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I was a Middle-Aged Movie Extra

Gregg Trzaskowski in the unreleased 1997 independent film Family Trees / Ralph Morang
NH MOVIES
The Making of "Family Trees"

Movie extras are like cattle. The director pushes them left and right while the real actors get all the attention. Here the author plays a lowly role, then is cut out of the final film. Then the film never gets released. How low, we ask you, can one guy go?

 

 

Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared online in February 1997. "Family Trees" premiered as a work in progress at a New York film festival in September of that year. It was later shown locally and in Germany in a preliminary video format. Funds ran out during post production and before the film cut was made. The low-budget independent film was was never released.

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6:05 PM
The director said 6 PM sharp, but we are still looking for the Portsmouth Victorian where the party scene of "Family Trees" is being filmed. It isn't hard to find. The house glows like a mansion in a horror flick. Sharp rays of movie light slice into the dark neighborhood.

On the front porch, my companion Ann and I worry over our choice of clothing. She shows me how to touch up a blemish using real make-up. I check my $35 haircut, fuss with a costly tie and stumble toward the door in new shoes.

6:15 PM
Our entrance has gone pretty much unnoticed except by baby Erin, who plays the part of baby Molly. Pleased to see two other novice actors, baby Erin grins expansively. We sit obediently in the entrance room near the wood-framed fireplace. Actors and crew, familiar from many previous shoots, hug and lug props and equipment around the ornate borrowed home.

6:25 PM
Writer/producer Lars Trodson is being interviewed by Channel 9-TV in the living room. I stand behind him hoping to get on the 11 PM news. One camera is as good as another to an extra, I reason.

6:40 PM
We're still in the waiting room. Eric, the sound man, is among the missing. The hair designer is stuck at home without a baby-sitter. A supporting cast member has slipped a disc and is stuck in Vermont. Because all the food is a prop for the party, the cameraman ducks out for a meatball grinder. The walk-on actors are beginning to mingle with the regulars. "You must be one of the brothers?" an actor says to a young man in a tie. "Phil," he agrees.

"The cheapskate?"
"Right!" the guest says.
"Nice to meet you."

Ann and I are not sure who we are. In the movie, Martha (Lisa Stathoplos) is having her doubts about an imminent marriage to Wil (Greg Trzaskowski). Ann and I decide that we must be friends of the groom-to-be and concoct our own scenario in case we're asked. No one asks. Baby Erin is coo-cooing, probably rehearsing her lines.

6:50 PM
Amid the bustle, the woman with the baby embraces Lisa, the actress next to us in the entranceway. "We're going to get going," the mother says. "Molly and I are both a little cranky." As if to underline her mother's point, the baby begins to cry. Lisa soothes the baby by wearing Molly's little bonnet on her own adult head. The third time they do this, it dons on me that I am watching a dress rehearsal.

7:00 PM
Ann Bliss, who plays Martha's mother, is back from the hairdresser. The sound man has arrived, but there are battery problems. I drift into the kitchen where a couple of other party extras are toying with the prop liquor. One mutinous soul offers to sneak out for some drinkable beer. We all quickly ante up.

7:15 PM
"Kill the phone," says director Ralph Morang.
"Cue the baby," someone shouts.
"Dead battery!" the sound man announces, and everyone goes back into a waiting mode. A grip is reading the newspaper in a plush chair. The father of the bride has fallen asleep next to him. My companion is off mingling with the actors. The real beer arrives.

7:28 PM
"Quiet on the set," the director shouts. "What's the roll?"
"41," the grip announces.
"Sound ready?" the director asks. "Roll sound."
"Speed," says the sound man.
"Rolling," the cameraman adds. "Slate!"
"Annnnnd action!" says the director.

The woman with the baby embraces the star.
"We're going to get going," the mother says. "Molly and I are both a little cranky."

Erin the baby is either tired or overacting and she lets go an Oscar-winning wail that will not quit. The sound man grabs his headphones in agony.

7:45 PM
Baby Erin is still acting while 25 adult cast and crew stare in awe. There is talk of writing the baby's real mother into the script.
"She could be the nanny," someone suggests.
"What about a tranquilizer dart?" one faux-guest offers.

Finally it is decided that the real mother will hand off little Molly just as the acting mother reaches for the door. The result is a brilliant compromise that pumps the scene with authenticity and should save big bucks in post production as Erin's powerful voice trails off with a dramatic Doppler effect.

"I'd like one more," the director says and the party groans.

8:20 PM
"You two are on the couch!" the director says, pointing us toward a divan. It is our moment at last. Ann and I check hair, make-up and clothes. "What do we do?" I ask, but the director is long gone, still shooting key guests as they arrive.

"Quiet on the set," the director pleads, but it is no use. The cast has grown so peckish that the crunch of purloined prop party-mix cannot be quelled. Ann has gone through three glasses of prop Welches grapejuice-wine as the same guests march past us again and again and again.

8:30 PM
The production is temporarily halted when an unidentified guest joins the march past the divan. The poor guy has mistaken the brightly lit house for the calling hours at a nearby funeral parlor. Minutes later, the scene is interrupted when a door mysteriously opens. It is the family cat, trapped upstairs for hours with the real owner of the house. The cast, giddy from starvation, erupts into laughter.

8:50 PM
It turns out that our part in "Family Trees" is smaller than imagined. Ann and I will appear, maybe, in the reflection in the front hall mirror as the camera pans the arriving guests. Worse than that, my bottle of beer has been captured on film and must remain in place for future scenes to prevent an error of continuity in the film. But there is a upside. The producer has released some of the prop food for consumption. In minutes, the port wine cheese, baby carrots, vanilla wafers and pepperoni slices are just a memory.

9:30 PM
We get our second chance in scene 16-B. Cameraman Ron Wyman is not satisfied with the party "fill." He wants more action behind a hand-held pan of the bar where there is a bit of dialogue between parents of the betrothed. "Dennis, Ann, stand here!" he says, pointing to the edge of an oriental rug near another ornate wooden-framed fireplace.

For the next half hour we march out of the room as the key guests enter, then settle back onto the divan that has become our home base. Two other extras, hoping to crack our new professionalism have begun a simulated lap dance over in the corner. Choking off the laughter, I spit a chunk of prop party-mix across the room. Things are getting dangerous.

9:55 PM
Half the cast and extras are gone. The director notes that only the backs of our heads may show in scene 16-B. He suggests we hang a little longer and offers us more party-mix.

10:20 PM
We are transfixed by Jay Smith's wonderful baritone solo. In this scene, he leans against the mantle near the waist-high, raised panel wainscoting and sings to his wife Ann Bliss.

"A gath'rin flower, both red and blue,
And ne'er I thought, what love can do."
His voice is rich and it fills the nearly empty Victorian home. This promises to be a poignant scene in the film.

10:30 PM
The director calls a wrap. The party scene will be shot continuously over the next two days and we are invited back. We must wear the same clothes, nurse the same drinks, and eat the same party mix. The mayor of Portsmouth will be making a cameo, we are told. It is a tempting offer. But while the movie looks to be a clear winner and the real actors are incredible, this extra life is just too stimulating for us. Besides, there is the kitchen floor to wax and lots of good bowling on TV.

11:20 PM
A group of ex-extras has gathered at someone’s home to catch the evening news. The TV newscaster is heaping gobs of praise on the upcoming local movie.

"Look it's you!" Someone points toward the screen as the producer is chatting about the film. Behind his left ear, there I am, mugging like a chimp for the news camera.

"My God, I look like a doofus!" I cry. Imagining the same dumb mug spread 25 feet across the silver screen at the Music Hall makes me shudder. "That's it. I'm through with Hollywood!" I announce, tossing my de-knotted tie to the floor.

"The tragic end of a promising career," someone quips.

More beer arrives. I manage to wrest control of the remote and channel surf for a classic film. Any film in which I do not appear is suddenly perfect.

(c) 1997. All rights reserved. J. Dennis Robinson

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