4/11/14

Me and Joss

The LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD Series

Joss Whedon – Photo by Gage Skidmore
SUNNYDALE, 2003

Working as an extra in film and TV is really easy to do, more so than people would think. You pretty much just need to live in the the Los Angeles area, have reliable transportation, and be breathing. Gender, age, looks, talent (or lack thereof), and skill doesn’t matter, just cough up twenty-five bucks for the “photo fee” at Central Casting and you’re in.

NOTE: That’s what it was then. I have no idea what it is now.

As a Central Casting client, you’d check the hotline whenever you wanted to work to see if there was anything coming up in the next few days that fit you. They put all the casting calls on voicemail and, if there was a job description that sounded right for you, you’d call up the agent handling it.

This is how the call sounded on the hotline on that day in mid-2003:
BEEP.. “Hey guys, this is Allan and we’re casting townsfolk for the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that will be shooting on Wednesday. I need every ethnicity from black to white, Asian and so on, plus a variety of types from long-haired to buzzed military looks. This is a big call, guys, so ring me up at 6159 and book quickly, this one’s going to go fast.”
I hung up and dialed the line for agents, then hit 6-1-5-9. Then I did it again. Then again. The hard part about getting these gigs was getting through to the agent because they’d only put a call on the hotline during the time they’re booking it, then they’d take it off as soon as they filled up the slots.

If you were serious about working as an extra and getting daily gigs, you sometimes had to check the hotline up to ten times a day and then try for an hour or more to get through to the booking agent for the gig. If you managed that, it was a pretty sure bet you’d get it as long as you were responding to your type.

The Buffy call that day was a no-brainer since he needed all types, but it was often very specific and, if you were calling on something that didn’t fit you, they’d just sort of laugh and hang up. Not cool. I got through to Allan and he booked me, then gave me the “info number” to call later for details. That’s right, a third phone call. At least at this stage you’ve got the gig and you’re going to work, you’re just calling to find out exactly when and where.

I arrived at a little studio lot in Santa Monica on Wednesday morning that I’d never been to because they only shot Buffy there, and I hadn’t worked on the show before. I was lucky to get in on the last episode.

Allan had needed all of those types because we would be townsfolk fleeing Sunnydale before it imploded and got sucked down into the hellmouth. I followed the show at the time and had no idea that the entire town of Sunnydale was contained on a lot in Santa Monica, with bookstores, surf-shops, and condos right across the street – just on the other side of the large green fence. I bet those people never knew they were next to Sunnydale that whole time, with its vampires and monsters running amok at all hours.

The production assistant in charge of extras got me set up, along with the hundred or so others, and told me that when they started rolling I would stroll casually down the middle of the street while carrying a suitcase which had been given to me earlier by the prop master.

They mixed it up and gave a lot of people bedrolls, backpacks, and bundles of household goods (I remember one girl who had a birdcage with fake parakeets in it.) but I got a neatly packed suitcase. I guess I just looked orderly or something.

I’d been shown my “starting point” and told to wait there until they were rolling. It was about twenty feet from the director’s hutch, which is a temporary kiosk they always set up on shoots that can be easily moved throughout the day, containing all the monitoring gear and a canopy overhead to keep the sun off. There were also a gaggle of actor’s and producer’s chairs, the canvas kind you see with the names on them.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Anthony Head, Nicholas Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan all had name chairs in the area and the actors themselves started showing up after a while and cutting up with each other and the crew. There was a palatable excitement among them on that particular day that wasn’t normally present on TV shoots. They all knew it was (nearing*) the last day of a series they’d been working on for years and, for most of them, it had defined their career.

Actors, crew, and other extras milled around me as I stood on that Sunnydale sidewalk and took it all in. I noticed that the guy standing next to me seemed to be feeling as I was. He watched all of the commotion with a little grin on his face while looking very glad to be there.

“Nice day to be shooting outdoors, huh? Of course, not unusual for LA, haha!”

I was making small talk. I’d made quite a few friends on sets in my three years of doing extra work and there were as many as ten people I knew well at this particular shoot, but they’d all been assigned to stand in different areas. This guy was the only one in talking distance and I’d never seen him before.

“Yeah, that’s LA for ya!” he said. “The weather makes it really nice for shooting almost any time of the year.”

So here we were talking about the weather, and now it was time to move on to talking about “the biz.” Like I said, small talk. If you didn’t know someone on a set you’d usually talk about the weather, the entertainment business, and your career.

“So, have you worked this show before?”

He looked at me and nodded. “Yeah, you could say that.” His semi-smile mixed with a knowing glance was a giveaway that I wasn’t talking to another extra, which the director confirmed a moment later when he looked in our direction.

“Hey Joss! We’re just about ready, good to see you!”

Joss Whedon turned to me and said, “Nice talking to you, uh..”

I forgot my name for a second. Oh yeah, I got it..

“D-Dave,” I stammered.

“Dave, right.. well have fun today!”

“Thanks man, you too.”

I ended up in that final episode, but barely. A wistful-looking Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) walks against the crowd’s exodus and, at one point, I walk past her. That’s it. Just me and my neatly packed suitcase bidding Buffy adieu, for a split-second in time. Maybe a hundred frames of film at the most.

But I remember it well, and I remember Joss and his smile – both of which have since gone on to lots of other cool, magical things. Me, I’m sitting here in a cheap hotel room in San Francisco, writing about it. Someday I’ll unpack that suitcase and make a life.

Me walking by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the episode.
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* HEY DAVE,

The evacuation of Sunnydale because of the widening hellmouth takes place in episode #19 of the seventh season (Empty Places) and not the final episode, #22 (Chosen) as you’ve suggested. What do you have to say for yourself?

~ a Buffy fan

Dear Buffy fan,

I’ve forgotten what I had for breakfast this morning. I think it was pancakes. In my defense, they frequently shoot things out of sequence and that may very well have been the final scene shot for that entire series (although I’m guessing), because I do remember that being mentioned.

I saw the exodus scene some time later but didn’t remember what episode it was in so I just assumed it was the final one.

Thanks for letting me know, Sarah.

~ Dave
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