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[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]
In today’s rapidly changing world, the doctrinaires amongst us tend to suffer the most. Adaptability and flexibility generally trump the dogmatic approach.
With that in mind, whilst some of you may view yours truly as a contrarian and stubborn, I am willing to change my position on issues should the circumstances dictate or in light of irrefutable evidence that rubbishes opposing views.
Thus, while I may have sworn to myself a few years ago that I’d never go back to ordinary extras work, lack of a steady income in uncertain times saw me renege on that promise. The “healing” hand of time and the steady fading of bad memories also played their part.
I hadn’t done extras work for about four years so, in many ways, there was almost a novelty in the invitation to return. It’s also important to note that the last couple of times I was on set I actually had minor speaking roles, a whole different ball game to being a partially seen (but not heard) extra.
Nonetheless, the warning signs of what was to come were there before I even fully committed to the gig.
‘You have to be there at 5 am sharp.’
‘Really, 5 am sharp? Is that the actual time or is that Colombian time? I’m a punctual person, so if you say a time I shall arrive at that time. However, experience tells me that arriving at the appointed hour for such things results in nothing more than a lot of standing around waiting for the people who count to show up.’
‘No, no. We’re starting at 5 am. There’s a covid-19 antigen test to take and if you’re late, you won’t be allowed in.’
I took the agency girl at her word. The “novel” covid factor made me think that perhaps now things had to start that bit earlier. New normal and all that.
Yet off-setting this was the requirement to bring with me two outfit options. Previously, the wardrobe department tended to dress one accordingly, a slow enough process of course, especially when there is a good number of extras involved. This time, however, I was asked to bring an executive-style suit and something slightly less formal.
‘After hours of waiting and countless replies of ‘ahorita’ to questions of when we’ll next be needed — ‘ahorita’ being the Colombian word to mean anytime between now and never — we weren’t filmed again.’
I shrugged off my annoyance at having really no other viable option but to take a hated taxi to arrive on time — the location being at the other end of Bogotá to my residence, 20 km away — and agreed to make my grand return as an extra. The fairly reasonable pay also played its part in my decision.
In fairness, arriving on time, the agency coordinator was waiting at the entrance. After filling out countless forms, we — the other couple of punctual extras and I — went for our rapid covid test. Breakfast was then served. Things were proceeding rather smoothly.
Fed and watered, we were sent to the wardrobe department to check our attire. My European companion and I, both of us given the aforementioned formal dress instruction, were told we were overdressed. The scene we were going to be in was a working-class London neighbourhood, so we needed to look more informal. Basically, how I dress every day if only I’d been given the proper information the night before. I don’t like to drag across Bogotá the only three-piece suit I have for no good reason.
Once suitably attired, we returned to what the production team called ‘base camp’ — a partially covered parking lot serving as our eating and waiting quarters. Filming was taking place across the street, in a quaint, semi-enclosed pedestrianised area of the city centre.
The McDonald’s effect
The standard, tedious yo-yoing then commenced.
‘Come on guys, quickly, you’re needed on set … Stand there … No, actually sit over there … Walk over here … Stop there … Wait a minute … OK, go back to base camp.’
At 11 am, my companion and I were actually used in a scene, wandering down a “London” street as a Swat team pulls up and rushes past us. After four or five takes, we were told that was it. Lunch was then served.
I asked those who had the appearance of authority if we would be used again and I was told we would. The thing is, there are many on set who like to think they have some sort of power but, in reality, they’re mere minions. They tell you one thing with force only for this to be overruled by a superior moments later. In their defence, it often seems that even those truly calling the shots are playing it by ear.
‘The experience becomes at best a somniferous sojourn, at worst an ire-inducing inferno.’
In any case, after hours of waiting and countless replies of ‘ahorita’ to questions of when we’ll next be needed — ‘ahorita’ being the Colombian word to mean anytime between now and never — we weren’t filmed again.
It was 8 pm when they finally told us we were done, nine hours after our one-and-only scene.
No doubt some will ask what’s the fuss about? Isn’t getting paid, fed and watered for practically doing nothing great? In theory, yes.
Yet, for me anyway, it’s the sense of not being in control of your immediate time and surroundings. One is completely at the mercy of others with no indication of what you might be doing and when you may be asked to do it. There’s also the vapidity of it all.
The whole atmosphere creates a sort of toxic tiredness. Any initial enthusiasm quickly ebbs away. The experience becomes at best a somniferous sojourn, at worst an ire-inducing inferno. A day on set isn’t complete without at least one extra lashing out at a coordinator, not just verbally but even physically at times.
The number of extras involved plays an important role in these tumults. Fewer bodies about generally reduce the propensity to lash out. The production team is more likely to treat the hired help as human beings when there aren’t many of them hanging around.
Nonetheless, anyone who does extras work with regularity either has low self-esteem or is in desperate need of the cash. I’m certainly not in the former category but sort of in the latter. Put it this way, I could tolerate it once or twice a week right now.
As a frustrated friend reflected, it’s like eating at McDonald’s. You get lured into returning, thinking the experience will be more fulfilling this time. Not even halfway through, though, you’re disillusioned, even angry with yourself for having fallen for the tripe yet again.
That’s it. Never again. Until the next time that is.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.