Updated: Feb 3, 2020
I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be an extra in a film. Extras, or supporting/background artistes to use the technical term, are essentially human props or moving background. They can add context, mood or scale and are often the film ’audience’ for the story.
I got to find out what it was like first hand last Friday. I’d volunteered as an extra for a charity drama being produced by Chris Jones, Filmmaker and Creative Director of The London Screenwriters' Festival. It’s a magical, family, Xmas film for a good cause; the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. I hadn’t been on a set since finishing my film making course at MET Film School last year and couldn’t wait to get back.
As is so often the case, filming didn’t go to schedule and we didn’t get to the scene where extras were needed. Even in the stress of a shoot that’s overrun, Chris still remembered about us. He didn’t want us to feel we’d wasted the day, so he invited us to join him on set.
I felt the magic of the set as I watched the make up artists getting actors ready for their roles. I felt it looking around at how props and careful set design had transformed a modern medical training ward into a 1940's children’s ward. I felt it as I watched actors, director, camera, lighting, sound, continuity, wardrobe and set design all working together to bring the story of a reluctant Father Christmas to life. I will never tire of seeing the magic of this collaboration. In all the chaos of a successful shoot, everyone somehow manages to pull together around the story.
Although delighted to be back on set, I couldn’t help feeling out of place. It was a strange feeling, being there with nothing to do. I didn’t like it at all. Not that I didn’t enjoy watching the actors and crew at work, I obviously did. I just hated not being a part of it. Standing there like a spare part, feeling conscious of being in the way. I felt like an imposter, someone who had no place on the set. It wasn’t that the crew and cast weren’t welcoming. They were brilliant and made us feel very much at home. That ‘no place on the set’ came only from me. I’d learned that I wanted to keep being part of the magic.
On Tuesday I rejoined the cast and crew for the fourth and final day of filming. This time I was needed in two scenes. In the first I was a guest at a very special Christmas party. A party to celebrate the once reluctant Father Christmas who was now much older and had continued to visit children in hospital for all the intervening years. The children had now grown up and wanted to celebrate the man who had made all of their lives better.
The suburban lounge we were filming in had been decorated with seventies style Christmas lights, decorations and a large Christmas tree. It was full of people awaiting the entrance of the Father Christmas they’d known most of their lives. Even as an extra, I felt the emotion of it and it felt like a real party. And just like at a real party, I met lots of interesting people.
Monika, I knew already from Friday, and it was great to see her again and talk Polish politics, film and writing.
Then there was Charlotte. She breezed into the room and said a loud and friendly hi to everyone. I talked to her quite a bit. She told me she had been recruited through her agency to play the role of adult Emily, who is deaf and communicates through speaking, sign language and lip reading. Being deaf herself, meant Charlotte was able to help other actors with sign language and she certainly played her own role extremely well. During the short time I was with her I learned a lot about how difficult it must be to be deaf, how much more Charlotte had to concentrate than the rest of us. She was amazing, and the kind of person who just makes you want to smile.
Then there was the Austrian lady, Sonja, a playwright and script consultant. She had some interesting ideas about how to help writers bring their stories out.
There was one guest I couldn’t stop stroking. A beautiful seven month old brown labrador. He was acting too. He wasn’t a guide dog, but he was dressed for his part as the blind boy/now a blind man’s guide dog.
I felt much more at ease this time. No longer an imposter, I had a reason to be on set and that made a huge difference. I was now a part, albeit a small one, of the magic making. I loved it!
I talked to Chris in between shots, while I was outside having a quick vape. He told me that he had made a film for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) the previous year on a very tight schedule and practically no budget. It should have been impossible but somehow they managed create a film which surprised even Chris in terms of how well it turned out. On the back of that, the CSP asked him to make another one, the one being made now.
The level of detail is what impressed me most. The careful attention to period style in details like photos and or even how the extras were dressed and made up. Snow making machine to ensure the Christmassy feel… if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll already know how I feel about snow. Even the fake stuff is magical. Now I was really in my element! Another detail I loved was the hiring of a classic car to make sure the outside as well as the inside of the house were consistent. That car, a navy blue Triumph with leather seats, took me back to my childhood. It even smelled just like my Dad’s first car, a Ford Anglia. So many cars later, and I still love that smell.
The second scene I was involved in was an exterior shot showing all the guests arriving at the party. In the finished film this would come before the party. We now had snow falling thanks to the snow making machine and as it was quite a cold evening it was easy to imagine it really was Christmas.
My role was to guide David, the adult version of the blind boy, up the steps to meet Father Christmas and then guide him into the lounge. ‘Have you ever guided a blind person?’ Chris asked me. ‘Well yes, I’ve actually done more than that,’ I replied. ‘I’ve guided blind skiers’. I’m not sure he believed me but it is absolutely true. Guiding David up the steps and seeing Father Christmas’s reaction to him again had me almost in tears.
It’s a long filming day, especially for the crew who have to be there from start to finish. From 6.45am to around 10pm for four days running. Even so, the crew were all buzzing and even the thought of all the packing up didn’t seem to dent their happy spirits.
I can’t wait to see the finished film once it’s edited and produced. The final piece of the magic. What a great experience. Thank you so much Chris!