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Friday, 21 June 2013

World War Z - The experiences of a background movie extra

Just what is it about Brad Pitt that sees him loved and loathed in equal measures? Only yesterday I was reading my way through a list of comments and contributions to one of many online Sci-Fi & horror groups I’m part of, many of which were dealing with the forthcoming Zombie flick World War Z. For anyone from another world (sic) reading the amount of bile and vitriol directed at Mr Pitt, they could be reasonably excused for assuming that the guy was responsible for walking the streets and thumping old Grannies in the face with his favourite gardening implement of choice. I mean, some of the comments were harsh – “Brad Pitt is going to be so F**king sh*t in this movie”....  “Brad Pitt should stick to being a pretty boy for Miss Jolie rather than mess with the Horror genre. I hope he dies”. A little harsh - and these were some of the more polite remarks. Suffice to say I doubt I shall not be frequenting that particular group again. 

Fight club, Twelve Monkeys, Inglorious Bastards and the marvellous Cohen Brothers film Burn after Reading all featured Mr Pitt. Not a bad track record. Yes maybe he is a pretty boy who symbolises the modern day CGI behemoth that is Hollywood. Maybe it’s just that some people don’t like the Hollywood treatment of their favourite genre.....maybe they have a point on that issue, but lets have a modicum of sensibility here, eh? He may not  be everyone's cup of tea (he's not always mine), but burning him at the stake for why he represents may be pushing things a little too far.

Anyhow, enough of that. This blog entry isn’t as much interested on the film career of Brad Pitt, but rather more with his current major Hollywood screen-busting-much-
Hi, I'm Brad. Please love me.
hyped-apocalyptic Zombie Horror movie, World War Z. More precisely, I want to explore one relevant facet of the movie – just what is it like to have a part, however small, in such a venture?

When it was announced back in 2011 that a big Hollywood blockbuster starring a big Hollywood star was going to be filming some of its scenes in Glasgow it was, well, big news here in much of Scotland. I can still remember first hearing that a big Zombie movie was going to include some scenes filmed in Glasgow, Brad Pitt was in it and maybe Angelina Jolie was also going to be in the area. If truth be told (and this will come to no surprise to those who know me) I seemed to focus primarily on the news that Angelina was going to be within potential stalking distance of where I live. The rest of that information for a while seemed to take second place. Of course, I’m only joking about the stalking thing......................

The news was two-fold – not only was the producer/star of the movie (the aforementioned Mr. Pitt), but the film’s director Marc Forster (director of the underrated Bond movie, Quantum Of Solace) and a seemingly small army of film crew were going to descend upon the second city of the Empire for a few balmy days in 2011. The idea was to convert the centre of Glasgow, in essence Americanise it, to serve as a substitute for the city of Philadelphia. Apparently, Philadelphia itself was unable to be used due to some tax technicalities, so after ‘stumbling’ across a likeness of sorts between the two cities it had been decided by the film’s producers that this could work. After all, it’s not an unheard of practice in location filming, the London docklands providing the location for Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket is one prime example.

Not only that, but they were going to need crowd extras for the filming...... and the word was out for applicants.........

Now, I would love to continue this blog entry with my own personal account of some witty anecdotes of my filming experience in a big movie, sharing a beer and manly joke with my new friend Brad and trying to persuade Angelina that being the partner of a sci-fi/fantasy/horror blog writer on the run would just not work, no matter how much she pestered me. 

However, it was never to be..... work commitments meant that I couldn’t make the scheduled dates for shooting. For some reason, my line manager at college couldn't understand my justification (see above comments Re Ms Jolie) in cancelling a couple of weeks of classes - go figure. So the world of Hello magazine and the like were spared another Hollywood couple break-up..... and this blog writer still has yet to be discovered. Ah well.

Though as it happens, I do know someone who DID manage to find his way into the movie. As i hope you will agree, it provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a background extra in the movies.

So here is my interview with Zombie fan and now close friend of Brad Pitt, George Stewart .

(FD) So George, tell us a little about yourself

(GS) My name is George Stewart and I have always been into zombies ever since I had rented ‘Dawn of the Dead’ away back in the early 80s. I distinctly remember my mum saying “Well, if this is the sort of thing you are going to be watching I think we will be sending the video recorder back.” So you could say me affair with zombie movies started as a bit of teenage rebellion.  

It is one of those genres though where the movie could be serious like ‘Day of the Dead,’ campy like ‘Life force’ funny like ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ or ‘Braindead,’ gruesome like anything by Fulci and absolutely awful like which most of them seemed to be. It wasn’t that I exclusively watched these types of
movie, but had a soft spot for them and on film nights at a friends’ they went well with beer. It was only when well into adulthood I read Max Brooks ‘Zombie Survival Guide’ and then a few years later my wife remarked that Brad Pitt had bought the rights to a book I may like. The book was ‘World War Z’

(FD) How did you hear about the job?

(GS) I’d heard about the open casting from my sister who used to act as a hobby, she had seen it advertised online and as she had some movie and television work and was going to go along with her 6 year old son as the online advertisement said they needed children as well as adults. My other sister had been an extra in a Richard E Grant movie and was a fan of the Max Brooks novel so she was going to with some of her friends. As I was down in Glasgow visiting for the weekend and as I had read ‘World War Z’ I decided to tag along.

(FD) What type of other people applied for the job?

(GS) Every type of person you could imagine.  The original adverts said:  “All welcome – men/women/children all shapes and sizes. Although the production are particularly interested in people from these backgrounds: Irish, Italian and Hispanic, Black – African and Afro Caribbean, Chinese and East Asian, ex or still serving military personnel.”  There were pensioners, teenagers, geeks, families, students looking for an extra cash and just regular men and woman looking for a bit part in a movie. There were a lot of people moaning and pretending to be zombies but the application form stated that the extras were not for the roles of zombies, but regular civilians. The open casting was held at Glasgow Caledonian University Arc Building and over the course of the Saturday thousands of potential extras showed up to try for one of the 500 places available. There was supposed to be two days for casting but the response was huge so they managed to get all their extras from the one day.

(FD) Did you have to ‘audition’?

(GS) Not at all, you filled out and application which asked height, weight, age along with other standard questions. There was a section that asked for any military background and another for a description of your car if you had one. The production was looking for anyone who had an American style vehicle that could be used in the background.Other than that the selection process involved getting your photograph taken and a friendly “We’ll be in touch if they like the look of you.” A few weeks passed where I had my fingers crossed “please be a cop, please be a cop.” I finally got an email saying I had been successful and was down for a role as a Male Civilian. Still it was better than nothing. The email also requested a fitting date where I was measured up and supplied with some office wear. They also took my photograph as this was the way I had to look for the duration of the shoot. No growing stubble, shaving my head or changing my appearance at all. To be fair every day on set you had to visit the costume department and they would check your photo against your current look in case you had changed. The extras playing soldiers all had to get shaved heads, yet in all my days shooting I never saw one without a helmet on.

(FD) How long did it last for?

(GS) The original shoot was supposed to be for 12 days but it over ran and was extended to about 16. Some people were lucky and were requested for the full duration. Others, like me, got about 10 days where a few only had a couple of calls on set. The scenes that were being shot were the beginning of the movie, which shows Philadelphia fall to the zombie epidemic. It was filmed chronologically so as the shoot progressed more and more civilians were required for the ensuing panic, the most being about 500 towards the last few days.

(FD) So tell me about some of the experience.

(GS) You would not believe how much fun it was. It was a big budget movie with an A list star and we were all getting paid for it while the rest of Glasgow stood behind the barriers taking photos and filming. Don’t get me wrong, it was very early starts, sometimes 6am, and late finishes. The payment for the hours you did would not even make minimum wage, but we were the lucky few that got to be in a movie all of Glasgow wanted to be in and that was all over the national news at the time. Some days on set you would be taking up positions for a scene and look round to see dozens of people filming you just because you were there. There may have been some nerves as you were required to run about and ‘act’ as though in fear of your life, and it didn’t help that there were usually a few hundred people watching from the barriers and from buildings, but after a few takes you just went with it and roared your head off with the rest. 
The men hear that Angelina is waiting to buy them a drink….

There were times your legs almost gave out because of the constant re shooting of a scene and the running that seemed to always be involved. There was the typical interruption from the Scottish weather where sometimes you had to return to the holding area as the light was wrong. You sometimes had your lunch cut short as we were all needed quickly back on set as the light was right and so you went hungry. Setting up scenes, particularly those involving stunts took time and all you could do was wait. The good thing about this though was that you talked to anyone who was near you. The extras all chatted to each other like old friends even though most had only known each other for a few days. Weird thing was all the civilians and cops chatted to each other, but the extras playing Army only seemed to talk to other Army extras and S.W.A.T. only talked to other S.W.A.T.

There was also the main attraction of being caught on camera, especially if next to Brad. So if a scene was being filmed and you were near him and his screen family you were happy that the camera may just catch you. If you were unfortunate enough to be far away in the ‘background’ you were actually a bit annoyed. I met a guy I used to work with on set and in one of the crowd scenes he said I was running along parallel to Brad, Mireille Enos and their kids. You immediately get to thinking “Yes!” and hope that you make it onto screen.

As day to day the production crew never knew what they would get filmed you were never guaranteed a place filming the next day. You were informed late in the afternoon if your services were required the next day. This was usually a text but could be an email. Around 4pm every day you would see folks checking their mobiles and saying “I’m back tomorrow” if required or looking decidedly glum if nothing arrived.

(FD) Tell me about the filming of the action sequences.

Just a normal driving day in Glasgow…...

GS) The thing I most remember being impressed with is some of the stunts. Not for the stunt itself but for prep that was needed. There is a car crash near the beginning of the movie and it kept going wrong.  All they did was go and get replacement vehicles for each of the cars involved and set it up again. I don’t know how many they had of the station waggon that gets wrecked but they never ran out. At one point a large stunt involves a garbage truck flying into a removal van. They shot the scene. Destroyed the vehicles then just said we’ll do it again after lunch..

(FD) What about the Zombies themselves?

(GS) The zombies were kind of freaky and they were built up so that you never really saw them. They were being filmed in some scenes but between shooting they were taken away to a different holding area so you never got to close to them. The production marched them about in a line and they had golf umbrellas covering their faces so you never really got a clear look. Sometime though you would see them watching a scene being filmed, smoking a cigarette with a nasty looking bite on their face or neck.

(FD) How realistic did the transformation of that area of Glasgow to look like Philadelphia feel?

(GS) The thing that all the footage and photographs don’t do justice is the really tiny details that the production involved. Sure everyone knew that street signs had been put up, sections of the road painted and American style traffic light hung up. But on set you would see that the flyer that was pasted to a wall advertised a fictional bar in Philadelphia. The sticker on a construction workers helmet told who he voted for in a presidential campaign. They were the things that really impressed me. I went online to
Glasgow's George's Square in a stunning wide shot
compare the area of Philly the set was supposed to represent and it does bear a striking similarity. There were also nice touches like a tramp that had a 3 legged dog. I talked to the owner and the dog had been hired especially for this. There were also a bunch of school kids with Philadelphia/Dusseldorf exchange student t-shirts. It really was amazing what you noticed when you spent time looking.

FD) Did you ever ‘get lost’ in the part, the experience?

(GS) Some of the crowd scenes really got hairy. You had 500 people running about pretending to flee in terror from zombies and then unexpectedly the production started firing blank ammunition in the air just to add to the effect. People were actually ducking. At its most confusing you really couldn’t help but get carried away as people were screaming, guns going off and an actor playing a cop was running through the general melee screaming into his radio “THEY’RE BITING. THEY’RE BITING.” That and I know some people who ran past a guy who was being attacked by a zombie. They never knew a zombie was in the scene and they just sort of looked and went “Shit!” The look of fear on them is real. 

There were also a ridiculous amount of injuries on set, about 150 plus during my time there. Most were sprains and falls due to the constant running about, but I know of two people who had ribs cracked when someone larger piled into them. The production did try and tell the extras to take it easy but some still barged through as though it was an actual apocalypse. There was a story in the national press that Brad rescued someone from being trampled in the crowd, but it wasn’t even true. A guy fell and the scene had to be stopped and he was taken away. Brad wasn’t even there.

(FD) Were there any major misconceptions about being a movie extra that were revealed?

The young girl on the left is a cunningly disguised 'minder' for Brad.

(GS) Its hard work and anyone can get star struck. In the crowd scenes Brad is surrounded by stuntmen who will ‘nudge’ you out of the way if you get too close. It can also get a 
bit boring if you have to wait out a spell of bad weather. 
It was made worse because you were having so much fun during the shooting you didn’t want to go back to sitting about. Brad Pitt really does look good, even close up.

(FD) Were there any rules, such as “Don’t talk to Brad” .... “Don’t’ try to chat-up Angelina”? 

(GS) There was a strict no cameras on set, and you could get kicked off the movie for being caught. It wasn’t enforced strictly though and as long as you were not seen to be filming events or taking photos of the actors you were fine. You were also not allowed to talk to the actors though, but they were usually just brought to set in a wee black Smart Car when they were required and whisked away again when they were done. Max Brooks did visit the set one day so I said hello to him. They actually had one of those seats with his name on the back of it and I’m sure he must have sat on it for 2 seconds then wandered away.

You were also supposed to hand back your filming pass when shooting was done, but I kept mine for a memento.

(FD) How avidly will you be looking for any screen time of yours in the movie?! 

(GS) There is a Facebook page that was set up by the Glasgow Extras called simply World War Z extras. If you go on there anybody that was on the movie scans every trailer to see if they are visible. I’ve never came across myself in any of the footage yet but when the Blu Ray comes out I’ll be watching it frame by frame until I see myself. Even if it’s just the back of my head.

I would like to thank George for his excellent and entertaining thoughts and recollections of being a background movie extra. They made this blog entry far easier to write than normal!

World War Z is a 2013 Zombie apocalyptic movie directed by Marc Forster and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Max Brooks. The film’s main character is played by Brad Pitt who portrays a United Nations worker attempting to put an end to the Zombie pandemic that is sweeping around, and destroying the world. It is due for UK release on the 21st June.

There will most likely be a review of the movie in a future blog………….

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