The name of the picture is "The Road to Perdition" directed by Sam Mendez (of American Beauty fame) and stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Currently the film is slated for release in March of 2002.
I was given this opportunity through my involvement with Swing dancing in Chicago. As a member of the performance troupe "Big City Swing" under the direction and choreography of Julee Mertz, Myself, along with my girlfriend Maureen) and many others were chosen to submit head shots to participate as "Extras with Talent." As luck would have it, both Maureen and I looked the part and were asked to be in the movie dancing together as a couple! How perfect eh?
There were two rehearsals held before the shoot. Both of which were overseen by the Additional (Extras) Casting Director Judith Bouley. At the first rehearsal, none of us knew what to expect. What speed would the music be? What style of dancing would it be? As it turns out, the music was slow and the dancing almost non-existent. It was the directors wish that we look very unsophisticated as far as our dance skills were concerned. This amounted to a lot of rocking back and forth, smiling, and pawing at each other. Easy enough!
The second rehearsal was supposed to be attended by Sam Mendez, however he was unable to attend due to sickness. Instead, Judy (the casting lady) filmed us so Sam could watch it later and send his critiques to Harrison (the choreographer).
About a week later we were scheduled to go in for a costume fitting. This involved walking in and standing under the scrutiny of Albert Wolsky. Albert was the nicest guy and has been in the business since 1968, nominated for 5 Oscars and won two of them. I ended up in a pair of brown work boots, gray slacks, a matching blazer, a worn out purplish shirt, brown suspenders and a moth eaten wool tie. Maureen ended up in a sort of see-through black and gold flapper dress.
The day of the shoot we were instructed to drive to a parking lot in the south industrial district of Chicago. There we parked our cars and caught a shuttle bus that was running extras back and forth from the set.
Our scene was titled "Calvinos". An old warehouse was converted into a full blown 30s entertainment complex complete with pool hall, gambling casino, dance hall and prostitution brothel. The whole scene is a tracking shot from the pool hall through all the rooms back to Calvino's office. Throughout the shot, Tom Hanks is walking and talking with Calvino as the atmosphere unfolds around them. My friends and I were to be in the 4th room, the dance hall tearing up a rug as Tom walks through.
I arrived on the set at 5:30pm. Maureen had already been there for an hour. It took the girls a little longer to get ready than the guys. They looked fantastic though!
After grabbing a quick bite to eat (and getting my butt kicked at chess) we headed over to the set for rehearsal. Amidst piles of fake snow we entered the converted warehouse and descended into the basement. First we passed through a rather bare pool hall, next passing through a narrow corridor flanked on both sides by barrels and boxes before rounding a corner and heading down a hall way full of slot machines. At the end of this hall we pushed through a set of double doors and entered the "speakeasy".
The lights were dim, the ceiling low. A small bandstand sat in the middle of the room outlined in tiny colored bulbs. A slanted mirror wall enclosed the back of the band stand. On stage was a drum set with a backlit bass drum and a few chairs for the absent musicians. Throughout the room were sets of worn down tables and chairs. Packages of cigarettes and matches were spread out on the table. Sparkling drinking glasses of various sizes and ashtrays sprinkled with ash completed the look. A single spotlight hung above each table casting a soft off-white light.
Such vintage atmosphere was sharply contrasted with a generous dose of reality. Huge air conditioning units pulsated in the corners of the room. Dozens of people ran here and there shouting into earpiece microphones. Some were running the show, others were building it. Need a piano stage? One instantly appeared in 10 minutes flat. Light bulbs too bright? All of them were changed in 3 minutes tops. You needed something done, these people could do it. They were there to make it look perfect... and it did. For the rest of the night, we called them "MacGuyvers".
After sitting around for a bit carefully watching the orchestrated mayhem, Sam Mendez stepped into the room. He didn't look like I expected him to. He is short, stocky with a great English accent. Very soft spoken, very confident. He wore dark jeans... a polar fleece pullover... he looked like everyone else.
"You guys all look great, but you are too clean. We are going to get some people down here to dirty you up a bit." Those were his words to us (more or less as I remember them). People then appeared to smudge our makeup, add dirt under our fingernails and scuff our shoes. Costume adjustments were made. Some people were to remove their blazers, others lost their ties.
He then described the scene to us. There was some timing we had to work through to coordinate our generally improvised dancing with the movement of the camera. We had to move in such a way that would make it seem logical that Tom Hanks would walk the path he did. It had to look like he turned and bobbed through the crowd to dodge us. It had to look spontaneous, not planned. Some of us also had to practice moving out of the way of the Steady Cam, this huge camera mounted on a gyro-scope that was carried by a single person. As Tom Hanks entered the room, he was to walk to the left of the dance floor and the camera was to move off to the right and shoot him through the crowd. It was all very orchestrated.
Of course at this point, Tom Hanks wasn't there. They were using stand-ins. It wasn't until after "lunch" (at 10pm) that the big guns entered the show. The only word I can use to describe seeing Tom Hanks in person is "strange". I guess that word can be used to sum up the entire evening. Hollywood feels so far away when you are sitting in the theater. Even after watching all those "making of" shows and "Behind the scenes" you still feel so far away from it all. To finally be apart of the process for a little while and to be in the same room with great actors and actresses, a great director and an Oscar caliber crew, you begin to realize that they are all just people doing their jobs. It was a very comfortable realization.
At 11pm we did a few rehearsals with the real actors walking through the scene and saying their lines. A few adjustments were made to the blocking and arrangement of people. As luck would have it, the camera swoops RIGHT BY Maureen and I hopefully giving us great visibility on the screen. We'll have to wait and see!
A little while later the orders were given and we started the shoot. It was an amazingly tedious process. Sam Mendez is known for his perfection. We heard horror stories from the crew about other nights were the shooting went on for 15+ hours because he wanted to get it just right. Can you really blame him though? Why would anyone go through all this work to get it almost right?
While my feet were hurting most of the time (50 year old work boots are a little short on support, especially for dancing) there was enough going on to keep us awake and alert despite the late hours. The band was a ton of fun. During breaks in the action, they would play a few tunes and give us an opportunity to dance a little socially. There were tons of interesting crew members milling around. I talked with the Production Assistant for our room a little bit. Turns out his last project was working on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii with Michael Bay. He had some good stories about how Michael Bay was a complete a-hole but loved to blow stuff up.
Another interesting person on the set was Stacy Adamski. My Aunt Kris met her randomly when she took her husband (my uncle) Steve skydiving for his birthday. Kris got to talking with her before the skydiving jump and she said she was working on a movie in the Chicago area. Turns out it was The Road to Perdition. Stacy is the assistant to the director and was full of interesting tidbits about the production. At the request of Kris, Stacy hunted me down on the set to say hi. She is super nice. It's a small world out there, especially for my Aunt Kris, she seems to meet everyone!
For a typical shot, the Production Assistant would make sure that everyone was in place. A man would run around with a plastic bag and hand out cigarettes to those people who were smoking. Another would move through the extras filling up glasses with O'Doul's for beer and some flat ginger ale mixture for whiskey. The costume people would make sure everyone looked okay and that all eye glasses were removed. The Production Assistant would yell "Rolling" and everyone would stand quietly. This meant that the filming had started and the camera was working its way through the rooms. Right before the camera burst through the doors into our room, 4 bars of prerecorded music would play. During those four bars, everyone in the room was to start dancing, moving, etc. By the end of those four bars, the live musicians would begin playing for real, the door would burst open and the camera and actors would walk through. For 30 seconds the place was jumping while the camera passed. As soon as the camera left the room all action would cease and everyone would freeze in silence. That was the drill. Over and over again, throughout the whole night.
After each attempt to shoot the scene, corrections were made before trying again. Some of the changes were small (fixing the way a curtain was hanging, the way a light was shining), some of them were larger (changing the path of the characters, the path of the camera, the position of people in the scene). Some of them had to do with us, making us dance more.... dance less... turn here... don't turn there... all of it was an attempt to create that "perfect" shot. A tracking shot is not an easy thing to shoot. Since there are no edits during the whole scene (meaning the camera never turns off), everyone in every room has to do it perfect at the same time for the scene to succeed. About 4:30am we all succeeded. My feet were very happy about that.
When the word came down that Sam Mendez's vision was realized, everyone applauded and offered congratulations. Tom Hanks walked through the rooms applauding and telling everyone thanks and good job. I made eye contact with him for a brief moment as he passed by.
One by one we filed out of the basement of the warehouse and back to the staging tents. We removed our costumes, hung them on a rack and returned them to the costume trailer. The sun was starting to come up. We turned in our pay slips and climbed aboard the shuttle bus to return to our cars.
I feel really lucky for the experience I had on "The Road to Perdition". I don't know if being an extra in films is something I would actively pursue. It was one thing to be an "Extra with Talent" because we were exposed to a little more of the process and had closer contact with the people involved. To be a normal extra, standing next to a piano somewhere in the background, I don't know. The whole deal did give me new insight into a process that I have always been fascinated with. Now we just have to sit and wait until the film is released!! March 2002 can't come fast enough!