Welcome to Both Sides Now, a (probably quite short) series in which the author discusses and reviews feature films he participated in the making of.
It was the summer of 2016 and I very suddenly found myself homeless. For most of July, I had gone broke and was starving. There had been no movement on the career front, and it suddenly seemed like a good idea to go back to acting. With some very rewarding exceptions, this meant being an extra. I had done this for half a year after graduating film school, but had given up after Central Casting had kept me in the near-total misery of having to do television, which is usually the least fun and always the lowest-paying.
From this point on, I’d be booking my own gigs, and this came to fruition one evening in mid-August, when I was booked out of the blue for a union gig called “Bodega Bay” with a fitting the next day. After the initial shock of thinking the shoot was in Bodega Bay, necessitating an immediate seven-hour drive north, I calmed down and set off for Warner Bros. the next morning.
I’d never worked at WB before, and the pre-dawn drive from my mom’s house in Pasadena was spectacular– down the 134, then winding along the quiet riverside road that is Forest Lawn, windows open, not a sound from the darkness. I could’ve done that drive every day for the rest of my life, and relished the opportunity to do it just for a week.
I love fittings. First, you get double pay and a free haircut. Second, a fitting means you’re either doing a period costume or uniform, which is way cooler and more rewarding than the typical process of being forced to wear a slightly uglier, less comfortable version of your own clothes. All the extras at the shoot was around my age, skinny, and white– in fact, I was the darkest-skinned guy there. My role: “British Expeditionary Force Soldier,” which apparently meant dressing in a wool uniform almost identical to Israeli uniforms today.
Then arrived more paperwork than I had ever seen for background: tax forms, sure, non-disclosure agreements, totally. But then there was the list of demands: leave your phone in your car, don’t take any pictures, not even of the studio equipment, and don’t tell anyone any details about the project, and don’t tell anyone which project you’re working on.
It was Friday, and not even we knew which project we were working on. By Monday morning though, everyone knew.
Although I only saw it upon its wide release in April of the next year, I maintain that The Lost City of Z is one of the ten best films of 2016, one of a handful of classics minted in that year of unexpected gems. I saw it with a friend of mine who audibly gasped at a match cut between Robert Pattinson’s spilling booze and a steam train through the Andes. I understood. Although a wild departure from the book it was based on, which I read later and enjoyed for entirely different reasons, The Lost City of Z is just…a picture. But before all of that, we watched the trailers. And for the first time in history, I saw my face on a movie screen. A movie screen I paid to see. “These people don’t know,” I thought, looking at the faces around me with a rush of glee, like Michael Palin at the end of Around the World in 80 Days. It wouldn’t be the last time.
We reported for duty. I lined up with everyone else. Half the guys got led into the bowels of Studio 23, half into a holding area overlooking it. I, standing right in the middle, had somehow escaped any direction and began to panic.
But then I went inside and looked down at the set. Below me, in a forty-foot pool filled to about three feet with water, was 1/4 of a Second World War destroyer, propped up on some kind of hydraulics. The reality of what I was looking at. As a child, my father had made me read about the evacuation of Dunkirk. In high school, I had had to watch director Christopher Nolan’s film Memento in class, and one of my favorite professors in film school loved to rant about Nolan’s inability to frame an action scene. I may not have had any lines, but looking down at that ship, all panic dissipated and a singular thought possessed me.
“You’re part of it now. Go in there and get as close to the camera as you possibly can.”
Whenever I visited my mom, I would also visit her neighbor Valerie for cocktails and movie discussion. By June, this was the only thing keeping me sane. In the year since production, I had lost my girlfriend, my grandma, and my country. My career was genuinely picking up, enough to start getting real jobs with credit, but still not enough to feed myself, and was about to be cut short as I spent the better part of summer saying goodbye to people. I was going to the movie, that had always been certain, but never could I have been prepared for what happened that last week. As I read aloud from my latest movie review, a Facebook notification came up. Scott Mendelson at Forbes had posted a review of Dunkirk. The embargo was over.
“What does he have to say about it?” she asked. I just sat there, unprepared for what I was reading, nor for the avalanche of like-minded opinions to come.
I walked the length of the ship, through a crowd of people who had already been told where to stand by the PAs, right up to the front. Nobody said a word about it. In fact, the only person who ever gave me direction in the entire shoot was Christopher Nolan himself.
A few of us had the same thing in mind: war movies are always a big leg up for young actors, no matter how small the role. And despite appearances, we were an eclectic bunch: a clinically-depressed Tartovsky enthusiast, a conspiracy theory-spouting Bernie Sanders diehard, a huge blonde guy from Utah who was relishing the opportunity to play one of the Allies for once. Right next to me was a short British kid. We suspected because of his nationality that he actually had lines, probably a minor supporting role, but he was as green as the rest of us and happy to chat about it. His name was Fionn Whitehead.
This is when things started to get weird. Everyone was in uniform; mostly soldiers but a handful of nurses as well. Meticulous. The set was complete; inside you had no concept of being in a set, but for cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema holding up a massive IMAX camera by hand– what I would later learn was the first handheld use of an IMAX-camera in history. We were having a hell of a lot of real bread and jam. They rolled. Not much happened. Fionn and Harry Styles nudged their way to the front ad infinitum.
“What’s he doing?” Harry said, staring out the steel door above us.
“Looking for a way out,” said Fionn.
Then they closed the door, and my stomach churned in fear: even though I knew it wasn’t real, I began to worry that I might not make it back to England.
To be continued…