I just finished two days on the set of NBC's Friday Night Lights as a featured extra, playing a member of the local press on the sidelines of the big game between the Dillon Panthers and the Larribee Lions. I've worked on film sets in the past, including the Annette Bening-starring psycho-stinker In Dreams and the John Travolta action bomb Basic (where I worked as a stand-in for Tim Daly). My observation at the time I did those gigs was that the only jobs really worth having on a film set were the ones that came with a trailer. After two long nights on FNL, I have to say that my opinion hasn't changed.
Not that it wasn't fun at times, and better than waiting tables or cleaning toilets. And the first night, the catering was outstanding, with roast pork loin, southwestern corn niblets, and mashed taters smothered in pork gravy. I helped myself to three servings in preparation for a long night's standing around pretending to be a reporter. The second night's meal was decidedly mediocre, being food-service spaghetti with commodity meat sauce. "The more extras there are, the worse the food," commented one FNL veteran as he looked at the slop on his plate.
I met some very nice Austinites, many of whom have made a second career out of extra work on local productions. One guy was crowing that since Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof had been re-released separately from Grindhouse, he's now getting two residual checks.
One problem with the location was that the football field was adjacent to a waste treatment facility, and when the wind shifted, the stank was overpowering. "That's why the grass is always greener over the septic tank," said the lady next to me. "Same reason the Chinese grow carrots a foot and a half long and this big around," said the crusty grandpa to her left.
The aroma of chemically-treated human waste reminded me of my days as head coach of the Hampshire College baseball team. Since we didn't have a baseball diamond on campus, Hampshire being a hippie school where the only other sports were soccer and ultimate Frisbee, we were forced to play at the UMass JV field. The field was just a few short yards away from the town of Amherst's waste treatment plant, which processed tons of fratboy shit as we played next door. The smell was our secret weapon, our "home field advantage." Our players would dab Atomic Balm under their nostrils to mask the stench while our opponents would try not to lose their lunch on the infield.
When I wasn't engaged in good conversation with my fellow extras, my memory drifted back to my past misadventures in movie work, and way back to my days playing high school football. I remember working on the set of Basic, and playing an MP who was frog-marching Giovanni Ribisi to an interrogation. The AD, some cockney prick whose name I cannot recall (Trevor? Clement? Nigel?) told me I lacked "military bearing." The scene ended up on the cutting room floor. Then there was the time I was needed on the set, but instead was outside ordering Valentine's Day flowers for a crush named Kat, who turned out to be a femme dyke (note: two out of three women named Kat are lesbians). When I ran back to the set, the principals were all pissed at me for delaying the shot. Even the usually friendly Travolta was staring daggers at me. Needless to say, it was my last day on the picture.
When I did In Dreams, I got hired as a production assistant, but I was angling for something with a little more responsibility. I didn't want to be like the Colin Quinn character on The Larry Sanders Show, who gets a job on the show as a favor to Artie, but is looked down upon by the crew as "that 35-year-old PA." Anyway, I convinced Stephen Woolley, the producer (and later the director of the awful Brian Jones hatchet-job biopic Stoned) that I was a filmmaker, and that I would be glad to help him videotape some auditions. When I was given a Sony video camera to shoot a young girl's reading with Annette Bening for director Neil Jordan, I pushed a red button I thought was the "record" button, but which was more like the "wrong" button. The camera stopped functioning, and even the DP couldn't fix it. (Note: don't push the red button).
After that, I was relegated to working the periphery of the location, telling everybody to be quiet. A request ignored by the Teamsters, I might add.
I was reminded of my high school football days for obvious reasons, given the subject matter of Friday Night Lights, and the fact that we were shooting scenes of a fictional football game, but also because as the night wore on and the temperatures dropped into the 50s, my left knee started in a-painin' me somethin' awful. The same knee that Craig Steenson hit with his helmet during football practice back in '77.
Anyway, I start working full-time again next week, so this was probably my last chance to appear on the show. It was pretty cool, I met some nice folks, and now I can look for myself in the background of episode 11. But by the middle of last night, I was dog tired, and ready to go home.
However, I'm going to add a few titles to my Netflix queue thanks to this experience: season one of FNL, Death Proof (Tarantino's worst movie, but chock full of Austin locations), and Ricky Gervais's great series about "background artists," Extras.