Just when I thought I was out, M. Night Shyamalan pulled me back in. After two days on the set of his latest effort, “Lady in the Water,” I considered myself lucky in two ways. One: to be paid to do something as fun as act. Two: to be alive. By 4 p.m., I had already fallen asleep in my Jazz class and regretted the 3:40 a.m. wrap time for the film from the previous night/really early morning. Bolting to the set, I arrived 10 minutes later than I had hoped. Waiting for me were the wardrobe crew (who surprisingly knew my name without me having to say a word) and a few of my friends.
Something should be said about the bonding experience of being an extra on the set. While many people are competing in the same industry (many extras hope to make that jump from “Kid With Beer #2” to the starring credits), everyone on set seems to connect.
Take for instance, the case of my friends Tom, Chris and Lou. We had worked together – heck, known each other – for less than 24 hours. Yet, when we arrived on set for day three, Lou was missing in action. Sadly, due to the days taken off from work combined with physical exhaustion, our buddy from Philly had to skip out. The days of my crew were over . or so I thought.
To get things started, Assistant Director (AD) Keith Potter rounded up the crew of extras for a pep talk. By 4:30 p.m., we were shuffled off to the set and 15 minutes later, the first shot was set up. However, after two takes, the shooting was stopped. Instead, Shyamalan decided to film a scene of lead actor Paul Giamatti running through tall grass after Bryce Dallas Howard (who appeared to be pulled away by an unseen assailant).
This illustrates one of the greatest movie insights I received on the set. Despite millions of dollars in budgets and accolades galore, sometimes the director’s choices make absolutely no sense to anyone else. Why would a director hire 300 extras to shoot a scene that focuses only on the leads and requires none of the hundreds of background performers?
By 8:30 p.m. we were all getting antsy, as nothing was happening that involved us. That and, well, we were hungry. Dinner had yet to be served at 8:45 p.m., and the complaints were slowly mounting. The next shot we were involved in was set up to film across the pool at myself, Tom and Chris. Of course, it was about this time that we broke for dinner.
An hour and change later (11:15 p.m.), we were back in the same setup, but this time, the camera was placed 10 feet away from me. Here, Giamatti jumped up on a chair and my actor friend from day one (Joe “I Married Shannon Elizabeth” Reitman) radioed a band (SilverTide, an actual local rock band).
This was perhaps my last big moment in the feature, as I was able to hear advice Shyamalan was giving Giamatti, including “this is a crucial moment, as you realize both worlds are colliding, and you’re overwhelmed.” To Reitman and Giamatti, he also mentioned, “this is a big moment for you (Reitman) as he (Giamatti) is admitting some crucial details.”
Between takes, I talked to AD Potter about his last project, “Jarhead,” and about its editor, Walter Murch, who I met at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The last shot of the night was a zoom from a party room out at the crowd. With the blinds being partially closed, none of the extras would be clearly visible, so continuity was not a problem. However, I found myself paired with this neo-hippie kind of extra who had the pantomiming skills of a brain dead clown. Receiving no clear instruction, I decided to make my own mark and walk up to my friends in mock conversation.
Wrap time for day three: 3:30 a.m. Again. After some confusion, I grabbed my pay waiver and ran for the car. While I was sad that I would not get to see my friends from set again, the pure physical exhaustion was offset by euphoria from hearing the casting hotline announcement of no extra-shooting for the following day. Three paid days on the set of an Oscar-nominated director? Not bad for a Jersey boy. Of course, like a Shyamalan script, my experience in the making of this film would have a couple of twists at the end. Check in next week for my last set report!