Way Out of Sight
by Dwight Cendrowski
Dwight spent a day as a movie extra playing a photographer (what else?) This is the story of his experiences that day.
So, one day I'm watching yet another Hollywood movie with so-called photographers dancing around with their toy cameras and phoney-baloney technique, and bemoaning the fact that movie photographers never, ever look like the real thing. The next thing I know, Bam...I'm acting in a big time Hollywood movie, pledging to myself to bring authenticity to a film photographer for perhaps the first time in movie history. Perhaps you cannot, technically call it acting, since I don't actually speak. And in fact I'm way, way back with a big crowd about 50 ft from the nearest movie camera. But I'm getting too far ahead. Let's flash back to the beginning.
I'm a pretty regular guy. Living outside Detroit, photographing for a wide variety of corporate and editorial clients. Doing my best to be a decent father and husband. Flossing daily. And dreaming of being a star? Nah. I'd done a little stand-up comedy a long time ago with my brother and my accordion. (The accordion was the one with the personality). But the show biz is certainly not my idea of a wonderful, fulfilling life. Plus the fact that I live approximately 2270 miles from L.A. So when I saw a blurb in the local paper about a film being shot in Detroit, I wrote the talent agency, not asking for a role, but to keep me in mind should they need any publicity shots.
Sonya from the local agency The Talent Shop called the next week and said she didn't need photos, but she did need several people to play photographers at a crime scene. The Universal movie was called Out of Sight, she explained. It's based on yet another Elmore Leonard novel (Hollywood is loving Elmore, making movies out of his novels right and left, including Get Shorty and most recently, Jackie Brown), and is starring Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney, Albert Brooks and Danny Devito. Devito is producing it, and he wants to get some authentic Detroit locations, so they'll be here a week or two in December. Was I interested? Well...sure! Besides being a bit of a ham as I suspect everyone is, I am curious about the filmmaking process. How they light, how the cinematographer works, how the director works with actors. To be able to see that up close seemed like a great opportunity.
Sonya said she'd just pass along to the talent coordinator the promo piece with my picture that I'd sent her, and she'd let me know. Yep, don't call us, we'll call you.
Cut to calendar pages flipping in the wind. Actually it was only about 3 weeks. I'd already forgotten about stardom when Sonya called and said the crime scene was scheduled for next Tuesday ."Just bring your camera, wear what you'd normally wear to photograph a crime scene, and dress warm." (I'll come back to this very important point shortly). The pay was $50 for 8 hours. I would be an extra, or as I'd hear over and over...'background.'
Flash forward to an early December Tuesday in Detroit. Temperature hovering around 40 with a little hint of sunshine. I'm standing with a small cluster of extras at 1:30 p.m. at an apartment parking lot near downtown Detroit. Across the street is the Shiloh Baptist Church. And there's not a film truck in sight. I'm ready. I've got some extra pants in case I clash with another photographer, and I've got Canon EOS bodies, one loaded with B&W, one with color. If I"m going to be photographing a crime scene, I'm going to really photograph it. ( More on this point later).
A young man in jeans and wearing a telephone headset like Madonna on MTV tells us all that the production people are still at lunch, and they'll be here soon. We can all head down to the church basement to wait. (Much, much on this important word later).
Eyeing my fellow actors I see at least 10 well proportioned Detroit police officers, several guys from the coroners office, and local news anchor. And there's a bunch of regular folks, mostly young, black and white. Another production assistant (hereafter known in film lingo as the PA), would like all the gawkers to form a line to pick up their employment slips. "Everyone who is a gawker please come over to this table. There are two forms to fill out." Each little category of extras then gets a call...the police, then the news reporters, then print photographers. A woman PA announces loudly to fill them in completely, note the arrival time, and under no circumstances are you to leave at the end of the day until your form is signed. "
If you leave without having the form validated, you will not be paid." Boy, they've got us.
I meet one of my fellow photographers, Jerry, a middle aged guy like me who I find works mostly for ad agencies, but business for him has been really spotty, and he's getting alternately scared and fed up, taking jobs at 30% off his regular day rate. I say I'm doing pretty well but it's not a very upbeat conversation. It seems Jerry had gone into The Talent Shop where he'd hired models in the past, and jokingly called out "Make me a star." They said "sign here", and here he was.
2:30 Still waiting. I glance over at the beautiful news anchor who's undoubtedly making $1 million dollars a year and never wears the same suit twice, and she's sitting patiently like all the gawkers. Ah, the lure of the movies is strong indeed. Another PA brings in a small cardboard platter of sandwiches and points out the bathrooms. The film crew wasn't here yet, but he assured us that it wouldn't be long.
3:00. An assistant director calls for all print photographers to follow him outside. Jerry and I join Bruce and Theresa, our fellow photographers. The AD looks us up and down and says the 3 men all look fine, but calls for Theresa to follow him to wardrobe. So we dutifully head toward the Church basement. Just then a blond, breathless woman runs up to introduce herself. She's Emily, the casting director for the movie, and she is very, very grateful to have us here. It seems she had been pushing to use real photographers in various movies, and she's tickled to see us here. "Five years ago Danny DeVito filmed another movie in Detroit called Hoffa", she explained. They had paid $100,000 for period cameras and gave them to extras to hold. It had snowed and rained that night, and none of the extras thought to protect the cameras and she ended up with $30,000 in damages. I'm not sure if she's more glad to see us because we have our own cameras, or that we'd lend authenticity to the movie. I tell her I've yet to see an authentic looking photographer in a movie, and that I'm hoping to be the first. And don't worry about damage... I would absolutely protect MY cameras.
As we head downstairs, three long semi trailers finally arrive and begin unloading.
3:15 Still waiting. The PAs have multiplied. They're all young and all have headsets. You can see them having private conversations, shaking their heads and scurrying off. Each group in turn heads to wardrobe. Three teens in their requisite baggy jeans tell me they went down to a Detroit hotel for an initial talent call where 2000 people showed up. These three would be teen gawkers. They head to wardrobe and I see them later dressed the same but with knit hats.
4:00 Still waiting. I introduce myself to the news anchor and explain I'd photographed her a couple years earlier. "Will you be doing a story on the news tonight?" I ask. "No." She explains that only one affiliate in Detroit has been allowed to do interviews and tape, and her station did not get that right. Shortly after talking to her I overhear a PA say a cameraman from her station is taping on the set, and the publicist is REALLY mad.
I climb the stairs and watch the lights going up now as dozens of electricians and grips haul lights and miles of cable around the parking lot. The scene will take place in the parking lot outside the back door of the apartment. A tattered, bloody curtain drops out a second story window, and a bent screen is on the ground with broken glass. "This is where the body fell", I hear a gawker explain. I notice two 15 x 15 diffusion panels going up before I head down to the basement.
4:00 A PA tells us to go to the bathroom and be back in ten minutes to move to the sight.
4:20 Still waiting. Theresa is back and wearing a very, very nice long tan coat from wardrobe. It has a yellow tag pinned inside the sleeve. It makes her look like a serious society photographer next to three grungy papparazzi. We just shrug our shoulders.
4:25. A PA calls the print photographers together and tells us there's no film allowed in our cameras. They have an official movie photographer, but no other photos are allowed. We all dutifully unload our cameras.
I meet the movie publicist named Spooky Stevens. (Yes it is her name. It's on her business card). I try a little cajoling.
"Could I just take a few shots of the grips setting up?"
"No, not if it's for publication."
" How about for personal use."
We're going to be going filmless. I take one notch off the authenticity scale.
5:00 The 1st AD introduces himself and the 2nd AD to the extras. The 1st is young with long hair, hip and funny. You can tell he's dealt with extras like us before, and he's got the patter down pat. "You're wondering what we're filming. It's a mayonnaise commercial." [Big laugh] "No, the film is based on an Elmore Leonard crime novel. George Clooney is a bank robber but he's kind of a good guy, and Jennifer Lopez is a U.S. Marshall from Miami tracking him."
It seems Ms. Lopez will be investigating a crime scene tonight, but Mr. Clooney is not in the scene and is nowhere in sight. (Out of Sight?) I'll have to put off my firsthand appraisal of his big-screen acting ability for another day. The AD goes on to explain that we'll be placed in a position in the scene and we should stay there. "Do not move," he cautions. "We're actually babysitters," says the 2nd [Medium laugh]. After advising us to go to the bathroom yet again, the 2nd AD says, "Remember, if anything goes wrong, it's your fault." [Medium to meager laugh]
5:30 Still waiting. Now I've had to keep executives and other folks waiting while I fiddled with lights before a shoot, but I start to feel uncomfortable and become apologetic after a pretty short time. But this, this is major league waiting.
5:35 Go to bathroom.
5:37 Finally, all the gawkers are rounded up and follow a PA outside to their gawking positions. Still no call for photographers, so I stand at the door and view the controlled chaos. It's dark, and 32 degrees worth of cold. A 20 ft dolly track is laid on a diagonal in the parking lot, running up to an unmarked police car. Several police cars are scattered in the lot, lights flashing.
Light on the lot is supplied by two Mole-Richardsons through each of two diffusers and on two cranes are the most stupendous back lights I've ever seen. Stationed 50 feet high, they outline the top of the apartment building and part of the parking lot. Grips and electricians are scurrying everywhere, most wearing heavy boots, gloves and those big hats with ear flaps.
6:00 Still waiting and dry as a bone. With so much time to think, my mind runs to wondering. Is this movie one I'm going to want to see? In general I see far too many talented production people in Hollywood doing great creative work in the service of poor movies. Violent, coarse, often grisly and poorly written. Out of Sight will surely have a well-written script with high production values. Elmore Leonard novels have been done well as movies in the past. Even done well though it's not really my cup of tea. It will probably be tough, vulgar and fierce. I'm guessing there will be moments when I'll have to turn my head from the more savage scenes. VioIence photographed well or with a comic edge doesn't make it more uplifting or less troubling. I can see firsthand how the lure of the `show business' can make you gloss over nagging questions over your support of the product. It can just be too much fun.
6:10 It's show time! We head outside and wait while the 2nd AD puzzles out where we should be. I'm pointed to a spot on a berm behind yellow police tape along with Theresa. I've got my two Canons with dedicated flash and fully charged Quantum battery, ready to go at low power. I'm ready to flash all night long. The AD explains that the body, covered and lying on a gurney, will be rolled past us, then Jennifer Lopez will walk past and into the building. "Just go ahead and shoot like you normally would."
Another photographer is positioned next to Theresa and I. He's not one of the original four, but rather someone who just showed up. Theresa points out the political correctness of our group...one white, one black, one Latina. We're a flashing affirmative action ad.
Now the gaffer, the cinematographer's right hand man, is measuring distances from the camera to the door of the apartment, then from the camera to the car, and the camera to two actors playing plainclothes policemen. They'll need these distances to swiftly adjust the focus as the actors move. Apparently the police cars aren't providing enough lighting, so two portable blue and red flashers are stationed just off camera, throwing intermittent colors onto the police. Behind each car in the lot is a light aimed up onto a reflector, tossing some light into the cars. The cinematographer and gaffer move about, taking light readings from each spot in the scene.
Finally the AD calls for quiet. It's time to rehearse. "Quiet. Roll sound."
"Roll sound" echoes back from the sound man
"Background action." That's our cue. The extras go into action. I'm crouching, firing off shots of the body, then left to a policeman, then back at the building. From the left of a tree strides Jennifer Lopez, looking like every typical police detective...drop- dead beautiful with body hugging trenchcoat and high heeled boots. She walks within three feet of me and naturally I take her fake picture. She strides up and into the building. "Cut." We relax. Jennifer comes back out and heads over to her retinue off-camera. She has a large propane heater, two director's chairs, her stylist, and several people who seem to be there just to keep her company.
The cinematographer confers with Steve Soderbergh, the director. Best known as the director of Sex, Lies and Videotape, he's made a string of low budget films since, including one called Schizopolis, an experimental, goofy film in which he also acted. He looks every bit like a man headed for first place in the Woody Allen double contest. He's very slight of build, even with the heavy black coat, with a hawkish nose and dark rimmed glasses. There's only one word that comes to mind. Nerd. He looks exactly like everyone's vision of the high school debate team captain and calculus whiz. And he's wearing a black cap with those floppy ear flaps. He huddles with the cinematographer while we shuffle and wait.
"OK. Let's go again. Quiet. Roll sound. Background action." We flash. Jennifer walks.
"Cut" It's 6:45 and they've now gotten two takes. Then another. I'm into a rhythm. Two flashes at the door, one at the body, several left, wait, scan the scene. I'm throwing in some creative touches, shifting from horizontal to vertical, and feeling pleased that I'm now acting. Still, a little voice keeps saying, "Come on Dwight, get real. Is this how a photographer would cover this?
I distract myself by looking around. Not 10 feet from me is the $1 million anchor, doing her own acting bit with the station's cameraman. I wonder what real crime scene I might not see on the news tonight. I feel a bit smug, thinking, "Not only is she probably making the same money I am, but that she's no closer to the action than I am."
After another two takes, the AD announces they'll be setting up for the next shot, and we can all go downstairs to wait. It's 7:30. We all file downstairs to warm our fingers and toes.
7:45 Drink coffee.
8:00 Go to the bathroom.
8:30 Back outside to film scene two. New lighting has been moved closer to a patrol car for a scene between Jennifer Lopez and another detective. A portly AD moves down the line of extras handing out little toe warmers that the gawkers snatch up. I guess I just didn't think temperature in the 30s was all that cold. Wrong. When you're standing still for long periods of time, the cold sinks deep into every pore. Those goofy hats with the ear flaps are starting to look very good.
The gawkers are still putting the warmers in their boots as the AD calls for quiet. More tape measuring, more light tweaking, then action. We rehearse the scene. The AD has told me to wait a bit, fire off a couple shots, then do a shot maybe every 10 seconds. And what am I photographing I ask. "It doesn't matter. Just don't shoot at the camera."
The gaffer lays the camera on the cinematographer's shoulder. He's seated on the dolly and, wedged down in his seat, hand holding all these tracking shots. Alongside the film camera is a video camera that records the scene that's reviewed by the director & cinematographer before the next take Sodenbergh works with Jennifer Lopez and the other detective, but telling them what? I can't tell. It's too far to hear over the noise of the gawkers.
We know the routine now, and we're in a rhythm. "Quiet. Roll sound. Background action. Cut!"
I notice the $1 million anchor is leaving between shots. She's running back to her station's warm van and running back on her cameraman's signal.
Now the AD strolls by and asks if we're flashing. It seems the cinematographer wasn't picking anything up. Hmmmm. Theresa did tell me a while back she didn't think she was flashing too often. Her double As were going. Maybe if was just her. Or could it be I needed to be flashing at closer to full power?
I begin to puzzle this out only much later, realizing that shooting at a lower power and at angles away from the film camera would make the light at the flashhead harder to pick up. You'd need to be popping at full power to wash the subjects in a light the camera could see. But I was afraid of too strong a flash, and of running down my battery, and so kept the power low. I never thought to ask about it at the time, and no one gave me any instructions. I do recall the casting director telling me early in the afternoon that camera flashes were too fast for the film to record, and that in the past she's had to pop old-fashioned flash bulbs off camera to achieve a flash effect. Could that be true? Perhaps they'll have to add the flashes digitally, or else see a bunch of photojournalists shooting at night by available light. Maybe we were shooting at 6400.
I come to realize that though I'm a professional photographer, I need direction and guidance to actually appear as one on film.
8:45. The AD is back behind us now, looking for a source of a noise the sound man is worried about. He points to the TV van, and the cameraman runs over to shut it off. We do our sixth and last take.
9:00 Back into the basement. A few boxes of chicken are laid on the table and quickly snatched up. I grab one piece for dinner. We joke about Jennifer having dinner in her warm trailer. Now's there's more grumbling. It seems that since we're all in the movies more of us feel entitled to gripe about the poor working conditions. Ah, the glamor is rapidly wearing off. I think about a recent movement by many movie company employees to limit the workday hours. In a catalyzing moment, a young production crew member had been killed when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car after a 16 hour day. Many employees feel trapped between wanting to safeguard their health, while not wanting to antagonize the production companies. I can sleep a little in the morning. Most of the people I see doing the heavy lifting will be up and at it again early.
Four big gawkers are playing euchre, laughing loudly. Bruce, one of the photographers, sits with his feet up. He's been downstairs for a while. "They put me in a spot out of camera view, and I said the hell with it and came back inside." He frowns. The glamor is long gone. We hear they're setting up for a final shot. Three grips set up spotlights, aimed at three stained glass windows. They blacken the door.
10:00 Still waiting
10:15 A PA collects our forms, calling out each of our names in turn.
10:30 Back outside, and I'm placed with a group of gawkers near the Church wall. The camera is at the end of the apartment hallway aimed out the open door. We're a mile away, and it doesn't look like we'll be visible in the shot. But heck, we're pros, so we keep flashing.
11:00 It looks like it might be over. Maybe. Back downstairs fingers feel rigid now. Lots of muttered questions about when we'll be through. Then at 11:15 we're told to line up. A to J at the first table, K to Z at the second. "Please do not leave before signing out or you will not be paid."
I move forward slowly till I'm at the table. "Print photographer...OK. $100 for 8 hours. Here's your receipt."
Whoa, it's twice what I expected. Yet somehow I don't get overly excited.
" Oh, and we could use some print photographers tomorrow for a boxing scene. 9:30 a.m. Can you make it?"
"I don't think so," I say.
And then it's over. Grips are lugging cables and lights back to the trucks as I trudge to my van. I'm feeling half amused and half saddened. Here I am an honest to goodness real photographer, playing one in the movie, and I'll probably look as counterfeit as all the other film photographers I've ever seen. It seems to me the movies want realism, but not too real. And if that realism bumps up against a production schedule, or a need to fill a hole in the composition, or not having the right kind of extra on hand, or a wish for pizzaz in the shot, well, we'll just have to bend a little.
So keep your eyes peeled during the crime scene. Look for the guy in the brown hat and slightly running nose. And if all you can think is, "Geez, those guys don't look like real photographers," keep it to yourself. I don't read reviews.
© Dwight Cendrowski