Through an Extra's Eyes
Movie-making is time consuming and memorable
Ledger-Enquirer - 26 November 2004
By Harry Franklin, State Editor
ATLANTA - Actor Kenneth Branagh leaned over the edge of the stage while a stylist worked on a few strands of out of place hair, which were then sprayed to keep them down.
Now get the picture: In the scene it's April 17, 1928, in Houston, where the Democratic National Convention is under way. Branagh is portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the HBO movie "Warm Springs." The film depicts Roosevelt from the pre-1920s, after he served as President Woodrow Wilson's undersecretary of the Navy, through his early years of dealing with polio. FDR is at the convention to make a nominating speech for presidential candidate Al Smith.
FDR could not have gotten down on his knees for hair touch-ups at the 1928 convention, seven years after the 46-year-old future president contracted infantile paralysis, or polio. His leg muscles were too badly affected. And they didn't have cans of pressurized hair spray at that time, either.
But that's how carefully the movie crew prepared for scenes. Everything had to be just right during the shooting of several scenes in Atlanta from Saturday, Nov. 13, through Tuesday, Nov. 16, where I joined about 500 men, women and teenagers who worked as extras in the movie. We represented convention delegates, police, stage hands and others in scenes from the 1920 and 1928 Democratic conventions.
I'm not a doctor but...
About 150 men that Saturday portrayed doctors attending the annual orthopedic convention at the Academy of Medicine off West Peachtree Street. That date was April 27, 1926. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt burst in on a speech by Dr. James T. Bissell about spinal problems. Actress Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor was pushing FDR in a wheelchair down the center aisle of a quaint, oval-shaped auditorium to the stage. They invited us doctors to Warm Springs to see the benefits of the mineral waters on muscles of polio patients. It was nice being called Dr. Franklin, if only for a day.
32nd President Productions Inc. rented the old Baptist Tabernacle at 152 Luckie St. for the convention site. The ceiling in the original sanctuary and other areas of the downtown structure now feature psychedelic designs. Concerts and other events are held onstage in the sanctuary with its high ceiling and two balconies and in a large downstairs room. Hurry up and wait
Extras are not actors. But we are necessary to fill crowd scenes. We don't make the big bucks. We received $100 a day, even on days when we work as many as 14 hours. We don't get residuals. We don't eat with the cast and crew. We just do what we are told.
As another extra, Joe Carpenter of Columbus, noted, it's a matter of hurry up and wait -- much like military service. We extras were a fascinating group. Some have been in many movies. Others were satisfying their curiosity as first-timers. It's exciting to see how complicated shooting a movie can be, and to watch professionals like Branagh and Nixon. It is inspiring to watch veteran director Joseph Sargent take charge, a man whose directing experience dates to the 1950s when he even did an episode of the popular western "Bonanza." He's 79 years old but performed as smoothly as a man 20 years younger. Where does he get his energy, working probably 16 hours a day? We were grateful that at the end of those days, he personally thanked "the Atlanta repertory company (us)" for our hard work and performance.
But it also is tiring. Try working 12 1/2 hours on Saturday, 14 hours the following Monday and 14 1/2 hours on Tuesday, with a nearly two-hour drive back to Columbus -- if you don't run into traffic problems. Try going 14 miles in more than 1 1/2 hours on Interstate 85 due to road work and a tractor-trailer wreck.
Despite that, we wouldn't have missed being extras for the world. We had to report at 6 a.m. for two days and at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Each day we first changed into the period costumes we were assigned. Then we reported to hair and makeup. On Saturday, the hair stylist parted my hair in the middle. I resembled a poor substitute for "Our Gang's" Alfalfa. Thick gel was first worked through my hair and it was combed into place. Two kinds of spray were used to glue it down -- really down. I successfully pleaded to keep my moustache, but it was trimmed on each side. Most of the men lost their moustaches. I wore the same light blue suit and vest all three days, with one change of shirts. We usually moved to the set about 9 a.m., after having a light breakfast of doughnuts, apples, bananas, fruit juices and other treats, and waited while cinematographers and other crew finished setting up scenes.
We spent all day Saturday shooting scenes in the academy auditorium and entranceway. Lights were set up inside the auditorium and outside the windows. Black screens blocked light where it wasn't needed. Cameras were set up at various locations, sometimes onstage, to the left of the stage, from the back of the auditorium or near FDR and Eleanor for close-ups.
Today's equipment is nothing like crews used in the 1950s when Sargent first directed. It includes digital and computerized equipment. Scenes can be played back to ensure the objectives were captured. Over and over a scene is shot from different angles.
At one point Saturday, after Nixon repeatedly had pushed Branagh up and down the aisle in the old high-backed wheelchair, Sargent asked her, "Cynthia, how are the muscles?"
The extras made up the audience at the orthopedic meeting, sitting most of the day in the old theater-type seats. Those near the center aisle frequently had makeup touched up, hair sprayed, clothing straightened or shirt collars changed because they didn't look exactly right.
While movie-making may sound easy, it is similar to science where an experiment, to work successfully, follows a prepared script. But Sargent used his poetic license to make slight changes from the movie script. When Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt burst through the back door of the auditorium, interrupting a speech in progress, extras first were told to suddenly turn their heads toward the Roosevelts and stare as they came down the aisle. As the scene was reshot, he told us to create "hubbub," expressing our surprise and disgust that anyone would interrupt the speech so abruptly. Eleanor Roosevelt simply stated, "Sorry to be late."
Daily we were divided into groups according to color cards distributed to us. There were blues, whites and reds. What we didn't know Saturday is that the whites would be released to leave before 4 p.m., while the rest of us continued to work until 6:30. Twenty-five of us were chosen at large as "apples" by an assistant director, to be used -- we thought -- for some special purpose late that afternoon. But after watching from a distance for 1 1/2 hours as other extras worked, walking up the aisles and out of the auditorium to meet with other doctors at a reception, some of us speculated that instead of being prime Washington state apples, we might be rotten or worm-filled apples. Though we did get into the scene and a few of us were even positioned close to Eleanor and Franklin as they talked with doctors about Warm Springs.
The 1928 convention was filmed all day Monday and on Tuesday morning, with a few extras on stage as important conventioneers and members of the press; convention delegates on the main floor shouting and waving flags and signs, such as mine stating, "Al Smith's New Home," with a drawing of the U.S. Capitol dome; and others filling the two balcony levels that extended three-quarters of the way around the auditorium. The walls and balconies were covered with red, white and blue decor.
For the 1928 convention, a huge 48-star American flag was draped across the curtain behind the stage covering tall organ pipes. We were told to get into the spirit and hoopla of a convention, and to shout support for candidates and come to life. We shouted "Roo-se-velt, Roo-se-velt" and other things so much over the next two days that many extras were nearly hoarse, including me.
Just before we began shooting the 1920 convention, in which James Cox won the Democratic nomination for president with FDR as his vice presidential running mate, the convention hall had to be changed. The stage area was dramatically altered, the large flag taken down and a crew member even mixed colors and painted the podium a different color, drying it with a hair dryer.
Some extras changed part of their outfits that didn't fit the 1920s look. Campaign signs also were switched. I sat in the lower left balcony about three rows behind Eleanor Roosevelt during part of that shooting.
Extras well fed
They fed us well, with grilled steaks, rice, beans, rolls and a dessert Tuesday for lunch. Monday we had hot dogs and hamburgers. Saturday we had either chicken or salmon and vegetables. You stop wondering why movies cost so much to make after seeing what is required. The days some 500 extras worked, pay alone for extras was about $50,000. Add to that meals, renting facilities as holding areas for extras -- including the Omni Hotel convention hall, hiring people to handle costumes, makeup, hair and sign-ins, renting portable dressing areas and other expenses, and the cost just for extras mounts quickly. Then add expenses for all professionals such as cast and crew, costs of renting technical equipment and people to operate it and costs per day are enormous. HBO has not announced its budget for the film, publicist Susan Nowak said.
Some of us were amazed that a two-hour movie could be filmed entirely in fewer than 1 1/2 months, when shooting locations moved to such places as Warm Springs, Rome, Atlanta, Madison and Rutledge, Ga., before returning Saturday, Nov. 20, for the final day of filming at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Officials say they expect the movie will be aired in late April or early May.
Meeting and talking with other extras is as much fun as being in the movie. And I met plenty of them. I will not forget many extras I had a chance to work with: Brad Smith of Atlanta, who resembled what I would expect a young G. Harold "Hal" Northrop to look like; the brother of John Suhr of Columbus, who lives in East Point, who has been in numerous movies and who sat beside me during part of the filming at the academy; Thomas Wiley of Hamilton, a recent graduate of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.; Joel Erickson, a 2004 graduate of LaGrange College.
I will not forget the quality sharing time spent with Romica Berla, 31, of Marietta, during a long break in the shooting Tuesday, or Robert York of Pine Mountain, who said he learned about the need for extras from a childhood friend at a yard sale.
James Fowler of Griffin shared that his wife for years drove to Columbus to see her favorite obstetrician/gynecologist, Dr. Harold Jarrell, who has retired. The Fowlers' three children were born at The Medical Center. Joe Carpenter, 56, who has a home inspection business in Columbus, soon became a friend. The Indiana native was a Golden Gloves boxing champion who worked for years with Westinghouse. We rode together to Atlanta on Monday and Tuesday and shared lively conversation.
His reaction to being in his first movie? "What impressed me about the film crew, I really was surprised how they made an effort to be nice to you," Carpenter said. "They were very appreciative of what you were doing and how you were doing it. One assistant did make a point that he wanted to apologize if he was short and quick with anyone. He said he was appreciative of the work they were doing. I was surprised at how well the cast seemed to be working together."
He was also impressed with director Joe Sargent and his film crew. "These people put in a lot of hours with very little sleep," he said. "His cinematographer and assistants seemed to know how to carry the ball the way he wanted. He made a comment that lots of times, with as many extras as we had in scenes, everybody cooperated so well that they had a minimum of takes... You don't realize the hours put in to put on one hour of programming. It's a test of our patience. I'd be willing to do it again." Among those experiences, I ran into a couple of extras who tried to embellish their roles in life. They were perhaps the best actors on the set.
Branagh, Sargent impressive
I briefly met both Branagh and Sargent, a Jersey City, N.J., native with a head full of gray hair. After I told Branagh how much I enjoyed watching him portray FDR, he said, "We appreciate all your patience." It seemed a bit strange to have the Northern Ireland native who is best known for his Shakespearean roles, portray a handicapped U.S. president who later helped Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Great Britain stave off a German invasion in World War II.
It was a pleasure coming together with extras from across the region for a few days of filming. They came from as far as Lexington, Ky., Montgomery, Ala., and central Florida. There were the jobless, including a man who said he would use his earnings to buy Christmas presents; high school students taking a day or two away from classes; grandmothers and wealthy women from Buckhead looking for excitement and the opportunity to see noted actors and actresses at work. A few have visions of an acting career.
For me: It was a special treat. My movie appearances have been years apart: an extra in "The Long Riders," filmed in Parrott and Clayton, Ga., in 1979; an actor with a small speaking role that was cut out in "Mississippi Burning," filmed in LaFayette, Ala., in 1988; and 16 years later, "Warm Springs." It was a trip.