What’s it like to be a film extra?
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a film extra? I did, and on a fluke I responded to an online advert in an English-language, French newspaper. They needed people to be a film extra for a film to be shot in Paris and Bordeaux. So I thought, cool, why not?
Ironically, I had just finished working as a voice actor for a suspense thriller called, Agent Kelly, a month earlier, with Indie film director, James Smith and producer, Caroline Spence. I discovered them on Twitter as I stumbled upon Raya films’ production called, Do Something, Jake. I love that they are Indie producers, had really interesting characters, and I was happy to retweet their trailer to my few followers.
One day, James posted on Twitter that Raya Films was looking for voice actors for a new film, and since I do voiceover for IT clients, I modestly got in touch. What did I have to lose? He was happy to give me a try, and I did my interview and the whole production online.
With this experience under my belt, I would be able to use that in my introduction email, so the French crew knew I wasn’t a ‘newbe’. Doesn’t hurt to drop a few names. So thank you, James, for my first foray into being a film extra.
Film extras needed for an American film
All I knew was the name of the film and nothing more. A movie-buff friend in-the-know knew to look at IMDb for upcoming films, and found out much more information about the film. And WOW! It’s an American film.
The director was a well-known, American film director with a load of credits under his belt, and he paired up with a brilliant, budding French actress/director, Judith Godrèche. The lead actors are two Chicago boys, Gary Cole and Matt Walsh! I was familiar with them, and the rest of the cast was primarily American except for Judith. This is becoming frickin’ cool!
The movie is a ‘Romantic Comedy’ and they were looking for extras to play ‘tourists’ in a variety of scenes in a vineyard in the Bordeaux area in SW France. I just had to apply. What did I have to lose? I’m a travel blogger and I have all the tourist kit I could need!
Draft a quality letter to be accepted as a film extra
I crafted a professional email inflating my credentials from my brief stint with James and Caroline, my previous acting studies, my years of IT voice work and sent it off. A couple weeks later, I received an email from a crew assistant saying I was accepted! Cool! I started planning my trip to Bordeaux. Ideally they were looking for people living in Bordeaux, but I’d never seen Bordeaux before so I planned to kill two birds with one stone.
As a movie extra you have to be quite patient and cautious. You are not paid much, if at all, and if you want to participate you need to pay your own travel and housing expenses. This will work if you have the time and a bit of spare cash.
The information I received from the film crew said that the segments would be shot in Bordeaux. So fine. Being the organized travel person I am, I booked my flight to Bordeaux and found a hotel in town. I was looking forward to four days to explore Bordeaux when I wasn’t busy with the shoot.
There are always unexpected changes in filming details
The morning I was flying to Bordeaux I received an email from the film crew telling me where and when to be. Great…. No, not great. It wasn’t in Bordeaux at all, but in a little village called Gensec, an hour from Bordeaux. I needed to report in at 9a the next morning. Shit! There was no way I was going to risk traffic on a Monday morning out of Bordeaux to reach this village. I had no clue how I’d get there aside from maybe taking a train, and even worse, this little village had no train station. The nearest train station was about 20 minutes away by car. Double shit!
Stupid mistake number 1: I booked a non-refundable hotel in Bordeaux, but there was nothing I could do. I needed to be closer to the movie set, so I started looking for a hotel nearby. Right… Gensec, France has a population of 850 people in the middle of the sticks, and there ARE no hotels. OMG, can this get any worse?
So I searched and searched a bit more and by the grace of God, I found a 2-bedroom cottage on Airbnb right in the town of Gensec. Seriously? It was over my budget considering I was paying for a hotel in Bordeaux for 4 nights and now this, but I committed to being an extra and had to eat the cost.
How do I get to the film set?
Next issue was getting there. I planned to get into Bordeaux around 5p to get settled in, so I now needed plan B. How do I get from the airport to Bordeaux’s train station, and then to the nearest station to the shoot location? And then how do I get from that train station to this little village. My head was spinning. I was fearing I would have to rent a car, and I don’t drive much any more. Major aggravation.
I contacted the Airbnb hosts, Debbie and John, and explained my predicament. Coincidentally, Debbie mentioned she was volunteering at the Saint Emilion Jazz Festival that night, and if I could get as far as Saint Emilion, she and John would take me back to the cottage. Brilliant. At least I could get to the Saint Emilion train station….or could I?
There were trains that depart from Bordeaux Station every couple of hours to Saint Emilion. And given the time I was arriving, I would have had to wait 2 hours for the next train to Saint Emilion, and I risked meeting my hosts. Ok, sod it. I’m taking a cab! Seriously, I took a cab! A cab from the airport to Saint Emilion will cost nearly €140. Not cheap, but there was nothing I could do.
I have now paid for a flight, a hotel I’m not staying in, a pricey cab to get my ass to a Jazz festival and an Airbnb for 4 nights.
Being a film extra is nerve wracking
I can very easily understand why movie extras don’t show up for gigs. The information is sketchy at most, and you can only plan at the last minute when the film crew have exact details and dates. It’s very nerve wracking and to be honest it would have been better to have rented a car. I haven’t driven in years, and not knowing this area, I was very hesitant to book a car. Information was all very fluid and I had to go with the flow if I wanted to be an extra in this film.
I arrived at Saint Emilion, and the last night of the jazz festival was in full swing. I took an hour to wander around this lovely little village, schlepping my suitcase with me. My suitcase was click, click, clicking over the cobblestones and I stopped every 30 feet to snap a photo of this quaint town. Then I returned to the festival grounds to find my hosts.
The police rummage through my suitcase
As France is under a continual state of emergency, police are checking every handbag and what not. When I arrived at the check point of the St Emilion Jazz Festival, I think they thought I was an idiot. I asked if there was a place I could leave my suitcase and they laughed and said no. Knowing I’d have to take it with me, I then said, “You can certainly look through the suitcase”, and the police said, “You can bet I’m going to look through your suitcase.”
So, in front of everyone, I dropped my suitcase, unzipped it and let them rummage through my clothes, underwear, selfie stick, 2 computers, camera, 2 phones, all my chargers, blowdryer – the whole kit and caboodle. I didn’t give a shit if I was holding up people. Rummage through.
After I got through, I schlepped the bag past several hundred music-goers while waiting to hear back from my hosts. Once I found them, we found a place to store my bag and I could enjoy the music with John, as Debbie was working for a few hours more. I’m a big lover of jazz, well Smooth Jazz, but the Saint Emilion Jazz Festival is quite well known so I was really quite happy to spend a few hours chilling out, having a glass of wine and listening to the music.
Meeting the other film extras
As my host, John and I were getting acquainted, I discovered they, too, were extras in the same film. Wow, what a coincidence. They are British expats who call Gensec home now for several years. They have a home there and a cottage just behind their property they rent out on occasion.
The evening at the jazz festival finished and we finally drove to Gensec. To be honest, I was glad to get there. I’d had a hectic day and my nerves were shot. We arrived at the cottage to discover I had a lovely new, 2-bed home just behind their house separated by a pool. Had the weather been better in July I would have jumped in. The cottage is very well-kitted out and I could have easily stayed for months. It has everything you need and I highly recommend it.
I bid my hosts a good night and settled in knowing the movie set was a five-minute walk the morning. The angels must have been in my corner to allow me to find these two!
In the morning, I made my way toward the Mairie (town hall), which was the meeting point. I stopped for a quick cafe au last and a croissant at the one patisserie in town. At the Mairie, I met a mother and daughter duo, Fiona and Morgan, who were participating as well, and after a bit, Amanda and Jan showed up after having driven to the wrong town which sounded similar to Gensac. It was just us seven as the ‘tourist’ film extras that day.
Film wardrobe and contracts
As we wait for everyone to arrive, first up we meet the wardrobe woman. We needed to bring 3 outfits for her to look through and tell us to wear. Nothing white, nothing black. She picked my outfit for the 2-day shoot, which was a pair of jeans, a yellow top and a lacy coverup. The other things I needed were my backpack, camera and a hat that American tourists typically wear.
Next was the contract woman. We needed to sign a movie extra film contract, which was pretty painless. Since we were getting paid as film extras, I had to give her a copy of my passport and a bank deposit slip. The whole process took 10 minutes.
Tips for being a professional film extra
It’s one thing to be a film extra and think your role isn’t important because you aren’t front and center or being paid, but that is far from the truth. Regardless of what your role is, here are some key tips to remember if you want to be a professional movie extra.
- Show up on time. By on time, I mean 30-45 minutes before you are supposed to. As a film extra, you aren’t running the show, they are, and the biggest form of disrespect is to show up late. If you are unsure of where you need to be, give the location a test run to determine how long it will take. I did this in Gensec and knew it would take 5 minutes. I did the same during the Rome filming. Being late is unacceptable.
- Immediately introduce yourself as the film extra for the day and ask with whom you need to meet. Let this person know you are there and either they will tell you where to wait, or stay within eye-shot of the person.
- If you are told to bring 3 outfits, bring 5. Don’t assume you know exactly what you will need. You will be helping by bringing extra stuff from which to choose, even if you have to schlep a bit more. Bring comfortable shoes!
- Bring your documentation – passport, ID card, bank account details, insurance card. Have it on you. You never know if or when you will need it.
- Put your cell phone on silent the whole day unless you are having a break. During the Rome shoot they took our phones and I can understand why. Film extras aren’t there to chat with friends or try and get shots with the main actors.
- Don’t reach out to try and chat with the actors. If they wish to chat with you, they will. Just maintain composure and remember what you are there for. A polite smile never hurts, but don’t push your luck.
- Do what you are told and don’t embellish. That means don’t try and overact, don’t be a ‘chatty-Kathy’. Keep quiet, follow instructions and listen. And keep eye contact with the assistant that is giving directions. Most likely the director will not interact with the film extras, depending on the size of the production, so listen to the assistant.
- Bring food/snacks. Don’t assume you’ll get fed. It is always nice, but since you may be working long hours, bring snacks. There’s nothing worse than hearing, ‘Is there something to eat here?”
- Send a follow-up Thank You. If you’ve been communicating via email with a member of the film crew, send them a quick note once you are done to thank them for allowing you to work with them. Here you can also let them know to keep you in mind the next time they need a film extra.
Plan to sit around as a film extra
There’s a lot of sitting around the scene as a film extra and I had a lot of time to get to know the other movie extras during this time. What a frickin’ cool bunch of people! We did two different scenes on the first day – basically walking around as tourists, interacting with the other tourist extras in some form while the main scene was taking place. We all followed the film assistant’s direction as to what to do, where to look, how fast/slow to walk around. There were a few film assistants directing us throughout the film day.
We took a break in the early afternoon for lunch and dined with the crew from a professional film food truck. There were 48 people in the cast and crew, and the film caterers did a super job getting people in and out in an hour. Then it was back to waiting for the 2nd part of the day. We finished at about 6:30 that afternoon, and I have to admit, my feet were killing me. I was wearing ballerinas, and standing in those all day was not the brightest thing to do. Big tip for being a film extra: only bring shoes that you’ll be comfortable wearing for 12 hours straight!
I grabbed dinner on my own in one of the few restaurants in town and went back to the cottage to rest my weary feet.
Day 2 of being a film extra
The shoot the next day would be at a chateau in a vineyard 35 minutes from Gensec in Pomerol, France. Again, it was great I was staying with John and Debbie as we drove together early the next morning for a 7:45 start. Up at 6a and out the door at 7a. We arrived on time, then waited until about 10a until we were needed. Hurry up and wait.
Mind you, there are snacks, coffee, juice, croissants, sandwiches flowing all day long from a mobile refreshment area on this day. I don’t think I’ve drank that much coffee in a long time, but we were well fed and watered.
The weather was very grey and cool and we stayed inside the chateau lingering around until they needed us. Otherwise, we were sunning ourselves on the terrace or walking the beautiful grounds around the chateau. It was really beautiful landscape. We even ventured out to see the workers in the vineyard using age-old techniques.
Interacting with actors as a movie extra
The second day was actually more interesting than the first because the American actor, Matt Walsh was in the scenes, along with David Wain, who is a real character. We were able to interact with the actors in a very casual way and it was a surreal experience. As long as you are cool about being in the presence of actors, you may get the chance to interact. There were many times when something funny happened on the scene and we were all laughing together, which made the atmosphere light and casual. We were all approachable to one another and had the chance to interact with the actors very casually, whether on the set, in between takes or at lunch.
The second film day was also longer. We didn’t finish until about 8:30p. We participated as part of a winery tour in acts where Matt, David and Judith were mainly present. It was cool to see how they shoot one scene with the camera in one direction looking at one main character. Then they do the same scene with the camera in a different angle to get the expressions of another actor. Sometimes we’d do 10 takes of the same scene. Thirteen actors and extras, and 35 film crew watching monitors behind the cameras. Quite the production and quite surreal.
My time as a film extra has come to an end
The day ended and we returned to the cottage in Gensec for the night. My time as a film extra was done. Debbie kindly drove me to the nearest train station in the morning so I could get back to Bordeaux for my flight back to Nice.
I received a letter in the mail a week after the shoot was done regarding how much I would be paid – Less than €100! All very easy that way, but the main point of this article is if you want to be a movie extra, you need to be extremely flexibly and have the ability to go with the flow. You’ll meet some fantastic people and it may open doors for you to be a movie extra in other films. And you won’t get rich, either…
Additional film to look out for
By the way, the film is called, Under The Eiffel Tower and it will be released later 2018.
Ironically, a few weeks later, I flew to Rome to be a film extra in a Netflix production with Kevin Spacey. While I’ve written about being a movie extra in Rome, the film will no longer be released. I will keep you posted if I get any other gigs.
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