Such small portions and all over much too quickly
by Brian LeMeur
As soon as I heard Woody Allen was shooting a movie in Rhode Island this summer, I started imagining ways wherein my summer work would have me on his movie set and perhaps on a cinema’s screen. Unless Allen decides to edit out the two scenes where a shaggy student-looking dude in earth tones walks by, I was able to accomplish the latter.
I live in Portsmouth Rhode Island, a small blue-collar suburban town on the other side of Aquidneck Island from Newport, a summer destination known for its white and wealthy beach-goers. Newport differs from Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard in size. At around 24,000 people, Newport’s population is just below that of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard combined.
Just like in 2006, when “Dan In Real Life” (an OK Steve Carrel dramedy) was being shot in Rhode Island, the fact that Woody Allen was shooting a movie in the Ocean State was a popular talking point for those interested in finding a way to get on set and for those who knew someone who had already found employment in the film.
In early July, a local casting agency announced on its Facebook page that they needed college-aged extras for a “Woody Allen film.” The post requested that interested actors email a headshot to the casting agency with the word “CLASSROOM” in the subject line. My mom took a picture of me and I wrote an email, lying about my major.
I would like to be considered for an extra role in the Woody Allen film being filmed in Rhode Island. I am a second year Theater (English) major at Colorado College. I have experience with acting on stage and on camera. I also have improv/sketch comedy experience. Additionally, I am unbelievably handsome.”
I also included a link to a short of CC’s sketch comedy troupe Zachariah’s Nephews titled “The Sharpest Tooth” which five Nephews shot last spring. I sent the email on July 18.
Excited, but sure that my involvement with the project would end there, I slipped out of my Hollywood fantasy and back into my summer routine, carrying golf bags for overweight men.
On Aug. 3, Anne Muhall, Casting Director at LDI Productions, asked me if I could work the next day. Yes, I assured her, I could.
I told my boss that I wouldn’t be caddying on Wednesday. I received five mass emails that were sent to all the extras they were considering. Finally, we learned the time and address. There was also a picture of a rack of clothing that the wardrobe department had assembled for colors they wanted the extras to be in—they were mainly earth-tones, a lot of soft beiges and greens, several olives. The style of clothing was semi-hipster preppy. There were floral sundresses for the girls and graphic tee-shirts with non-descript band logos, or maybe geologic maps for the lads.
Included in the email was a downloadable “info sheet” for the day of the shoot, which was, as the document indicated, Day 22 of shooting. The info sheet gave instructions on what to wear, the time period (present day) and, at the bottom, a list of 29 background extras. Twenty-seven of them I had never heard of before. One, however, rang a bell: number 20 was Gaby Palko. I connected my familiarity with her name to my college and looked her up on Facebook, which confirmed my suspicion that I would not be the only CC student in the next Woody Allen movie.
I messaged Gaby, who said she was excited to know someone, though the two of us didn’t really know each other yet.
I followed less than clear street signs to set at 5:30 a.m. the next morning on the campus of Salve Regina University. The location crew was already there, marked by their enormous white trucks filled with filming equipment.
After a bit of confusion about where we were supposed to be, someone directed us to “holding,” a classroom where the extras were to wait between shots. Here, Gaby and I saw each other and mapped out the roundabout social and extracurricular events that led to our familiarity with each other.
Then we went to wardrobe and makeup. A man with what sounded like an Italian accent looked me up and down, turned back to his toolbox and handed me two shirts, saying my pants were fine. Then I went to hair and makeup, where I was told to put on sunscreen. Then back to holding, where I was put in the “smoothie” group, a designation that indicated when I came in. The rest of the smoothies and I waited for a couple hours.
Holding, or “that godforsaken holding room,” as Gaby remembers it, was hellish. A university classroom where thirty or so impatient extras waited, with no idea when a harried second assistant director would ask ten of us to come with him, a request each of us was yearning for.
Apart from the infinite waiting and the hollow small talk, what made holding so unbearable was a band of less than successful actors who were thirty years older but half as pleasant as the students who surrounded them. One, in particular, who shared names with this writer, was careful to ensure that everyone knew his acting résumé. He lumbered around, hands in his pockets, feigning experience and success as he worked tirelessly to project an image of dogged masculinity and knowledge.
Around 9:00 a.m., the smoothie group was asked to come to set. We emerged slowly from the class building, looking at set for the first shot, a sidewalk between a park and a prestigious looking university building. My eyes found the director almost immediately. A small, puttering figure in pressed khakis and a blue button-down who spoke deliberately and quietly to one person at a time. He had a tan gardening hat that he either wore or folded in his back pocket. He wore elegant, plastic black-rimmed glasses that pressed into aged skin on the side of his face. His semi-combed hair was white and fading. His words sounded rounded, emphasized by their doughiness, which was similar to his soft, drooping jowls. He hummed jazz as he walked around set.
As Mulhall told me when I asked her for inside information on the movie, Allen has been “pathologically” tight-lipped about not revealing anything about his script. The extras were not told the title, nor were any of the crew members I talked to. The hypothesis is that the movie is about a romantic relationship between a professor, Joaquin Phoenix, and student, Emma Stone, that turns dark.
Woodyallenpages.com, a fansite, speculates the following about the plot:
“Set on a small-town college campus, the film is about a philosophy professor in an existential crisis who gives his life new purpose when he decides to murder a corrupt judge, an act he deems morally justifiable. He is found out by his student and romantic interest, who presses him to give himself up to the police. When he tries to kill her as well, he accidentally falls down an elevator and dies.”
The scene I was in is simple. Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey turn a corner onto the camera where Emma Stone sees them and calls out to Phoenix, “Abe, did you see the news? I texted you!” and runs down to talk to the pair.
I follow Phoenix and Posey and counter Stone up the steps as she comes down. Due to some stubborn weather, the scene took all day to shoot. We needed a cloud in front of the sun to achieve optimal light but it wouldn’t obey. Gaby was also in the scene with me, walking twenty or so feet behind using a prop iPad.
In between takes, I spent most of my time watching Phoenix, Stone and Posey. They chatted amongst themselves and goofed around with the crew. During a particularly long break between shots, one crew member told a detailed account of the first time he had sex, an event whose calendar date is the same as the expected birthdate of his first child this fall.
The three actors had a sibling-like dynamic, with Stone as the playful but earnest younger sister. Phoenix’s hair was slicked back and he wore gold-rimmed Aviators when the camera wasn’t rolling.
There was one moment where he looked utterly Hollywood. He sat on a bench, arm spread on its back, with his legs extended in front and folded. His headed was cocked to the side and he stared at the ground. His body was still, except for when he took a drag from his American Spirit.
Later on in the day, a group of extras tried taking a picture of Phoenix as he rolled by in a white van that brought him back to set. Phoenix put his middle finger up, then got out and spoke to one of them. He approached an extra casually, politely asking his name. “Nice to meet you, man. If you wanted my picture you could have asked, no problem.” The extra was silent for a moment before Phoenix made a 180 degree reversal and began swearing at him. Later, I repeatedly asked the extra to tell me specifically what Phoenix said but he said he couldn’t remember. “He just freaked out, man. It was so weird,” he said.
Stone was more predictable. She joked with Phoenix and Posey but listened attentively to Allen, who huddled together with the three of them after most takes. She was the only one of the trio who didn’t smoke. Posey declined a cigarette from Phoenix early in the shot, “I don’t do anything any more,” she explained, but was smoking by the time it was over.
One of the most memorable moments of the experience happened when Posey was smoking a cigarette. I watched her carefully, before someone walked between us. When the person passed, Posey was looking at me. Her left eye closed slowly as the right one stayed open, then she exhaled, put the cigarette down, walked away and never looked at me again.
Perhaps the most interesting to observe was Allen—the master at work. When the camera was rolling, he watched the take on a monitor under a tent behind the camera with headphones on.
He was the reason everyone was there, but his voice never raised above inside volume. His words were limited to what he told the actors and the crew, specific instructions spoken slowly. The second assistant director announced most of Woody’s movements: “Woody’s going out to talk to Parker;” “Woody’s coming back;” “Woody wants to wait for a cloud.”
This was characteristic of the set’s hierarchy. Allen was not expected to tell anyone what he was doing: He did what he did and everyone around him reacted.
I took an interest in the second assistant director so I asked his name at one point. He ignored my question, turning it away with a small, curt dismissal (LinkedIn later told me his name was Mike McGuirk).
I witnessed other extras undergoing similar treatment, like one who left his backpack at lunch. Fortunately, a costume designer had picked it up and gave it to him at set only after a humiliating scolding. The woman used very few words in chastising the extra, a student at University of Rhode Island. She stared at him, making him uncomfortable, asking him how he could have managed to forget his backpack. When she dismissed him, she cracked up with her coworkers who laughed at the teacher-student like interaction.
Gaby tells a similar story.
“I sensed a real lack of compassion or passion at all, being there just felt like the only thing anyone cared about was getting the job done and that was it.” Gabyate lunch with two production assistants and three extras including myself. “Even at our lunch break, when we sat with those guys from the crew, it didn’t sound like they actually cared what we were saying or talking about, and they didn’t really give a shit about the movie, just that it paid less than their previous jobs. It seemed like nobody had a real interest in what was going on.”
They did feed us though, and paid us cents above minimum wage. I went home around 6:30 p.m., exhausted and the most stressed I’ve been since taking Literary Theory. The pressure left me troubled and unable to relax. But, I was on a movie set all day. So I emailed Mulhall and asked if I could go again tomorrow.
The movie was shot exclusively in Rhode Island and the next day had me in a typical Woody Allen café.
My job was to get up from my computer when Phoenix sat down at a nearby table with a cup of coffee. The computer I had was a Samsung tablet, on which, as a props woman joked with me, I was to be writing my screenplay.
This was to be my only work on the second day. McGuirk told me that he “saw way too much of me” in the first shot so I waited in holding, the basement of a church, for the next seven hours. The church was having a congregation dinner that night and an older Portuguese woman started making a chicken dish early in the afternoon. I love Portuguese cuisine but the chicken was smelly and made hanging out in the basement of a church in the middle of the day unbearable.
Despite the wait, the demeaning obedience and the possibility that my scenes would be cut, I did work on a Woody Allen movie for two days this summer.
When it comes out next year, I will undoubtedly see it in theaters, possibly with a group of friends waiting to see the back of my head for half a second through an unfocused lens. Maybe I will recognize a few names on the credits and see familiar shots of Rhode Island. I have a deeper understanding of Woody Allen, Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey and what goes into making a film. But the only knowledge I have was a product of serious effort.
With a few exceptions, I felt estranged for much of the experience. I was an unfortunate necessity the important people wanted to deal with as quickly as possible.
It adds up to below-average pay and a story. Like that time Parker Posey might have winked at me. And the time Woody Allen almost walked into a low-hanging tree limb in front of me. Then he looked up with an appreciative, cautious smile at the assistant who interrupted him to tell him it was there.
So it wasn’t terribly fun, but it was all over much too quickly.