Behind The Scenes Stories

20 years in Hollywood

Neat Stories To Tell

Seen Some Shit!

From David DeFino

My Time as a Hollywood Extra

I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. I had graduated film school and was ready to take on the world. I wanted to be a SFX Cinematographer so I decided to try and get a job doing effects. At the time, it was an easy route to take. Most VFX were still done practically, and it was the heyday of the “Event” movie. Movies like “Twister” and “Independence Day” were box office gold. Everyone was making a big budget big effects film.

 

The “Event” movies created an easy in to the entertainment industry for 2 reasons: First, they had huge crews. Whole cities were being built in miniature to be destroyed by whatever Hollywood thought would put butts in seats. (I still have the crew list from “Dante's Peak” and it has over 500 people on it... and that was just the effects crew).  The second reason effects was a “back door” into the industry was most production companies would “farm out” the effects to another, non-signatory, company. This meant that many of these effects jobs were non-union.

 

My first gig was working for an effects company called Flix-FX. I came in as a PA/Runner to help with a sequence of a miniature truck getting hit by an asteroid in the made for TV movie “Asteroid”. I spent a couple days on that, and then another day at the same shop prepping a mechanical arm for some still shoot (for a magazine layout I think) that I never saw.

 

My next gig was working for Digital Domain on the film Dante's Peak. You can read all about that here. It was on Dante's Peak that I worked with The Wise, and Mysterious T. (I don't remember his full name, and I have no idea whatever happened to him so for the sake of this writing I will call him The Wise and Mysterious T.)

 

One day I was talking with The Wise and Mysterious T about my troubles adapting to freelance work, and I asked him what he does to fill in the holes between good gigs. He told me of the magical world of “Background Players”.

 

A Background Player (or “Extra”) is basically a person you see in the background in a movie or TV show.  You see, if a movie is shooting a scene in a restaurant with three characters talking, they need to shoot different camera angles for each actor plus wide shots etc... This can take all day. The problem comes in that it is only supposed to take 15 minutes in “movie time”. If you shot this on location with real people in the background, they would finish their meal and leave, and someone else would be sitting behind your actor. Every 30 minutes. Also, real people eating a meal wouldn't be quiet for sound. And what if your shooting on a set? Best to just hire some people to pretend to be patrons. And that is an extra. A movable prop that populates the fictional world of the movie... and eats all the craft service.

 

The Wise and Mysterious T introduced me to a background casting agent named Jeff Olan. At the time, Jeff was at a Background agency named Rainbow Casting. He now runs his own Background Casting Agency named Jeff Olan Casting. Jeff has been a good friend over the years, and helped me produce Devil's Moon. If you ever want to try out being a Background Player, check out Jeff Olan Casting.

 

Back to the story. The first Extra gig I ever did was for a made for TV movie starring David Schwimmer called “Breast Men”. It was about the guys that invented silicon breast implants. My first day on set as an extra, and the scene was a strip club in the 1970's. I was dressed in a nice leisure suit, fed, given a stack of fake dollar bills and placed by the stage in the strip club to tip the actresses playing strippers. We went 16 hours that day. I was fed 3 really great meals, and given a “smoke bump” (when they pay you extra because the room your shooting in has a fogger running in it). I couldn't believe it. I spent the day eating great, and sitting around looking at naked ladies, and I got paid for it... This was heaven.

 

For a while after that, I used Background work to supplement my income. The process was simple. You would call a telephone number and listen to a recording of what agents were looking for what types for what show. If you were a match, you would call the agent. They would pull up your file and photo on the computer, and if you really did match, they would book you on the gig. Some gigs would be for a day (or sometimes less which was great because you were always paid an 8 hr minimum), and some gigs would last a while. I can't remember every gig I had as an extra. At lot of times it just didn't matter what the name of the TV show or movie was. I just wanted to show up, do my job, and get paid. I think it is safe to say though that any TV show shot in LA and was on the air for more then a season between 1997 and 1999 I was in at least 1 episode. I was also in dozens of features.

 

I met a lot of good people doing extra work. Made a lot of friends, and a lot of memories. I will try to add info about these gigs as I have time, and remember them well enough to write it.

 

Some of the things I was an Extra on