by Nicole Skeltys
Week two on the set of the Warrior movie
Last week, I brought down to the set of the Warrior movie a nice fat book called “Pennsylvania Spirituals” by Don Yoder (1961). I was working on Warrior as a full-time extra, my main duties consisting of cheering wildly as part of a large pretend audience to an MMA tournament set in Atlantic City.
My full-time status could have been more accurately described as a “total life elimination” status – an average of 15 hour days, 6 days a week on set – barely enough time left over to get home and get some sleep before the pre-dawn alarm shrieked my brain into consciousness again. This was followed minutes later by a run down Butler St to catch the extras’ shuttle which hurtled from the Strip district to the Petersen Events Center, a half hour wait in line to be issued with my payroll slip, then collapsing in the corner of the ‘dressing room’ (a bit of floor draped with curtains) waiting to be called down to the ring-side for the day’s screaming duties. Most of an extra’s time consists of just sitting/lying around, waiting for shots to be re-set, so I had ample opportunity to read five books last week, which I counted as a perk of an otherwise totally perkless job.
In between the “spritzing” of fighters (spraying them with water to simulate sweat), fake tattoo touch-ups and lots of rehearsals (to get, for example, the exact right velocity of a mouth guard being spat from the mouth in response to a fist being smashed into said orifice), myself and many other extras quietly read our books.
I started week two with Yoder’s book, which began by suggesting Pennsylvania has a much more interesting influence on Americana music history than I suspect even most Americans would realise. Yoder explores his idea that “the Negro Spiritual and the Pennsylvania Spiritual..are twin sisters, developing side by side at first and then only later maturing into distinctive types”. Yoder is eager to build on on earlier ethnomusicological research which shows the transfer of the 18th century British evangelical song from New England to the “Southern Uplands” – Kentucky, Tennessee, Western Virginia and then to the “Negro, who made the spiritual, once borrowed, into something expressive of his own soul”. He wants to stake out Pennsylvania as having a central place in the early development of this uniquely American and vastly influential musical form.
Yoder digs with relish through early 1800s accounts of Pennsylvania “camp- meeting” evangelical Methodist services which were attended by dirt poor white rural folk and “Negroes” – who were “free” unlike their Southern cousins. Being free didn’t mean you weren’t segregated from the whites by partitions or required to sit in designated areas behind the preacher man. But it did mean that you could drown the whites out with ecstatic shouts and chorusing over the service, and keep up the “tide of enthusiasm” after the service had ended, long into the night after the whites had crawled back into their tents and were trying to sleep.
The early American spiritual completely shocked British and European visitors, with its gushing emotionalism, crude folk-song repetitions, spontaneous made-up bits of verse, shouting, convulsions and general “hysteria”. A British visitor to the Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1817 noted that both the “African” and white parishioners suffered from the same “extreme degree of fanatical violence in their religious exercises”. Despite the rich musical tradition generated by their black and white (Pennsylvania Dutch) “religious folk-song” singing ancestors, official historians from the United Brethren, Evangelical and Church of God had (at least up to the 1960s) completely ignored its legacy. Largely because all those violations of established hymn structures, and ignorance of nicely arranged middle-class organ music (largely the preserve of urban churches), meant the spiritual was identified as the religious outpouring of the poorest of the poor, the illiterate, the barely shod. And it was damned by association.
Its no wonder then that America was the birthplace of that dirty irreverent shaking to music and spirit called rock and roll, and soul.
And how American that the rock and roll spirit (and the entertainment industry that latched onto it) would eventually reverse church history. The spiritual legacy in America has secured the quivering, fire-breathing, shouting and singing teleevangelist his mass appeal, and handed to his corporate religious empire the keys to the New Jerusalem. His rival churches, following more conservative forms of worship, watch as their parishioners (and economic base) slowly die off and are not replaced.
I was really warming to Yoder’s history last Wednesday morning and flicking away the yellowed Carnegie library book pages with some enthusiasm when The Devil (in the form of one of the senior production assistants) marched around the ringside and shouted at everyone that all our books were now confiscated – we had to take all our reading material and put it away from set, in our ‘dressing rooms’ or wherever. Why? Someone said they thought that when viewing one of the rushes yesterday, the director noticed that one of the extras – instead of jumping up and down wildly and passionately imploring Tommy to beat the *** out of his opponent- was still sitting, head buried in a tome.
Whatever the reason, little did they know how this removal of our only perk would encourage many of us to openly rebel, only days later.
The Black Friday Showdown
Books I would have read by now and could write about had they not been confiscated:
. Sheila Rowbothom’s “A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States”
.”Coal Dust on the Fiddle: Songs and Stories of the Bituminous Industry in Pennsylvania” by George Korson
.”The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality” by Brian Greene
But instead, for the rest of Wednesday and all Thursday, myself and all the other extras sat through 14-15 hours worth of boxing takes with nothing to distract us except our cell phones (on silent) and each other. There was even a rumor going around that none of us were allowed to stretch out on the stadium seats anymore for the occasional back-pain relief, as this potentially delayed getting people in position for new audience hysteria scenes. A lot of us, deeply fatigued already although it was only week two of a four week shoot, slumped submissively in our seats and blinked blankly up into the bright stadium lights for hours on end, like cows in a holding pen.
My new buddy Dan, a 50 year old long-haired heavy metal fan, who dropped me home of an evening in his crimson Chevy touring van (complete with stuffed devil doll passengers and a silver skull-head gear stick), showed a spectacular deterioration in motivation over this two week period, ending in the Black Friday Showdown.
On the first day of shooting, Dan was sitting a few seats from me and was taking every opportunity to jump up and run to the ringside and punch his arms in the air, for hours on end. In between takes, he would chat to me and any other woman who would talk to him. He told me repeatedly how much fun he was having.
By day three, he was not jumping up to the front quite as much. But he was still “having fun”. By day six, he was not jumping up at all.
The following week, Dan was given a couple of days off by one of the PAs. But by Thursday, he was no longer even concerned about sitting in his usual seat, or wearing the Tap-Out sweatshirt handed out by the costume department. With nothing to do now for hours on end, he took to just finding corners of the stadium and just sitting there, no sign of air punching anymore.
On Friday, part-time extras poured in excitedly to make up extra bulk for wide-shot crowd scenes. Our numbers swelled to 700-800. Glamor-struck part-timers fussed with make-up, giggled with girlfriends and gingerly stepped in stilettos all over the half-sleeping full-timers who were, as usual, passed out all over the floor of the ‘dressing room’.
Black Friday commenced at 6.30 am.
By 6.30 pm there was still no sign of a wrap. Agitated murmurings began, particularly from the part-timers who had expected their workingday to end after 12 hours. Not a chance.
By 9.30pm, the groaning and complaining in the room was widespread and audible. All the extras had had enough. Some of us craving dinner and a decent sleep tried to escape up the stadium stairs to the exit signs, but we were trapped. Most of us relied on the shuttle to take us back to the Strip district car-park – the PAs glared at us and told us to “get back in there”, the shoot was “nowhere near done”, the shuttles weren’t going anywhere. We retreated back in. A lot of the part-timers were in a state of shock – some of them just ran away, others staggered back in incredulously.
It was almost 11.00pm, and everyone was still in their seats, exhorted to cheer for Tommy, as usual. This was the final straw for Dan. He slouched deeper into his seat, with no intention to punch the air, clap or show any fake excitement whatsoever. One of the PAs noticed him and the following exchange ensued:
PA: Hey, you have to move over here with the rest of the crowd.
Dan: I’m not going anywhere.
PA: You have to do what I say.
Dan: I don’t take any f** orders from anyone
PA: Man, you are SACKED.
Dan: You can’t sack me COS I ALREADY QUIT!!!
Dan then stormed out of the stadium; but kindly waited for me on the steps of the Petersen Center, to give me a final lift home after the shuttle dropped us off in the Strip district somewhere close to midnight. We cruised home to the overwrought metal strains of Ronnie James Dio reminding men that women always let them down. As I staggered up the back steps to the apartment, my body implored me not to go in the next day (please oh please) or indeed any of the days after that.
Mid-morning Saturday found me horizontal in my bed and not on the floor of the ‘dressing room’. Although I knew I was letting Nick down, I just couldn’t be a full-time extra on his film anymore, I just didn’t have the true grit needed to make the grade. I too could not be sacked because I had quit.