by Nicole Skeltys
My life as an extra on an action movie ( so far)
Although I haven’t actually met Nick Nolte yet, or for that matter even clapped eyes on him, I now feel closer to Nick than any other Hollywood actor I’ve never met. And thats all of them.
I’m working as an extra on Nick’s latest movie Warrior. This is apparently Nick Nolte’s third movie in Pittsburgh, after Lorenzo’s Oil and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.
I don’t think the latter flick ever made it to Australian cinemas, or maybe it did and I just didn’t have the insight two years ago to realize my destiny was one day going to be profoundly bound up with this wonderful town. And thus I may have passed it over in favor of spending another $7.00 on hiring out another tranche of Classic Albums DVDs from the local VideoEzy. This series, which was popular in Australia and the UK, documents the making of no less than 32 “classic” albums from Elvis Presley’s Elvis Presley (1956) through to Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). The episodes I have seen in this series have always swept me away, jellyfish-like, into a sea of yearning to produce such an historic artifact myself – a feat I did indeed try to pull off with my Melbourne psychedelic country band Dust’s last album Songs (2007). Recorded on no budget in my backyard shed, using scratched up old Neil Young vinyl as audio engineering reference material, the album features great dollops of hopeless nostalgic aspiration wedged into every note. But the sad fact is, the conditions of production – both economic (ie the pop music industry) and cultural (the way people think about and relate to music) – have changed so much since any of the “classic albums” were produced, that the day of the popularly acclaimed ‘”classic album” is long gone. I’d put Radiohead’s landmark Kid A (2000) as the last one to reach out to a respectable sized audience, but really great, passionate, innovative music is simply not allowed out of its niche markets anymore, internet or otherwise, to penetrate the consciousness of the average Jo(eline).
But I digress.
Nolte plays an ex-Vietnam vet. retired mill worker and recovering alcoholic named Paddy, who raised his boys – Tommy (Tom Hardy) and Brendan (Joel Edgerton) as competitive wrestlers. To cut a not very long story even shorter, due to twists of fate and fortune, both sons end up having to fight each other for high stakes ($5m): at Sparta, a 16-man, single-elimination Mixed Marshall Arts (MMA) tournament set in Atlantic City but being staged at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh with real fighters as well as stunt doubles.
The cast also includes Jennifer Morrison (“Star Trek,” “House”) as Tess, and local pro wrestler Kurt Angle as a Russian named Koba.
I’m a full-time member of ‘Sparta Core’, which is the 190 strong bunch of extras who turn up to fill up the seats around the ringside each day. I was not chosen to be a ‘specialty’ extra, which means posing as a security guard, or photographer, or journalist, or paramedic, or part of a fighter posse. I missed out on being special in large part because the only special roles for women at an event like Sparta are as ring-girls (a position apparently nabbed by a Pitt-Greensburg junior who auditioned in a bright orange bikini) and “hot babes” who get to wear the slinkiest of frocks in the front rows and shiver uncontrollably for hours in the stadium air-conditioning.
My role is the humblest of all, that of ‘general fan’, and my job is simply to sit with other general fans, scream my head off, clap wildly and jump up and down at intervals indicated by one of the many production assistants (PAs) through their megaphones. I am required to perform thus for a minimum of 12 hours each day, 6 days a week. After a week on the job, its become clear that the average working day is in fact 15 hours, and that doesn’t include the getting up (often as early as 5.00am) getting there and getting back, which adds another couple of hours.
By the end of the first week, I had figured out that the most useful attributes for an extra were as follows:
- no central nervous system
- a gold fish-like brain (ie finding the same actions interesting, no matter how often repeated)
- no skeletal structure
- lots of friends with nothing better to do than be an extra too
- a goat-like digestive system (ie can successfully ingest and excrete trash at any hour)
I lacked all of the above. For the first week, I sat for hours on end, watching the same fight scenes set up and re-shot repeatedly, my eyelids constantly dragged shut by the gravity produced by pre-dawn awakenings. Unlike many of my fellow general fans (about a third of whom seemed to be U of Pitt students on summer break), I had no buddies to insult or share drinking stories with. I found myself on more than one occasion placed next to a genuine wannabe champion boxer, one of whom explained to me that he was prepared to suffer brain damage and slurred speech as long as “the money made it worthwhile”.
Like the frail elderly confined to nursing homes, the only bodily pleasure I had to look forward to each day was food break ( ‘breakfast’ at 7.00, ‘lunch’ at 3.00, dinner non-existent). But what was on offer was largely junk food, and by day three the periodic dietary assault of snack bars, white bread sandwiches, chips, cookies and popcorn produced an immense gridlock in my innards which by late afternoon left me prone on the backrows of the stadium seating, like a beached pufferfish. This would occasionally attract the disapproval of the production assistants (PAs) who would eventually notice me and urge me to get up, get jiggy with it, and show my enthusiasm for the champs on set.
I must note for the record though, that the whole vibe of the shoot is very friendly and the PAs are doing an incredible job. They are at the shoot before the extras turn up and they are there after we leave, thus providing them with probably no more than four hours sleep a night. How they manage to keep concentrating and being polite I don’t know, I would be as friendly as a wounded bull if I was them.
There are upsides to this job though. In less than a week, in the waiting around that comprises most of an extra’s day, I have mowed my way through the following books:
- a fat biography of Einstein by Walter Isaacson (lovely, recommended)
- a history of Pennsylvanian music written in the ’30s (dull)
- a history of bluegrass music in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania (the bits about the banjo were good)
- The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy – converted to a movie, some of which was shot in Pittsburgh, due for release in October (depressing)
- Panic – edited by Michael Lewis, a collection of essays about the last 20 years of periodic hysteria in financial markets, starting with Black October (1987) and ending with the sub-prime mortgage global wipe-out. If you ever suspected Wall St and dependent financial markets to be no more rational or socially useful than teens on crack then this book will make you feel vindicated. No less for the fact that most of its contributors are either trader insiders, internationally respected economics policy advisors, or long-standing financial rag/ NY times journalists. Not just highly recommended, I’d say put this book in the ‘compulsory reading if you want to know what the *** is going on with your economy and lets face it, your own future livelihood’ category.
I took today off to arm-wrestle with the Department of Social Security (6 months since I first applied, but still no sign of that magic SS number so I can actually get paid), to work with Tanya and Scott finishing off our drafts of the Grandview Scenic Byway Park’s promotional films (due for screening at all the outdoor cinemas in Pittsburgh’s parks throughout summer), and to cook up three days worth of fresh vegetable based dishes to take with me to the Warrior shoot. I have realised that by simply bringing my own food and avoiding everything on offer except apples and peanuts, my quality of life on this movie shoot is greatly improved. I am even starting to get used to it and even enjoy it – a meditative-like state of zonked can be achieved for days on end without having to pay expensive retreat fees to stay at a Western version of a Tibetan gompa.
And my latest book to read, in amongst all the testosterone charged grunts, thumps and whumps and constant exhortations to reverential cheering? Sheila Rowbothom’s A Century of Women: A History of Women in Britain and the United States. Somehow, I don’t see this tome being made into an action -packed genre movie anytime soon:-)