Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Hacking Into The Making of The Matrix

Note: Better late than never! A longtime Umlaut friend chronicled the experience of being an extra during the filming of The Matrix sequels. It then languished in the Umlaut Vaults... Until now.

Hacking Into The Making of The Matrix:
Random Recollections Of An Extra

by b001ian

Matrix Extra Chronology

Thursday March 8, 2001: E-mail forwarded by Lucasfilm employee/friend saying they need lots of people for the Martrix sequels. Beau Bonneau is casting handling registration. Turns out that the wife of an ILM person is a casting assistant at Beau Bonneau.

Wednesday, March 14: Went in to Beau Bonneau, paid the $20 to register, filled out my profile and they took a few digital shots of me. Word at the time was that the shooting would start in late April or May.

Early May: Finally hack together a performance resume (most of it from 8-10 years ago), complete my profile online, and mark my calendar as available for extras work, assuming it will be soon.

Wait for a week.

Wait another week.

May 22: The agency calls and wants me to be one of the extra drivers for their freeway shoot. Not exciting, but I figure why not? One problem. Though they only need me for one day, and I'll be in my car, they want me to shave all my facial hair. If it were a few days maybe, but I pass on this one.

Friday June 1: For reasons unrelated to the Matrix shoot (I assumed it was done with at this point), I cut my hair to the nub (8" long pigtails saved for posterity) and shaved my face clean for the first time in 4 years.

Tuesday, June 5: I get an email saying my photo's been selected and to call to confirm my availability. I tell them I look completely different from my earlier photo. They say it doesn't matter. I'm in! A fitting on Friday is scheduled and I'm told to wear a thong if I have one. I don't, so I'm hoping lycra bicycle shorts will do.

Friday, June 8: I drive to the set in Alameda for a costume fitting. The facial expressions of the costume people are merciless. You know exactly what they think is wrong with your appearance when they look at you. The occasional catty comment doesn't hurt either. I'm outfitted with a "wifebeater" (tank top), and other items and head to make-up for final judgement.

The make-up people speak authoritatively in soft voices bordering on meditative:

- Don't cut any more hair.
- Get some more sun (dark pigmentation is a plus on this shoot).
- Don't paint your nails (they were kidding).

They take a couple of digital shots of me in costume before I change back into my civilian clothes. Lower on the rung, the production assistants help us fill out paperwork while whining about how long the shoot was taking and being 365 miles from home. Missing their partners is a common theme.

An hour later in S.F. I had lunch with friends. A story is told about a friend that runs a small cafe on Russian Hill. Keanu Reeves came for coffee just after she had closed up shop. She let him in, and made him a lunch too. He was truly grateful. So much so that he sent flowers, a note and gift basket the next day. Another friend tells me that Keanu bought 20 Harleys from the Oakland dealership that his friend manages. A couple of weeks later, I would see identical new Harleys all around the set being driven by crew members. He may never win an Oscar, but a humanitarian award my not be out of the question if he applies this sort of gratitude in a more global fashion at some point in his life.

Friday, June 15: I call the Matrix extra hotline as instructed for Monday's call time. I find out that the shoot using the extras has been delayed unless you are "one of the following people." Three minutes and a hundred or so names later, I'm not one of the chosen. I have to call again next Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 20: It's on! Call time is early the next morning

Summer Solstice, June 21: Apropriately, it is hot and crowded. After changing into costume, hundreds of us are herded in shuttle buses to the extras compound. There is one large tent for the men and another for the women. Breakfast buffet is waiting. Non-stop fruit, soda, coffee, tea and water there for the taking. Port-o-potties are in the distance near the edge of the compound.

It was quite a scene: 500 women, 500 men -- mostly young and of African ancestry-- dressed similarly on a hot day sharing the same experience. By afternoon the vibe was akin to a wedding reception sans the alcohol and the common bloodlines. Put another way, the filming was no longer at the fore of many peoples minds.

The first time on stage was wonderful. Mr. Fishburne -- nee, Morpheus-- got a rock star's reception and he played the crowd's energy into the takes. I got to hold a prop for this shot. It felt good to be differentiated. (Might make it easier to spot myself on freeze frame a few years from now when the DVD is out).

On this 14-hour day, the most aerobic activity came last , when we were exhausted and the sound stage was hot, and low on oxygen. Despite some people passing out from the heat, plenty of people were alert enough to mug for the camera while in action -- prompting the director to remind everyone NOT to do that between shots.

Though many had an obvious, albeit superficial, hunger for fame, there were just as many resigned to their role here as one of 1000 warm bodies filling up space on a sound stage for barely minimum wage and free meals. Those who had done extras work before took it in stride, those newer to the experience had hints of disappointment in their faces and posture. This was not their big break in show biz, it was a job. A job that did not require special talent, intelligence or charm.

When I walked home from my car it was hard to tell if I was on the street or some other soundstage. The boundaries of perception were elastic after a long hot day on a short nights rest.

Thursday June 22: Now that we all knew each other, the energy amongst the extras was festive and familiar. Two hundred extras didn't make it from the prior day due to exhaustion or other heat/dehydration related ailments. Fresh troops showed up throughout the day. Among them were people who I'd met in passing once before at various stages of my life. It was remarkable that we could trace the when and where of these encounters, but we did.

The main event Thursday began midday -- and it wasn't on the soundstage. Starting with a couple of 5 gallon plastic water jugs for drums, a boom box with a mic, and the chants, claps and voices of a dozen others, something spontaneous and beautiful began to grow. Within the hour it had bloomed into a full scale party. Hundreds of people in a circle of rhythm and song. In the center of the circle were male and female emcees trading rhymes, capoeria artists facing off one on one, and eventually just a whole lot of dancing and singing. It lasted about 2 hours.

The documentary crew caught most of this on film, most notably the segment when Carrie Ann Moss joined the party and did a little dance with others in a line. This was the high point of the whole extras experience for many. It completely overshadowed the local band they had playing in the extras lot at lunch that day. As one of the crew put it, "This just doesn't happen in LA."

This energy definitely carried over onto the soundstage that day and the directors were very pleased that we could bring that much genuine verve onto the set.

Friday, June 22: The weather had cooled. After consecutive 14 hour days the extras were pretty much drained. Fortunately, the work load was light for most of the extras that day. After lunch and hours of waiting, we were called in one last time They weren't doing a take, just taking turns to thank us for our time and energy. The Wachoski Bros, Fishburne, and Aaliyah splashed us with good words. We returned to the extras tent where one by one a few people were pulled aside to participate in the following week's shoot. Most of us got to go home early that day. We'd tasted what it was like to be a part of a mega-budget sequel, but it was the same old reality for dessert.. a wind from the northwest, fog lurching through the Golden Gate and heavy traffic awaiting our drive home.


Random Extra Bios

Tall east Indian guy next to me in line at the fitting just laid off from his dot-bomb's product dev group. He drove all the way from Santa Cruz for the fitting.. "It's something to do" was a common refrain around the room adding "when will I have the opportunity and time to do this again? It should be fun."

Extra #172 who spilled the beans to Ain't It Cool News and got fired the next day. Undaunted by this, I witnessed several people calling from their well concealed cell phones before the cameras rolled.. No doubt someone at the other end was listening or taping the proceedings.

The stripper with the breast implants, over-whitened teeth, bleach blonde hair layered over latina features. She warmed up before shots doing strip moves that included throwing her hips, vogueing, etc.. On the second day she brought designer luggage on set and handed out nude, autographed posters of herself to the crew. She did not show up -- or perhaps was not welcome-- on the last day of shooting.

The muscle freak with the over-dyed black hair (pushing 40, trying for ~28) and the guido persona hitting on every perceived hoochie mama he saw on set. He was in a constant state of posing, flexing, and looking as Stallone-like as possible at all times. He never smiled.

The biotech researcher who quit her job to get back into music, possibly as a teacher. Something more meaningful than protein cultures and DNA sequencing had to be out there she believed.

The local emcee who lit up the place Thursday with wit, charm and good ole fashioned star power. Friday he got upgraded to a more prominent extra role, then retained for the folowing week's shoot.

The yoga woman from New York who's just here for the summer house- sitting. She actually does acting in NYC, but has no illusions about extras work being anything more than an spectator experience.

Keanu's buddies from Dogstar got to be in the shoot as part of (naturally) a band. Aside from being in many more shots, offstage they got the same treatment as any of the other extras. So much for who you know.

A very thin, young African-American woman who's been doing extras work in the Bay Area since 1997. She didn't seem overly impressed by anything going on, though she still liked being there. On some level she seemed to be preparing for a much bigger path in life, but it was a well kept secret for now.