Today was my first day as an extra on the set of the movie about gay rights icon Harvey Milk. “Milk” is being directed by Gus Van Sant, with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, and James Franco and Diego Luna playing some of the other roles.
The Castro has been buzzing about the production for a while now. First of all, the place looks amazing. The Castro Theatre, which is the defining landmark of the gayborhood has been given an amazing paint job to bring it back to its 1970s glory, and for the first time in my decade-plus of living in San Francisco, all of the neon letters spelling out CASTRO actually work. It does raise the question as to why the gays let it get so run down. Vintage is one thing, this thing was tragic.
I had went to an open call a while back, where basically they took our photos, we filled out a form, and that was basically the end of the run for me. Supposedly that was to cast some background players, so my not getting a call was just that I didn’t look like some random city councilman in the 1970s for the sake of authenticity or somesuch.
Today was the first day where we had signed up to be a part of a march out on Castro Street. Before our march, as a special treat, we were shown the Academy Award-winning documentary about the life and death of Harvey Milk in the Castro Theatre. Before the film, we got to hear from the producers of the movie, Gus Van Sant, and he brought out Franco and Hirsch to say hi. Cleve Jones, who was there on the front lines with Milk and later founded the National AIDS Memorial Quilt project, taught us cheers from the stage, so we might use them later in the street scenes.
I sat near the front, and happened to be across the aisle from and slight behind current San Francisco Supervisor and stand-up comic Tom Ammiano, who is one of the eight people who tell the story of Harvey Milk in the film. When he was describing hearing the news of Harvey Milk’s assassination and how when we went to City Hall, he happened to walk by the doors where the bodies were being removed from the building and how Harvey Milk’s body bag had his shoes sticking out, he was crying onscreen. I looked across the aisle and saw Ammiano crying again nearly 30 years later.
After we saw the movie, they said we’d probably start sooner than they had expected, and they told us about the scenes we were going to do. I didn’t sign anything (and I just checked the website and it doesn’t say we’re not supposed to talk about anything there, either). So, in the first scene, the crowd is milling around Castro and Market, after an anti-gay ruling in Anita Bryant’s campaign had passed successfully. As we are angry but aimless, Sean Penn (looking pretty damn convincing as Milk, btw) jumps up onto a platform with a bullhorn, says a few words, and then jumps into the crowd, channeling our frustration into a march to City Hall (or, in movie terms, half a block down the street).
So, I noticed pretty quickly that there are a lot of hot guys who are really dressed the part for the mid-70s scene. As we are supposed to keep milling about for each take, and then go back to our places after they cut each time, I use my milling to get closer to the hot guys. Not because they are hot, but because I figure they are the paid extras (hence, them being models and actors), and they are in the foreground of the shot, whereas we the self-dressed non-descript 70s people are mainly adding “volume” to the wideshot in our unfocused glory. By take three, I am the first line behind all the paid extras, and stay there for the rest of the scene.
The second part of our Sean Penn time is just a different angle on that same scene, where he is pushing through the crowd with Emile Hirsch in tow, and we follow him toward City Hall. In the first take of this one, I am like two feet from Sean Penn as he pushes through the crowd, so hopefully that’s the best cut, because it’s as close as I ever got. (Well, I think I was closer to him one time at a Strokes concert, but that’s not quite the same thing).
Then, we film a similar thing where Emile Hirsch is rallying the crowd, and again, we turn and march to City Hall. In each take, we do different things each time, sometimes we chant different things, turn toward City Hall at different times. The most interesting thing is that we are screaming and chanting and when they are doing takes with dialogue, we do like 2-3 chants and then we switch to pantomime, so the only people still chanting aloud are Penn, Hirsch and the real actors, and the rest of us are just throwing our fists in the air and making no noise. (This is similar to how on the set of Queer as Folk, they would play some music, get everyone dancing, and then cut the music so they could get clean dialogue recorded).
Both scenes seemed to be really short, though. So, I’m guessing this has to be part of a montage to compress time in the final product.
I must say, though. Ricky Gervais made extra work FAR more glamorous than it actually is (he made the HBO/BBC series Extras), which is saying a lot. We were all there because Milk is part of gay civil rights history, and you wanted to be a part blahblahblah, but it’s certainly mind-numbingly boring.
Of course, the greater tragedy was seeing the paid extras. Most of them were just skinny hot guys wearing tight 70s outfits, and just doing whatever they were told. But, every so often (since I kept close to them), you could kind of pick out one or two who think this is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Are there many examples of known movie stars who were first seen doing extra work? All the examples I know of are minor speaking roles and bigger parts that didn’t make the final edit, it’s never, “Look, there, in the fourth row of the crowd… a young Julia Roberts!”
At one point, I’m in a crowd that crosses around and toward the stage when Emile is speaking, and they just brought in even more paid people because they were told to follow Emile when he jumps off the stage and runs toward the front of the rally. So, one of the paid guys starts working on blocking with me since I’m next to him. Now, I’ve already done this same thing three times, AND he understands it wrong. He says I can’t be in his way because he needs to be in the shot when Emile runs by. I told him that I’m very much gone before Emile is done speaking, and that Emile doesn’t go right off the stage, he comes around past the point where he’s standing and runs around the mass of people, so he shouldn’t move at all. He said that’s not how he was told to do the scene. I knew I was right, although I didn’t look back to watch how far off his mark he got, since well, I’m a pro and I’m meant to be headed to City Hall at that point. It just seemed a bit mental. I mean… it’s a crowd scene, chill. (Emile did run past me way on my left, as I told that guy he would).
After those two scenes, they mention another set-up, that someone is going to pull the overhead hooks off a streetcar, with some pyro sparks, and another march toward City Hall (these people certainly marched to city hall a lot). But I was just kind of done at that point, so I packed it in and went home. I’m also signed up to be part of the candlelight vigil for Harvey on Friday night, after we find out he was murdered… but as of right now, I can’t imagine standing around for 7-8 hours doing that.
And, as you may have noticed from this play-by-play, one missing element… where is my Diego Luna?! Love him! So, yeah, I’m sure the time would have drifted by easier if I were staring at Diego, but that wasn’t to be. Actually, between takes, you rarely got to see the actors hanging around, they had some area they were taken to (aside from Sean in the middle of the crowd, where we just did a bunch of sequential takes in a row). So, we’re waiting to shoot a scene with Emile Hirsch, but instead some older guy in his 40s with Jewfro to match Hirsch’s in the flick is just standing in the same spot, so we’re mainly getting stand-in.
(I do plan to get some interviews of the gay people involved for Oasis while they’re in town (definitely the writer, maybe Van Sant, but I’ll hold off on running them until the movie is about to come out, which I assume would be this fall).)
I was slightly surprised by the amount of passion people brought to the project. I think I stay too aware of my surroundings in general (I always knew where the cameras were being set-up, got close to the paid, period-costumed extras, etc.), but one lady seemed to go to the same desolate spot way far removed from the scene, and walk toward it like she was completely pissed off about whatever we were rallying about. She was throwing her hands around and looked ready to snap, but I knew for a fact she had never gotten anywhere even close to being in front of a camera the whole night.
But I’m sure she went home saying what a great time she had, and will look up at the screen this fall and see if she can spot herself, whereas I was like two feet from Sean Penn and thinking, eh, this is sort of boring. It’s like seven hours of waiting for 20 minutes of doing something.