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.
One of the reasons being an extra sucks is that it means continually getting your hopes up. First, you have to submit for every casting call that comes into your email, which can easily run into triple digits every day. Then, you have to be chosen, and hope that the experience isn’t completely miserable, never knowing what you’re going to do, or when you’ll be done.
But another dimension is that occasionally a casting call will come up for something you actually like, and the chances of getting to do it are slim-to-none. My first week, I was on Silicon Valley, but my scene was cut. By month two, I had done Community long after having ceased to enjoy it. In my final American months, I submitted repeatedly to be on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the rare occasion of actually wanting to work TV, but to no avail. And pretty early on, everybody kept telling me that I should do background in Hail, Caesar! as if it was my choice.
I never got to do Hail, Caesar!, but I was encouraged to have gotten picked up in October 2016 for Suburbicon, which had at least had a Coen script, and was rumored to be a Coen production. The latter turned out to be false, but for the purposes of this story, I shall recount the details of the film as I learned them.
I can’t remember to what extent it mattered to me that it was George Clooney rather than the Coens in the director’s chair. However, I had been watching a lot of Robert Redford movies at the time, and Clooney had certainly begun to fall into the Redfordian tradition of trashing one’s own legacy by aging into incoherent urgent sanctimony.
It was the only time in my life that the fitting wasn’t at the same place as the shooting location. I learned this the hard way as I pulled into the rec center in North Hollywood, ran smack-dab into Mr. Clooney himself, and got pulled aside for the actual location, a warehouse on the far end of Burbank Airport, some 40 minutes away in (permanent) heavy traffic. I barely made it, and they gave me pants so tight that, when wearing it to set, my bladder went numb– impressive for a man whose waist measurement is already 30″.
The shooting location was additionally beyond the usual Union-mandated perimeter in a town called Fullerton. This gave me another mistaken idea: to go there on the train. The call time was 11:00 AM and I assumed that it would either wrap quickly enough to catch the last train back to Los Angeles or go on long enough to easily get back the next morning. As it happened, I barely made it there on time, having to run to catch two different trains.
Loaded onto a shuttle, we were ushered several blocks over to a very unusual street– one-story ranch homes, sure, but it was the only city block in town with no fully-grown trees– possibly the only one in Greater Los Angeles of that vintage, and a godsend to anyone looking to recreate a midcentury suburb, as the neighborhoods were built from scratch with no previous growth.
The film, as Clooney later explained, was about a model community in 1957 that destroys itself when a black family moves in. “And this wasn’t in Mississippi, this was in Pennsylvania,” he said, to the audible shock of a sizable minority of the other extras. For the day, they gave me a wife (Nichole Eberle, pictured above at far left) and briefly a kid. We were deep in the background, and mostly joked about the fact that she’d been paired with several other men in previous days, revealing Suburbicon’s secret purpose as an emphatically all-white polygamist colony. The day was uneventful and I fretted over missing a really epic Dodger game.
The second day was far more exciting. There were many more extras– one of them being from Dunkirk (the clinically depressed Tartovsky fanatic) and one a new friend, Luke Persiani, whom I’d met two months earlier during a shoe commercial in which I was never used but wasn’t allowed to leave. It being the end of the work and school week, the whole neighborhood showed up at the margins to gawk. We’d thought they were just looking for celebrities, but to our surprise they were just as thrilled to meet us as we passed between the location and the holding area set up a block over. It was a reminder of just how far we were from the City, even if they got the same local news.
After napping through most of the afternoon, the time had come to film a riot scene. No Dunkirk-level theatrics, but some damn fine pyrotechnics as we set fire to that poor black family’s car while Clooney, jokingly lamenting that union rules prohibited him from imbibing some of his own quite excellent Casamigos on set, tried to break the innate discomfort of what we were doing by leading from the front and teaching us to sing “Dixie” and scream obscenities. Out of nowhere, a bloodied Matt Damon turned up behind me for a split second, and progress was definitely being made. On the other hand, I was in agony from the pants, had a tension headache that ended up lasting two full days, and was over it. So the end of the job was cause for quite a lot of celebration.
Shooting for Suburbicon had just begun and there was a hint that 40 of us would be called back the next week, but I wasn’t one of them. But then something really weird happened: nine months later, a week after the release of Dunkirk, the first trailer came out for Suburbicon.
And it wasn’t the movie I had been in.
To be continued…