GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 3, 2008

The Perfect Extras

Gordon Baird

This is an inside report on the St. Ann Church funeral scene from "The Perfect Storm" filming; inside because it was compiled from what went on inside the church. I will omit all the boilerplate details of the bus rides from Stage Fort Park and the hours spent standing in line to register, to get your costume OK'd by wardrobe, and to get minimal makeup, if needed.

All who drove past could see there were huge, long banks of tables installed for the waiting, eating, changing and processing of 900 men, women and children "movie stars." Oops, did I almost forget to mention the 50 porta-potties all in a big curving line around the inside perimeter of St. Ann's playground? You still had to wait. The calls to arrive were all over the place. Some were told 6 a.m., some 7, 8:30 or 9. I arrived at 10 and things hadn't progressed very far. But by 11, they processed the people into the church, spreading them out through the sides in no particular pattern.

Now, this might come down to the "image" the filmmakers have of our Fishtown, but when we went through wardrobe, they kept "downdressing" the men, taking us out of our suits and putting us in flannel workshirts and sweatshirts or blue jeans. They mentioned that this is how they thought fishermen would go to a funeral. So the whole tableau inside was a mixture of formal and workclothes. I think there was some headscratching by the participants over that.

But once inside the beautiful St. Ann's, and loaded, they began the procedure. First thing they did absolutely surprised everybody in there.

Two gigantic smoke machines began belching out blue-ish, gray smoke in blinding amounts. This smoke was routed toward huge fans that shot it up to the uppermost reaches of the cavernous church. This was as powerful, huge banks of white, blinding lights were aimed at all angles of the church, giving the scene that "movie set look." They never said what the smoke was for, but I learned later it was to cut the glare of the interior lighting. Every fourth take or so, they released another barrage of smoke. The poor choir was right in the path of the smoke, plus the temperature was much higher at the top of the church.

Speaking of which, remember, we were all dressed "for November" so we each had at least two or three layers on, including jackets, coats or sweatshirts and workshirts. Whew. As the hours dragged on, this became more wearying.

This brings up a point: Movie-making is hard work. The technicians, producers, director and extras work incredibly hard. It's take after take of the exact same scene, each time recreating the conditions, smoke, lights, camera angles and action. Even for the stars, it's incredibly wearing work ... hurry up and wait.

We watched Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who played Linda Greenlaw, run her eulogy scene 15 times over two shots, working up all the emotion each time anew.

The whole show was run by Wolfgang Peterson, who spoke as softly as a human can speak and yet each and every person in that church could hear every word; we were concentrating so hard to do the right thing.

There was an assistant director who strode behind him with a wireless mic and, after Wolfgang spoke, he would give the movie commands we all know so well. He wasn't repeating Peterson's words, as it was clear that everyone in the church was concentrating on the instructions and Wolfgang never had to repeat himself or admonish the huge crowd ... so well-behaved.

There was never any distraction, no one ever had to scream for quiet. It was amazing. The guy with the mic wasn't dumbing it down for the extras either. Cameras rolling ... playback (hymn prerecording) ... Action! Cut! Just like ... well, in the movies. The first shot involved the whole church as the cameras panned across the entire front, getting a panorama of the crowd. They had instructed us that we were in meditation during Greenlaw's eulogy. They took 11 takes of just the crowd pan before Mary Elizabeth said a word.

Interestingly, they mounted two cameras side by side on two moving camera dollies. I suppose that was in case one didn't get the shot the other did. One looked wider angle, too.

It was fascinating how they constructed the little "railways" for the camera dollies. These were portable tracks that were laid down fresh each time they changed the shot angle. They were quickly bolted together to make these instant little railroads. The wheels of the camera cars were like large, super high-tech skateboard wheels that were mounted on the camera dollies, which were then lifted onto the rails like sidecars from those old silent flicks.

There was a guy pulling the dolly, a cameraman, a service provider changing lenses, etc., and a guy pushing the dolly. Each car held four people times two dollies. There was a crowd of technical people right outside the camera angle, ready to pounce on any hair or drop of perspiration on a star's face, plus a legion of light, smoke, script and sound people right off camera.

Plus there were the stand-ins. A star doesn't have to stand in place while the tech people set up the shot and measure the light. The stand-ins endure all the waiting and posing, dressed in a similar costume.

One of the more memorable moments came when Greenlaw's stand-in was getting ready for the eulogy scene. There apparently was a thermostat up on a pillar behind the lectern that was "bad composition" for the shot. They went and got ladders and, while we all waited, screwed into the pillar (while the priests winced) to hang a pot of flowers in the spot. However, they had a worker trim off a few buds that were too long. But then they were too short and we had to endure them tying new longer buds onto the stalks until it was just right. The whole wait was not quite an hour. The audience broke into clapping when they had finished. Wolfgang gave the clapping crowd a big grin.

For me, the two most emotional moments came during the eulogy scene. Warner Bros. had members of the family up close -- both fictitious and real life members. As the long pan scenes of the crowd finished, the make-up people quietly, slowly walked to the front rows to wipe the tears away from the faces of real family and friends of the real crew members of the Andrea Gail. It had just been too real. All who saw it were affected.

The other moment came on the third from final take of the Greenlaw eulogy by Mary Elizabeth. She was a really first class actress who had performed this take as it if was real life each time through. But as she got about half way through the eulogy, she broke down in emotion, her voice cracking and tears streaming. As she finished, she fell into the arms of director Wolfgang Peterson who had moved to embrace her. The crowd exploded into warm and sad applause. It had been a very emotional moment for the entire host.

Moments like that invigorated the crowd, but we needed it. It was long and hard work. We didn't get out until almost 7 p.m. and had to sign out, return costumes and be processed out to get paid eventually by mail ($50 for 10 to 12 hours work). There was lunch and beverages, too, but it was all business by then. It didn't feel like pampering. Also, while it seemed like everyone in town was there, a sizable portion of extras were from out of town, up the line or from other New England states. They follow the casting call circuit, I was told, more than once.

It was a wonderful experience to get up close to the making of the movie, but I'm sure most of the crowd would agree that they had paid their dues to get that feeling. Breathing that smoke alone for seven hours gave me a splitting headache and coughs. There were tired, cranky people in the sign-out lines and in the lines for the buses, but I'm sure we all would do it all over again.

The crew, directors, producers and casting people couldn't have been nicer, without a hint of attitude, and they treated the mammoth crowd as an important, intelligent element of the scene. Their manner made the work much easier and more efficient.

In fact, now that I think about it ... it was a Perfect Day in the movies.

Gordon Baird is host of cable TV's Gloucester Chicken Shack and at The Ocean Club.