Wait, act, repeat – the glamorous life a movie extra

Despite my aversion to being starstruck, I was not prepared to be standing next to M. Night Shyamalan on set. Shyamalan (or M as he is simply called by the cast and crew) does not fit the typical mold of an A-list Hollywood director. While he has the authoritative “I’m the boss” look in his eye, he did not rant or rave if things were taking too long. Quiet and intense, occasionally making jokes or goofing around with the actors and crew, Shyamalan was an ideal vision of the boss I want to work for. Or be.

I arrived on the set for day one of shooting “the party scene” around 2:30 p.m. and was herded off to the holding tent – a former parking lot with hot air filtered in to keep the extras warm, with folding tables laid out for later meals. The food spread (our “breakfast” according to Screen Actors Guild regulations as it was our first meal of the day on set) was extensive, with a cook on grill dishing out burgers, fries, hot dogs, pasta, salads, sodas, coffee, lemonade, water and snacks.

At 2:40 p.m., assistant director Keith Potter addressed the group for the first time, teasing us with a bare bones plot synopsis (just so we knew what we should be doing). From what I’ve gleaned of the story from the Web and from Potter, the story focuses on Paul Giamatti’s character, who runs a hotel. In the swimming pool, he finds a mysterious young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard of “The Village”) floating around. She turns out to be a narf (sea nymph). As Giamatti falls for her, he realizes that she is part of a fairy tale, a bedtime story that is rapidly coming to life. Story is in need of protection from otherworldly danger, so the tenants band together to help.

Potter explained the basics to first-time film people (that extras begin acting on “Background” rather than “Rolling!”). Then came a staple in the life of being an extra: waiting. Potter later told us to expect to work a full 12-hour day. Translation: 3 a.m. stop time.

Finally, we were moved from the tent to “The Cove” (the hotel set). The building looked incredibly real, complete with patches of faded concrete, rusting signs and crowded rooms. Of course, some of these rooms are merely fronts for the real action behind them – makeup rooms, equipment housing, etc,. I was quickly paired up with two fellow actors, Tom and Lou.

Potter gave the three of us the direction to send Lou across to the other side of the pool, right before the camera passed in front of us. I realized that this would mean I was going to be smack dab in the background of the shot. Our first rehearsal went well. As the night continued, topics of conversation among Tom, Lou and myself included the outwardly flamboyant cameraman, the flat beer we were given as props, the best and worst of Shyamalan’s movies, global politics, the Yankees’ playoff hopes, Oreos versus Chips Ahoy, etc,.

After about six takes, a supporting character was placed with us, played by Joe Reitman. I knew he looked familiar, but I did not want to venture a guess originally. Sure enough, I was right – Reitman appeared in “The Perfect Storm” and “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” It was later pointed out that he may be best known for having married Shannon Elizabeth’s character in “American Pie.”

After around the eighth take, the first assistant director instructed me to walk past Giamatti and block his view. Unable to help myself, I turned to look across the pool. The result? I have a nice profile view for the camera while standing next to Mr. Academy Award Nominee Giamatti. We repeated this five times. Yes it’s true – I am a ham.

As the night continued, things started to blur. Tom, Lou and I bonded, beginning to make each take funnier than the last. I was later set up in another shot where I essentially walked back and forth in front of the camera. I discovered myself shoulder to shoulder with Giamatti and later locked in a deadly serious game of Rock Paper Scissors with Howard.

It was around 2 a.m. that Lou and I realized that we may have caused a continuity error by being assigned to two different locations for two consecutive shots. Barring super-speed, there was no way our characters could be in two places at once. Go me and my $80 million film- wrecking abilities!

Finally, at 2:45 a.m., the final shot (a crane shot from above) wrapped, and cheers abounded. For some, this one night would have been enough, but wait until next issue. My adventures continue.