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On the Set of Gone Girl: An Extra Look

By Elizabeth Shelton

The casualties included a possible concussion, a swollen ankle, a potential heatstroke victim, and a split “thumb toe,” as my son calls it. This was our second day of filming as media extras in the highly hyped movie, Gone Girl.  We had just spent 7 hours repeatedly running 10 yards in pursuit of a black SUV carrying Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry. This added up to several football fields when the estimated 72 takes were tallied. While we had no first downs, we did have a few extras down.


I was cast as a Channel 8 regional news ‘producer’ in the pack of media following Ben Affleck’s character, Nick Dunne. Television ‘reporters’ were given fake microphones bearing a fictitious news channel’s logo, and a few folks hauled long boom mics. Others were given working video and still cameras, while we ‘producers’ were issued boring clipboards. We all received lanyards to wear with a variety of laminated ‘press passes.’ Although some even had our photo on them, we did not get to keep them. I realized when we filmed a vigil at the old courthouse that I was a ‘producer’ because I sport more gray hair than the ‘reporters’ but less than the ‘dignitaries.’ So much for the glamorous magic of Hollywood.


Along with the rest of my crew, weeks before shooting I had taken several clothing options (solid, muted professional attire) to a fitting and ended up wearing most of my own clothes for filming.  We female producers and reporters were foolish enough to wear heels as part of our professional attire; this lasted one day. In fact, following the previously mentioned fat ankle, we were later instructed by wardrobe to bring comfortable shoes to future shoots. (Most of us complied, with the exception of one admittedly vain, camera-loving reporter stricken with ‘starlet-itis.’)


Our media throng varied greatly in size on the six days we worked, ranging from 40 to about twice that. We were comprised of the self-employed who were there because we could be, the unemployed and under-employed, who were appreciative of the additional minimum wage, and many more overworked fathers, mothers, students, and eager, curious folk. All of us put our normal lives on hold to participate in what many refer to as “the opportunity of a lifetime.” Considering how frequently multi-million dollar movies starring A-list celebrities and directors are filmed here in lil’ ol’ CG, they may be right.


We always reported first to a ‘holding’ station, usually the Osage Center or Show-Me Center, before being bused to another ‘undisclosed location’ near the set. (Dick Cheney was never there.) We worked for 8-15 hours a day, usually averaging around 12. We received overtime for anything over 8 hours, which amounted to $11 and change. We were offered breakfast on early calls, consisting of hot options like breakfast burritos and biscuits and gravy, as well as fresh fruit, juice and coffee. We were given “lunch” after 6 or 7 hours.  This was an impressive buffet served anywhere between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m., depending on our arrival time, which ranged from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Lunch options included several types of salad, an array of vegetables along with a meatless entrée, such as pasta, and heartier fare like lasagna or roast chicken.


Another media extra who became a friend also worked as a ‘driver,’ because his vehicle was used. One lucky day he happened to be served with the elite crew and was offered a choice of duck or filet mignon. In my opinion (and that of many others), along with the new connections and friendships formed, the daily variety of healthful, delicious buffet items (even if mundane by Hollywood’s standards) was one of the best perks of filming.


My third ‘shift’ began at 5 p.m. and was an all-nighter. The staged candlelight vigil at the gazebo of the old courthouse attracted many onlookers and probably required the largest cast of extras. Hundreds willingly stood vigil through the night, extinguishing and replacing burning candles as they adoringly watched Affleck recite the same speech over and over again. Sometimes we would be fanned across the lawn, assigned to groups and areas. Then we and the cameras would be repositioned for a different angle, a tighter shot, yet another of the numerous retakes for which director David Fincher is so famous.


When the cameras were on ‘Nick Dunne,’ Affleck was appropriately weary and riddled with angst over his character’s missing wife. When the cameras panned to the onlookers and us media (instructed to “keep a respectful distance”), he occasionally propped on a stool, smoked a cigarette, Tweeted, and once or twice joked with bystanders. Most of the time, he was serious about his work and stayed in character until his last day, as did most of the other celebrities. Then, I am told he posed for photos and signed autographs, which is also what Tyler Perry did on his final day. All extras signed contracts agreeing not to bring cameras on set and were instructed not to behave like fawning fans, so most of the photos circulating were gained from onlookers or from paid extras who ‘misunderstood’ the contract.


When I first learned I had been cast, I looked forward to seeing just how much things have changed since I lived and occasionally even worked as an LA actress, especially since it was the last millennium(!). However, having been on television and film sets before, I knew exactly how boring and tedious the process could be.  Still, with high hopes I had brought my child to Rose Theater to ‘audition,’ which meant we snaked through the seats for an hour to spend three seconds getting our photo snapped just like hundreds of others. I didn’t know how to tell him I had been called when he had not.


My little guy loves watching and making movies, and I thought he would enjoy a glimpse from behind the scenes. We were so excited when several weeks later he was called! We excitedly reported one morning to the Osage Center in the dark hours of chicken-thirty. We loaded into a van with a few others and spent the next 5 hours sitting outside by the river, bundled in a blanket I grabbed as an afterthought. Around noon we again loaded into the van and were transported to the large, white holding tent set up behind the Chamber of Commerce where we waited another hour. A sinewy kid whose body fat reflects his level of food interest, even the delicious lunch served 7 hours later offered no excitement.


As we finished eating, the 8 hours that children are allowed to work were up, and we were ushered back into the van for our final trip back to the Osage Center. We had wasted an entire day. He never even glimpsed a camera or the director or any of the stars and will not have the thrill of seeing himself on the big screen. It was a huge disappointment for both of us, as well as an exercise in frustration and parental patience for me. While it is no surprise for adult extras to be treated with so little regard, I had expected more concern for little kids who were missing school and having to makeup work. I later heard some other boys had a much better experience the next day and even got their photo made with a former Cardinal who dropped by the Drury Lodge set.


The whole town has been so starstruck, I end up feeling like an ungrateful brat anytime my comments are less than positive. For the record, I am delighted Cape Girardeau had this opportunity to entertain Hollywood. We have many unsung heroes to thank, including Jim Dufek, a professor of mass media at SEMO and a board member for the Missouri Motion Media Association (MOMMA). Due to the helpful attitude and efforts of him and everyone in the community, our west coast visitors left with memories of a very positive experience in a helpful, friendly town. Hopefully, our fair city will be treated as well in the movie as we treated our guests.  

 

My experience was also positive, although a bit subdued compared to the online exuberance of so many extras. I enjoyed most of my days on the set and hope some of the friendships formed will mirror the “film is forever” sentiment. I witnessed cast members and onlookers literally falling all over themselves to get a glimpse of Affleck or to appear on camera, and I am well aware that hundreds of people who were never cast would gladly have traded places with any of us. Maybe, just maybe, my new ‘media’ friends and I will forget all about the many hours we sat in holding, stood in the cold, and sweated in the heat when we see ourselves in film a year from now for all of .002 seconds. But as a mama bear watching her cub receive poor treatment and suffer a huge disappointment, this girl is gone, done, Dunne.

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