn it in to the props department each night before changing out of my costume.
The black shirts (as the pagaent employees were sometimes called) were sent back stage where we got to watch a shot from stage left of the same scene they shot on Wednesday. In the background Shatner was visible being "made up" by one of the black shirts (in a blue smock that the "makeup" extras wore). Finally we were moved out to the auditorium. While backstage the next day's tentative call sheet was passed out to the crew. Someone left their copy lying around & I picked it up. It was on legal paper and the back was completely filled with a LONG crew list. The front showed the parts needed that day with call times, with a list of the 275 extras with their call times, broken down by specific parts (audience, pagaent officials, stage manager, judges, etc.)
I noticed someone working on a notebook computer in the lobby, and later learned that Michael originally had been hired to do a dance scene which was cut. He was switched to the role of the usher, and was supposed to earn $4000 for the work. Much of the time he had nothing to do. A teacher at UTSA, Michael was staying at a motel, and asked if I had room to put him up. I didn't but almost found a place for him. Three friends who normally could have let him stay had unique problems preventing it (a mother-in-law staying with one, custody of the kids the following week for a second, the husband out of town on business for the third). My friend Shana suggested that he phone her before she and her husband left town on Friday about staying in her small bungalow the following week. He tried three times but got a machine every time (she had a family crisis which kept them from ever getting in touch.) After the crisis was dealt with he could have stayed there the last two nights of the shoot, but it was too late.
That evening I finally got in my first shot. All of the pagaent employees were summoned backstage. Each of us was given a prop: from a flag to a 6 foot slide rule to women's clothes. I pushed a cart with two boxes on it. In the scene Sandra was on her way to the stage, walking up the stairs, when she turned back to check if there was a bomb in a box backstage. I got to cross between her and the camera as I pushed the cart across the stage. Since the shot seems critical to the plot, I think it should make the final cut.
On Friday my call was 8:45 a.m.; the call sheet showed 295 extras for that day. Some work that had been scheduled for Thursday had not been completed and as a result 95% of us waited in the holding area for about eight hours. Midmorning the three pageant employees still in the holding area were summoned to the set. The one female pageant employee that day had been on the set for about an hour; two others had wandered over and when spotted were added to the shot. One of these told me later that he didn't think any of what they were doing was on camera. After we had been on set about one minute we were told they had changed their mind and to return to the holding area.
During the long hours of waiting, one person described the situation as similar to a prom (with so many in formal attire), but without the music. Some people read books, but most simply chatted in one group then another, forming and reforming various small groups. I met several people, told a few about the Mexican village scene they were shooting for the movie "Pageant" that I had worked on a week earlier, and some thought they might be able to take part in that scene. I took a few e-mail addresses for those interested in finding what scenes for that movie would require extras the following week.
Sometime during this first week, I tried to find try-out times for the movie "The Duo". I finally discovered it by calling the Clarion Inn where they happened to be scheduled. On Friday it occurred to me that an e-mail casting list would enable many to learn about casting calls and during the day I gathered additional e-mail addresses to start such a list, which I created the following morning.
Sal, a fellow pageant employee, spoke of pranks he played in an enormous high school (4000 students) with five security guards and a police car on regular patrol duty. He pulled one cool prank for which he was never caught. He has written a screenplay that he is excited about and spoke of his plans to produce and direct it later in the summer. Kevin, used to teach in my school district and is about to move to a small Alaskan town. When I first arrived I overheard a woman with homeopathic training discussing how to heal headaches without aspirin and then healing a woman with a very bad headache.
The paramedic, a very friendly man named Reygen introduced himself and let us know his services were available. Sadly that afternoon two extras badly needed them and were sent to the emergency room where they were tested for possible meningitis. Someone spoke of a meningitis scare and said that his dormitory had been quarantined for a week. One extra did have meningitis, but luckily was not contagious. A year before I'd met Reygen while working on "Where the Heart Is." Later he helped me find a possible location for the movie "Pagaent."
Katsy and Don (daughter and father) were from San Antonio, and Katsy offered me her "card," a CD-ROM with video clips of her acting. Since it was in "windows" format I turned down the offer, but got to see it on Michael's computer.
Another young woman, Beth, helped plan events at the Austin Visitors Center until she burned out under the difficult conditions. She knew my friend Harrison (who works there) very well. This was her first day on the shoot and it took 13 hours before she got to the set. At about 3:00 we went to lunch, lining up a bit early to try to help expedite getting the audience in place for the shot after lunch. However, the caterer didn't know we were arriving early and was not quite ready, so a long line of 200+ had to wait about five minutes until the pasta arrived. I sat with Mark & Bev, a married couple who had been on the shoot almost since the beginning (early May). Mark has been in 31 films and was in a scene in which he passes directly in front of Leonardo DiCaprio in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"; the shot was used in the previews of the movie and at the Oscars. We ate together several times over the coming week and Mark complained that extras were no longer eating with the cast and crew (who were served much better food). On Saturday we got to eat with the crew, though a PA complained about our presence. Some extras were also chastised for using the crafts truck (snacks). The following week, I saw Jennifer, a former student, working for the caterer. Throughout the shoot, fruit, chips, and drinks were placed in the lobby and outside the holding area to snack on.
I discovered that Lazslo Kovacs was the cinematographer ("Easy Rider", "5 Easy Pieces") and had a chance to give him a fancy name sign which he loved and kept for his scrapbook. The following week he was kind enough to give me his autograph. I told him of seeing "Sunshine" (a film by a fellow Hungarian set in Hungary) and learned that he had left his native country during the 1956 uprising in Budapest.
The audience was slowly taken down about 4:30 and placed in the same seats they occupied on Wednesday and empty seats were filled in. They then shot for about three hours with Sandy doing her comedy act with Bratt acting as her "live wooden dummy." About two dozen of us had three more hours to kill in the holding area. About 9:00 p.m. all of us were taken to the set and told to fill in all the seats on stage left. After I had been seated about two minutes a PA noted my presence and, because I was a pageant employee asked me to wait in the lobby, correcting the decision to put all of us in the shot. For the next 60 to 90 minutes they filmed various crowd reactions and I could hear the director reading the list of the top 10 candidates to film the crowd's reaction to them. Everyone then returned to holding. At 7:30 p.m. a new group of extras started checking in: the people who would be portraying the San Antonio police, fire department, bomb squad, and the ATF agents.
About midnight all of us were called to the front entrance of Bass (with several law enforcement vehicles on the set for the shot) for the re-take of the finale in which the villains are arrested. This scene had been filmed, in an all night session, a week earlier, but the steadi-cam shots had to be re-done. We wrapped about 12:30 a.m. The call time Saturday morning was 10:45 A.M. (There are supposed to be 12 hours after the previous day's wrap, before the next day's schedule. Each day's call time got later. It wasn't unusual for the call time for extras and pagaent girls to be less than 12 hours.) We learned that Katie had started to work on preproduction for the movie "Jesse James" (later renamed "American Heroes") as a second second assistant director and would not be back; I'd first met Katie two years earlier when she'd been a PA on "A Slipping Down Life." Carlos would be in charge of the extras.
A stand-in reported that the previous evening Kovacs and Petrie had argued loudly. Kovacs had called Petrie a "fucking idiot" and said that he and most of the crew were ready to quit and that Petrie should make up his mind about shots. Another extra reported hearing Sandra Bullock yelling "You stupid bitch, you're such an idiot. You're fired." The same stand-in later clarified that Sandy had been yelling at and firing herself. All of this due largely to frustration and fatigue from extremely long days. (This was the 49th day of a 55 day schedule.) It was a much smaller group, both crew and extras. Someone had heard that we would wrap earlier and I asked Jay, one of the prop people (who also worked on "A Slipping Down Life") about it and he laughed. He told me what had happened to that film, shot two years earlier, and still not released. Two Austin residents had put up the money for the film and after it was complete, did not like the director's cut and are refusing to release it, even though their original purpose was to earn money. That evening a woman who'd joined me at lunch was so burned out by the process, that she left the set early, after asking my advice. I told her that she might not get paid if she couldn't turn in her voucher, but she left anyway. A week later she worked again and they accepted her late voucher.
That evening I noticed two prop men carrying birthday cakes to the stage and wondered what scene it was for. In fact, they were for Greg, a crew member, and the company sang happy birthday to him. Both cakes had trick candles which could not be blown out.
Also that evening, the fiance of one of the pagaent girls proposed marriage to her on stage with all of her colleagues looking on, many in tears. A friend videotaped it; boxes of kleenex were required. On Monday, after the casting assistants said their bit, I told the large group of extras (including about 200 audience members) about the casting list I had started Saturday morning. When I finished Katsy announced it was my birthday and I got serenaded; it was a very sweet surprise. It was only the second time in my life I'd received such a large serenade; the first was the year I graduated from college when I was teaching summer school and my class sang "happy birthday" and then took me to the student union for treats.
Several people came up and gave me their e-mail addresses and shortly later I was called to the set along with the other black shirts. Later when the audience was on the set I passed around a couple of blank sheets and about 39 wrote their names and e-mail addresses. In all, about 100 extras from the movie eventually signed up for my list. That morning, as people were signing in, the check-in table was looking for more extras, being short of the number they wanted. The difficult working conditions were taking their toll with some extras not returning for more punishment. Meals this week were much quicker thanks to Carlos's new procedures. Instead of letting us serve ourselves, he had the PAs serve us which made the line much faster. The checkout procedure was speeded up considerably also, partly by having us fill out more info on the vouchers.
I got to be in a second scene likely to be in the movie. A group of pageant girls were gathered around a backstage table; Bullock, Michael Caine, and Benjamin Bratt entered from the stage and Bullock shooed the girls away. During the dialogue I was one of several pageant employees to pass behind the leads. Easy to miss if you blink. That night all of the extras were asked to gather in the holding area after we had wrapped. Carlos told us that an extra had been taking photos of the set from the upper balcony and that if the guilty party turned in the film, there would be no repercussions. Otherwise, he would have them fired and see that they never worked on a movie in Austin again. We never found out if the perpetrator was found.
On Tuesday I placed information about my casting list on the holding area wall and found that Jeff, an assistant dean at Southwest Texas State had placed info about all of the current productions from the Texas Film Commission web page, as well as bringing information about the requirements for extra work on "Jesse James".
There was a small audience who waited in holding for a long time; I was in a scene on stage left, standing behind a few pageant girls while the top 5 contestants were announced.
Several scenes were shot backstage with two rows of audience extras sitting in deep background, barely visible.
During the next scene Caine was standing next to me; I discovered that he had not been given the name sign I made him. Later I saw him giving a small press conference in the lobby (international press were on the set) and gave a new sign to Peter, his personal assistant, who suggested I write Michael a note on it. That evening, Peter told me that Michael had liked it a lot.
I chatted with the technician in charge of the large video screen at the back of the stage and learned that the system cost $60,000. (Tom Cruise has one in his home). The technician also supplied a large teleprompter screen which Shatner liked so much that he bought two. There were about three teleprompter screens, all connected to a Dell notebook computer. The text was typed into Microsoft Word, and simply scrolled with a mouse as the text was read. The woman running the computer, Arezow, is a UT student whose entire family fled from the political repression in Afghanistan.
Next I was placed stage right at a "computer" (actually the control to the lighting system). I sat there pretending to punch buttons, watch the monitor and ignore the action on stage (the ten finalists were narrowed to five at the end of which Miss New York ran to the edge of the stage and yelled that if a lesbian can make it to the top ten there's hope for the rest of them.) She was then picked up by the choreographer and hauled off stage. During earlier coverage of this shot I had been stage left; I was in the same scene at a different location. I told Scott, the choreographer (both in the film and for the production), that when he had carried Miss New York offstage earlier it looked great when he swung her around, and he did so on the remaining takes, stating that he had been given no direction on his actions. I doubt I will get any credits for it.
In the afternoon they filmed the same scene showing the audience which filled the left side of the house with several black shirts along the wall, me toward the back. Theoretically I might be visible during the same scene in three different places. I'm unlikely to be seen in any of the locations.
One scene showed Candice Bergen introducing three of the six judges, one of whom, Bob (I think) looked so much like Jesse Ventura, that the director addressed him by that name. The scene will be visible in the movie only on a TV monitor backstage. Later one of the judges, Aziza, spoke to Sandy on her way outside. Someone asked Sandy about the acupuncturist on the set. She said the service was provided for the crew. Sandy sometimes uses an acupuncture treatment called moxa, in which an herb (artemesia) creates heat where the needles are used; the herb smells similar to pot and once brought UT police to investigate. Sandy asked if this treatment was available in Austin and I confirmed that it was (having had the treatment once ? it's great).
Late that morning we heard a loud crash; Michael Caine had fallen into one of the pits as he walked onto the stage. The pits contained several light fixtures and were about 3 feet deep. His personal assistant jumped in after him. The paramedic was summoned immediately, and luckily Caine was not seriously hurt, just bruised. Thirty minutes later he was sitting at the back of the stage apparently all right. The next morning a wooden wall was constructed around both pits. Caine was the fourth person to fall in. Every subsequent scene there was a loud order from the director to place plastic traffic cones quickly around the pits. No one else fell in.
Wednesday evening, there was an extremely long preparation for a shot, perhaps an hour, and then the "first team" was called to the set (i.e., the stand-ins were replaced with the lead actors.) The preparations continued for over an hour before the shot was finally taken. Perhaps because of the length of the prep, there was only one take. It is extremely rare to have the "first team" waiting such a long time before the actual shot. We wrapped right after the first take. During the long wait, Shatner was making hilarious facial expressions as if he was trying to cry; all visible on the big screen.
When Shatner was on stage he often visited with whomever happened to be near him. I got to chat with him a bit and he seemed to be very friendly, as were most of the crew, with the exception of Candice Bergen, who always seemed very cold. Later I spoke to a friend who had the opposite experience. Bergen was very kind and spoke to some kids and Shatner ignored them.
On Thursday almost everyone, including for a change, the pageant girls had a long wait of about six hours until we were used. From 1:00 to 5:00 they shot a fight between Steve and Benjamin on Miss Liberty's steps. Bergen shot a very short scene and after lunch, about 6:00, they brought everyone on stage and had a stunt man do his fall onto the mattresses hidden by the pageant girls.
That morning I learned that Jason, a fellow black shirt, had written a screenplay that Miramax had bought and was in preproduction with a $10,000,000 budget. He offered to show me the script, but someone had borrowed it and I never got to see it.
Everyone then left the auditorium while they blew up Miss Liberty's torch. Four firemen arrived about 3:00 having been told they would be needed for the explosion about 4:00. A group of us watched from the house monitor in the lobby and could see a large flash from above the top of the screen and clearly hear the loud boom of the explosion from the auditorium (the monitor had no audio). The first attempt was a dud and they tried again. I dozed off and the sound of the second attempt woke me up. One monitor was off limits because the caterer was using it to store 400 sack lunches for the next day's schedule. There would be that many extras used in order to fill up the hall; their pay would be a sack lunch & a drawing for prizes.
We were all summoned back into the auditorium and as I returned I was lucky enough to see the successful explosion in slow motion on the video monitor in the hallway.
More takes of the same scene were shot. All of the black shirts were placed on stage left and we got to react to the explosion and the fight scene between Bullock and Heather (Miss Rhode Island). Two or three of us (including me) fell down for the reaction shot and it was fun. This is another scene in which I might be seen in the movie. About 10:30 Carlos told me that three black shirts, including myself, were wrapped. After getting my voucher I was told by Vanessa that I would not be needed on Friday.
Earlier I overheard an audience member say he had been told on Monday by Vanessa that he would not be needed; then had received a phone call asking where he was because they needed him. So on Friday I phoned and was at first told to report and then was phoned and told they didn't need me, perhaps because I had been in enough shots. I believe this was just an excuse and that I must have done something that displeased someone and I was simply released.
I spent 104 hours working on this film, earning a little over $550 after taxes. Most of the extras were paid $75 for a 12 hour day with overtime after 12 hours. Most of the pagaent girls, I believe, were paid $125 a day. Stand-ins got an additional $25. Countless hours were spent waiting and I finished five books during the time. Each morning I would have a little time at home, drive to the parking facility, and usually have very little time that evening to do much of anything except get ready for bed. Many of the extras felt mistreated and were often very tired. There were usually several napping on the couches in the lobby or on the grass outside. It was an interesting experience but one that definitely deglamorized the process of making a movie. The film is scheduled to open December 22 with a premiere at the Paramount on December 18.
Dan Eggleston Saturday, November 11, 2000