Copyright 2007 Neill Fleeman

The press conference scene from Leatherheads: Neill Fleeman, Renee Zellweger

Hooray For Hollywood!
 by Extra #1843

The petite blond woman walked up to me and stuck out her hand. “Hi,” she said. “I'm Renee. We're going to be working together all day so we'd better get acquainted.”

Maybe I should back up a little. It's my tenth day as an extra on Leatherheads, the George Clooney - Renee Zellweger movie being shot in the Carolinas. For many years I've written stories about Old Hollywood, the Hollywood of the Big Studios and the Golden Age stars, and although I wrote and directed a few industrial films in the 1970's, this is my first experience with filmmaking on the Hollywood scale.
The story of how I got here begins last March when I notice a little squib in the Winston-Salem Journal:

 Movie to have open casting call for extras

An open casting call for extras in Leatherheads, a Universal Pictures movie starring George Clooney will be held Tuesday at 4:00 PM… Leatherheads will also star Renee Zellweger. Clooney will also direct the film, a romantic comedy set in the 1920s… Casting Director Tona Dahlquist, who worked on Forrest Gump and Radio, will be looking for background extras who can work for several consecutive days during filming in April and May…

Open casting calls are known in the business as “cattle calls” because everyone in the world shows up. It promises to be a long afternoon but for me the process is over in a matter of a couple of minutes. Before I can even settle in for the wait I'm snatched out of the group of 500 hopefuls by Ms. Dahlquist. After an interview she tells me to report to the Speakeasy Productions office in Greer, SC, for a wardrobe fitting. I will be a “fully dressed” extra in a train scene to be filmed in East Bend, NC in ten days time.
My East Bend debut goes quite well, playing behind George Clooney in the first two shots and apparently catching the eye of Mr. Clooney, Assistant Director David Webb, and Second Assistant Ian Calip. I'm given a good position in a third shot and asked to do a second day of filming at the railroad museum in Spencer, NC.
     In the afternoon at Spencer I get what every extra hopes for, a “bit of business” to do behind the star. What I do is background and will be barely visible in the film, but if I trip and fall on my face it will blow the take for Clooney -- and extras are not supposed to blow takes for the star. I get the scene in one take and I must admit I'm rather pleased with myself. I get asked to do six more days in a variety of roles at the Big Game sequence to be shot at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, NC.
The Charlotte shoot shows many of the extras the gritty day-to-day reality of movie-making. On Day 1, as I'm sitting in the green room at 5 AM, I'm struck by the image of 100 guys in genuine 1920's wardrobe lined up to get a cup of coffee. It looks exactly like a photo of a Depression-era soup line. Over the next six days we are frozen, broiled, marched miles around the stadium location, and nearly blown away in high winds. Counting my commute, I'm putting in 19 hours a day. By Day 3 all the folks who thought being an extra would be a schmooze-fest with George and Renee have gone AWOL. By Day 4 everyone has a cold and the production is running on caffeine and aspirin. At the end of Day 6 I'm just glad to have survived. And I'm asked to play a newspaperman in the Press Conference scene to be shot in Winston-Salem on the following Wednesday.
Being an extra is something like being an infantry private. No one tells you much about what's going to happen, you do a lot of standing on line, and a lot of what you do, like Wardrobe and Make-up, gets to be a familiar, even wearisome routine. Wednesday, however, as I head out of the Make-up tent after my sixth haircut in three weeks, my routine gets broken. Ian stops me, turns me around, and marches me back to Wendy, the head of Make-up. For the train shots I had had a little a nose powder but today Wendy gives me the full treatment - pancake, eyebrows, lip liner, the works. Having become accustomed to being the good soldier it doesn't even occur to me to ask why.
 Half an hour later, after I have downed coffee and a bagel in the catering tent, one of our Production Assistants hustles in. Ian wants forty newspaper men for the first shot. The PA points at me and starts counting. “One.” I grab my derby hat and head to Props where I am issued a press pass to stick in my hatband, a notepad, and a pencil. Calling the Press group into the auditorium, Ian points us into the front three rows of seats, arranging us so that the wardrobes and faces are well mixed. “You, here. You, there.” He points at me. “You, stop.” He pulls me out of line. “Wait here,” he says. I wait.
For an extra, getting good exposure in a scene is what you hope for, but once you've been prominent, you're forever banished to the back of the shots so you can't be recognized again. Based on my exposure in both train scenes and a couple of shots in Charlotte, I'm assuming that Ian has decided I'm now over-exposed and will have to go to the back benches. But when Ian gets the rest of the reporters placed, he doesn't move me to the cheap seats, he leads me down front, over piles of cables and sound equipment, around to the third row on the camera-left aisle where the two end seats are empty. He motions to the extra sitting in the third seat. “You, out.” He says. The guy gets up and comes out. “You,” he says to me. “In.” In I go.
As soon as I'm seated a young woman in civilian clothes slides in next to me. I realize it's Claire Bristow, Ms. Zellweger's stand-in. Since there is a big Panavision camera right behind us, I ask her if she's just holding the seat until the shot is ready to keep someone else from sitting there and blocking the camera. “No,” she says, “this is where Renee will be.” Just then we're interrupted by a bunch of guys swarming around us waving light meters. When they're done Claire departs, leaving me at the mercy of Wardrobe and Make-up assistants who stand me up, check my tie, powder my nose, flick specks of lint off my suit, and generally give me the star treatment.
And then Renee Zellweger walks up and introduces herself. As it happens, it's April 25th, her birthday. I wish her a happy birthday, which genuinely seems to please her.
Rule 1 of being an extra is to not bother the stars. They're working and they have hundreds of millions of dollars riding on their shoulders. So I let Ms. Zellweger start the conversations. When she does, it dawns on me that despite her star status she wants me to be comfortable. Between shots we talk a bit about the Oscar I think she should have gotten for Chicago. We discuss local restaurants and a bottle of wine she's been given. There's trouble with her body microphone and a few fly-away hairs that Make-up can't seem to get to stay put. Her solution to this problem is funny and practical: she yanks them out by the roots, leading to an exchange that is endearing but must remain classified.
You'll see the Press Conference scene when Leatherheads hits the theaters in December. Using three cameras with three set-ups per camera it took about six hours to shoot. It will amount to less than a minute of the finished film. My job, in addition to my business as a reporter, is to help the star however I can and this includes staying out of her key light. I'm working hard to calibrate my position and get it right. After the third or fourth take, when I ask “OK?”, she looks at me, wrinkles her nose, pats my arm, and says “Sweetie, you're doin' fine.”
In the last set-up, Ms. Zellweger's close-up, the camera lens is only an arm's length in front of my nose. The brim of my derby keeps bobbing into the edge of her frame during the rehearsal so the cameraman asks me to take it off. I slide the hat under the seat in front of me where it won't get trampled in the stampede of newhawks who run after Ms. Zellweger's character at the end of the shot. After six or seven takes we get what we need and the extras are dismissed. And then Ms. Zellweger, who rumor has it is being paid a few million dollars for her work in the picture, gets down on her hands and knees on the dirty auditorium floor, pulls my hat out from under the seat, dusts it off, and puts it in my lap.
“There you go, Sweetie,” she says. “Thanks for everything.”