Sitting Around on "The Corner"
Drive, They Said
7-Eleven with a new pack of Marlboro Mediums. Only this time, I hoped my daily routine would be captured forever on film -- as part of Richard Linklater's screen adaptation of Eric Bogosian's play subUrbia.
Whether you're mugging extra-hard for your parent's camcorder or ever-so-casually watching a film that's shooting on location hoping the director will discover 'n' cast you, everyone wants to see themselves on the silver screen. Until now, I was no exception. My personal journey began in December 1995 on the "101X Morning Show." I was searching for something, anything, to say on Rachel Marisay's radio show during my guest stint, and figured a Richard Linklater call for extras that I had noticed in the Chronicle was fair game. The item called for headshots to be mailed to Linklater's production company for consideration in his next film -- a Texas period piece called The Newton Boys. On-air, Rachel and I both agreed we'd send off our "radio personality" 8x10s. Off-air, I was the only one with follow-through. Maybe Rachel didn't want it as badly as I -- or maybe she's already been an "extra" and knew better. In any event, some people spend their life's earnings on the busfare to Hollywood, and I got "the call" after only 64 cents postage and a three-month wait. So far, I was ahead of the game.
"You look very suburban," said the casting director, a back-handed compliment if ever I've heard one. I took it as bad news since I couldn't figure how looking like my Long Island roots could help me win a spot in a Texas epic.
But she went on to explain that subUrbia had jumped ahead on Linklater's production schedule and they'd need suburban-looking extras. When she explained it would take place at a convenience store, my heart pounded. I shop at 7-Eleven every day. I then asked if I could buy cigarettes in the movie. She said it wasn't unlikely. And when she asked what kind of car I had, I answered honestly, hoping she'd respond by saying, "In that case, I'll send a limo to pick you up." Instead, she asked if I'd be willing to drive my car in the movie.
"Can I drive my car, walk into the convenience store, and buy cigarettes?" I asked.
"Perhaps," she said.
"In that case, it'll be Method acting."
We both laughed, me because I knew this was the role I'd rehearsed for years, she because she knew I'd never get the chance to showcase my talents. She didn't want my suburban face, she wanted my car. I'm confident that had I looked like Tiny Tim in my headshot, she still would have called and asked about my car. It was the old "bait and switch." Rule #1: Trust nobody associated with Hollywood, even if they say they live in Austin. They're users.
I should have seen it coming; everyone was too damn nice. "Hey Andy," they said as I walked into the AA-meeting site that the crew had converted into a bakery storefront for the shoot. But how did they know who I was? Had just getting the role already made me famous? Oh yeah, they had my picture. Immediately, in what they called the "extra holding pen," a stack of paperwork was thrown in front of me -- including forms that vaguely indicated I'd be getting paid. With a signature, I'd be turning pro.
Little did I know that everyone else in the room was already pretending to be pro. Nearly everyone there had an agent -- and the wrong ones too, I figured, if the best they could pull 'em was the same gig that I'd simply mailed away for. One young woman was already a nervous wreck, disturbed that she had spent two nights on the set without a moment of screen time. Instead, during the movie's pivotal argument scene, the real cast lounged in front, beside, and on top of her sports coupe. I thought she had it good. We'll call her Liz Smith -- partly because she looked, moved, and gossiped like the dishy diva, and partly because I never wanted to get close enough to catch her real name. "I have an agent out there working on getting me roles, and now my car's getting more screen time then I am," Liz bitched. I suggested she get an agent for her car. She didn't laugh.
Until then, I had merely felt out of place. Now, I was an unsuccessful comedian as well. Liz continued on anyway, delving into a discussion about whether the Walker: Texas Ranger casting woman really was a bitch, or whether she was just testing the candidates to see how they'd handle the pressure. I had a sneaking suspicion Linklater had made Liz my test.
Meanwhile, we must have looked like the Dallas cast of The Real World -- a collection of twentysomething actresses, students, models, and writers, plus a pair of retired, 70-year-old "professional extras." And, as diverse as we were, I quickly felt as if we had virtually nothing to discuss -- short of subUrbia's plot. The casting team gave us the Cliffs Notes version, answered the questions of those who probably find TV Guide descriptions a challenging read, and informed us we'd probably be there until six or so the next morning -- 12 hours later.
I spent much of my waiting time asking myself why I was there. Sure, I'd interviewed Linklater before, but in this town, who among us with a pen and paper hasn't? Could he have seen my picture himself and made me an extra as an act of charity? Or did he have no idea I was there? And if he didn't, then what would happen when he saw me? What if he spotted me, figured I looked as good beside a convenience store as I thought I did, and actually decided I would, indeed, be perfect for a featured cameo? Or what if he found me poking around and decided to throw the nosy writer off the set? Either way, I had plenty time to wait and see.
Rule #2: The lower the budget, the better the food ought to be. Good food keeps cast and crew happy, I've since been told. I decided free Coke, coffee, trail mix, Snickers, and fruit keep me happy also. But it only took two trips to the food truck before I'd grown unimpressed with pouring coffee alongside celebrity Parker Posey. "Party Girl" or just cream 'n' sugar hog, I wondered. There was one aspect of Posey's life, however, that required no speculation: her pregnancy status. "Guess who got her period, guess who got her period," she burst onto the set chanting later in the night with the proud poise of someone announcing they'd gotten a new dress or car. At first, I was relieved she wouldn't be carrying my baby, and then annoyed she'd made this grand set entrance only after nobody had given her attention for several minutes. I was both excited and disappointed by my first on-set brush with Hollywood egos. But I must admit there was a perverse thrill knowing something more about the film's celebrity figure than I knew about my fellow extras, whose conversations about film school, local stage plays, and fraternity mixers I could never seem to crack. The star of our group had even seen John Travolta rearrange his member, so to speak, on the set of Michael just a weeks back. I'd have to settle for knowing Posey's gynecological status. I had even less in common with the two elder statesmen; I discovered one was a retired evangelical preacher when he chastised the other for coveting aloud one of the extra cast's better-looking blondes. Making my choice between Christ and the coffee trailer, perhaps to share a drink with the aforementioned blonde, I chose the trailer. Again and again, six hours straight.
But nothing had happened yet, save one of the professional female extras making a wardrobe change. God forbid someone see the logo on her shirt as she speeds behind the set's action at 35mph in an Explorer. They knew she'd only be driving but played with her mind anyway. Was I due the same fate?
It was hurry up and wait, and I hurried up and drank coffee so I'd be in good shape for my role -- whenever it came. Six hours, 12 cups of coffee, three Cokes, and two bowls of Fruit Loops later, and I finally got the call. We'd be driving. They told us the use of our cars would earn us $12 extra. "Keep the $12," I told them, getting into the mood. "I want the fame."
Immediately, they rounded us up and provided us a driving coach. At first, I liked considering him my own "director." He outlined a square path we'd be following, with two starting points -- four to six cars per point. Our man told us Linklater would need to shoot the scene several times, so he told us to always be prepared to get back to our points at the end of a shot. This confused several of the extras, who'd apparently stayed home watching Citizen Kane the day they taught the "square" concept in school. I suppose this guy had dealt with dopey extras before, because he immediately unveiled a collection of walkie-talkies. If anyone had a question, we could radio it in. I thought about my first call. Would "When is my close-up?" be too presumptuous?
Before we left for our cars, he also explained that the Austin police would close off four blocks of the street when the film was rolling, and that Linklater's reverse angle shot would nicely capture controlled street traffic in the background. No dangerous Diehard-style moves? Then why the walkie-talkies? Had they used regular traffic, he said, people might slow down and stare. We were to look straight ahead and drive like there wasn't a movie being shot at all. But it finally sunk in: Nobody's going to see me driving. If I'm lucky, and I made the right part of the square at the right time, you'll actually see my Pontiac speed by. "You're background," they reminded us before we left, as if one of us were planning to drive through a storefront to steal the scene. Don't think I didn't consider it.
After an hour of driving four miles in a four-block square something below my belt began to hurt even more than my pride. I remembered my coffee, the six-hour wait, Liz's last-minute run to the bathroom, and how I'd been so caught up in impending stardom that I'd forgotten one of my own credos -- wisdom I used to impart regularly as a day-camp counselor -- "Piss now, or forever hold your piece." I turned on the radio to forget about it. A half-hour of waiting followed, during which I tried to concentrate harder on the Bruce Williams program to which I was listening. Williams is famous for finding answers to anybody's problems, but I was convinced he'd be dumbfounded by mine: How to relieve yourself when trapped with three cars in front of and behind you on a closed street, three blocks from the nearest bathroom? I surveyed the landscape with the urgency of a drunk in a Sixth Street alley, only to spot Austin's finest street-closers 40 feet behind me. Worst of all, while in our cars, conversing on the walkie-talkies and between drives, the extra cast had bonded. Now we really were like the Real World cast just after their Hawaiian getaway. Suddenly we cared about each other and talked between takes -- getting out of our cars and even sitting together in the Explorer. They could walk up at any time. I began to withdraw -- hoping this would end soon. All I knew was that "time is money" on a film set, and I wasn't about to hold things up going to the bathroom. Rule #3: When in doubt, get creative.
Leaving my car was out of the question. Holding up the shoot was not the way I wanted Linklater to discover I was on his set. But I thought, "Fuck the police, blondes, and driving coaches," as I attempted to find an inconspicuous angle from which I could avoid rear-view mirror stares and still hit my target. No doubt, this was to be subUrbia's best performance, although I was lucky everyone was missing it. We'd still be driving another hour, so my decision looked good -- before and after. My Pontiac was fame-bound and I was but the stage dad to a celebrity car -- the Kit Culkin of the automobile world. So in the midst of one of life's most intensely personal acts, I had somehow instantly become less selfish -- now worrying more about my car then myself. If only Rick could see me now, for my performance even came with its own dream sequence.
Me: Hello, I'm calling from Austin, Texas, about a piece of film memorabilia I'm considering parting with....
Planet Hollywood Memorabilia Buyer: What's the item?
Me: A Gray 1986 Pontiac 6000 featured in Richard Linklater's upcoming film, subUrbia.
PHMB: I don't believe we'd be interested at this time.
Me: But do you realize it's a Parker Posey vehicle?
PHMB: The car?
Me: No, the film, although I'm pretty sure she may have seen me drive it.
PHMB: I'm sorry, and appreciate your offer, but we're in the market for older and more relative pieces.
Me: Sir, I also appreciate your time but just allow me to finish. I believe my concept could help us both. I'd hate to step on your creative toes, and of course I couldn't hope to control what you do with it once you've purchased it, but I'm envisioning its possible use as a salad bar at the San Antonio location -- close enough to capitalize on a piece of Texas film history with diners that would understand its significance. All you'd have to do is saw off the roof....
PHMB: [Click, hang-up and dial tone.]
Planet Hollywood might not yet realize the value of my car, but I'm sure they'd appreciate my 32-ounce 7-Eleven Travel Mug. Sure, it might smell a bit, but it is the very mug that allowed a Linklater film to continue on schedule -- never breaking for an extra's bladder. As for Linklater himself, it wouldn't be until post-performance that we saw each other. Ironically, I was again coming out of the food truck -- only this time also headed to the proper bathroom.
"Hey, are you here writing?" he asked, finally confirming that he didn't know I was in his movie and, therefore, not responsible for overlooking my talent and burying me in a car scene. I told him I was actually an extra. "Then it's a good thing we tacked on that telephoto lens to capture your performance," he quipped before running off to deal with actors making more than my $65 fee. Little did he know that if he had, he'd have found in the editing room his movie's best piece of unscripted comedy. n