Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Playing Dead in a Movie

It's a lot harder than you'd think to play dead in a movie. Oh, it's not as hard as acting, I'd imagine. Getting into the frame of mind to play pretend in front of other people, who might well be critical of your pretending abilities, seems extremely difficult to me. Claire and I did some "acting" on the set of Slime City Massacre, but nothing like those actors who had to deliver lines in a convincing way. Nevertheless, lying in a pool of blood on the floor of an abandoned postal building, covered in more blood, with about twenty other people, is a lot harder than it sounds. It's also probably the worst way imaginable to wake up after a long night of drinking, but that's a different story.

I'm a fan of the horror genre and have been since I was a kid. Horror films mediate our fears of mortality in a way that most other sorts of drama cannot. For instance, I remain convinced that David Cronenberg's The Fly is one of the best movies I've ever seen about terminal illness. By abstracting themes of death and decay through fantastic frameworks, horror fiction can get at the ugly and unfair fact that we don't get to hang out on this planet forever. Also, as a collective experience, horror films are visceral and emotional and seeing them with an audience is a blast.

Provided they're good, that is. There are a lot of bad horror movies. I suppose there are a lot of bad sci-fi movies, or action movies, or comedies too. But my critical facilities go out the window with horror movies. If an action film is terrible, I know it. If a horror movie is bad, I can know that it's bad and still have a great time watching it. If it's terrible, I look forward to watching it with friends and beer.

So, when I found out that they were making a sequel to the late 80s horror movie Slime City, I was pretty excited. And when I found out they were shooting it in Buffalo, my first thought was to see if I could watch the filming from afar. Finally, when I read the post on the Rue Morgue message board entitled "Can I kill you in Slime City Massacre?" I was overjoyed. I'm sort of a geek that way. It's a bit embarrassing, but I guess we all need to be giddy about something.

Day One
The first day of filming with extras began at 9:00 am on a Sunday. I drove down and crossed the border at an ungodly hour and found the location- the old Grand Central Terminal in Buffalo- before anyone but a nice couple from Baltimore who knew the director Gregory Lamberson. They had driven up for the shoot, so they beat me for distance. They were very friendly in a way that I find most horror fans, and actually most people in the states, to be. There was also a police car parked at the location. None of us knew for sure that we were supposed to be there, but the building is so incredible (as I've talked about here) that it seemed most likely.

People began straggling in. The call was for extras to play homeless people in a post-apocalyptic New York in which a terrorist blast has leveled part of the city. We were the survivors and I'm sure the cops were a bit surprised to see people driving in dressed like characters in The Road Warrior. It was reassuring for me though.

The crew arrived before long and this was a relief too- they were a very professional bunch with good equiptment and they knew what they were doing. I wasn't expecting a full Hollywood production staff, but it was nice to know that it also wasn't two guys with a camera trespassing in old buildings to shoot, with one guy watching for police. They had secured the location, which was perfect for the story, and I think Lamberson wrote the story with the location in mind. It really was perfect- like a full soundstage already made to look post-apocalyptic.

There were about 20-30 of us the first day and we all got made up in fake dirt and grime. I found that the mixture actually tasted pretty good- some of it got in my mouth and I think it must have had corn syrup in there. So my face was both ugly and delicious.

They positioned us on the old railway platform for a scene in which the heroes arrive in "Slime City", a dystopian homeless person's paradise. We were supposed to interact with each other and then stop to glare are the heroes, an attractive young couple, who will likely be much less attractive by the end of the film. I was interacting with a funny local actor who played a one-armed man. We were fighting over a stick. I was turned towards him and away from the camera, so I was mostly doing what my friend Cheryl calls "backting".

We were done by about 3:00- it took us about four hours to get done with our minute of screen time. Apparently, this is the norm. Claire's uncle, who is a professional cinematographer, has told us the same thing. Shooting a movie involves a lot of waiting around. You can see why actors like having trailers. A lot of the other extras had worked on other local movies- most of them seemed to have been in Poltrygeist. They said that this was one of the best run and fastest shoots they'd done.

Day Two
The second shooting day took place in the "Den of Cyn", a sort of county fair after the apocalypse. I played a haggler at a table where two men were selling "goods" they'd found. The two of them were great. They reminded me of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show. We mimed most of our "business" in the scenes to avoid talking over the main actors. I wanted to mime shoplifting, which I thought would be funny, but couldn't figure out how to do it without moving around the 'merchandise'. Since they shoot scenes out of order, you don't want to move things around or it will look strange when edited together. An example would be a scene at the end of The Goonies, in which a woman's hand is holding jewels. She has on nailpolish, until we cut to the next shot and suddenly she doesn't!
There were more extras this day and many of them had on great outfits. There was a metalworker selling machetes, our haggling table, a leather slave, transvestites, drug dealers, and a madame with a group of hookers. I'm thinking this will not be a PG film. There was also a funny bit with two "bros" looking to slum it in Slime City and gawk at the homeless people. It looks like there will be a biting, satirical edge to the movie, which I liked.

Day Three
The third day Claire and I went down together. They wanted fifty extras for this day, in which the titular 'Massacre' was to take place. Indeed, they seemed to have about that many people show up. It probably helped that it was a Saturday. Claire and I got made up and waited. Interestingly enough, we found a prosthetic chin lying in the grass, which sounds like something out of an Alice Donut song or a Dali painting. I took a few pictures.

On this day, they were shooting quite a bit of material involving a group of mercenaries from the fictional "Blackwater Security" and the residents of Slime City. The guys playing the mercenaries looked just like action film heroes. They were definitely into their characters- a few of them unnervingly so. I thought back to playing soldiers in the backyard.

It also became clear just how ambitious the movie is. Considering that it's shooting for about $100,000, they're definitely going to accomplish a lot. I think it's going to look like a five million dollar film when they're done. In the era of 140 million dollar movies, that might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's not. Most of us couldn't pull off anything like this movie for $100,000.

Without giving too much away, our characters on this day had to look scared. It will likely sound inappropriate, but I tried to evoke this child in this famous photo from Nazi Germany. I imagined my character as a paranoid schizophrenic whose worst nightmares are coming true. A bit too much thinking, perhaps, but it was important for me to take the film seriously. The film might have a satirical edge, but the filmmakers take what they're doing seriously. So I saw no reason to camp it up.

Claire got to get splattered with blood in the shoot- lucky girl. There was a "gag" involving a character getting shot in the head and the air-compressed blood was required to hit the wall and a character played by the F/X guy. There was some concern that it wouldn't work, but it did- the blood hit the wall and the bystanders, including Claire, and everyone applauded after the shot was done.

For the massacre, we were all lined up in the postal building. I tried to look scared. Here I realized how hard it is to act in a movie. You're trying to look terrified, while trying to ignore the crew, who are not at all part of the scene. It's hard not to feel goofy, but I think we got it.

Then it was outside for more waiting. We watched the effects guys walking into the building with huge buckets of fake blood, and I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. Finally, the producer (I think) came out and asked some people to get killed inside. He called Claire and asked if I could come back the next day. My heart sank. I was happy for her, of course, but realized I was going to be a survivor. Only a horror movie geek would be saddened by that.

In a heartwarming moment, Claire stopped and asked if her husband could get killed to because he'd really want to. "Okay, come on Rufus!" the guy yelled. I'm not sure if he was the Producer or the Production Assistant, but he was a great guy all around. I ran in smiling. This is why I married Claire.

I did sort of worry that I was making the next day's shooting difficult in some way. But I also figured that my extra role was not "pivotal" to the story. I really hope that we weren't out of line. Claire was right though: getting killed in a horror film is a dream come true for me.

Actually, we were killed off-camera. So, the twenty of us were lying dead on the floor of the postal building. They laid out cardboard and positioned us on the floor. I took off my shoes so the Nike logo wouldn't be in the shot. Right before we got into position, the effects guy came and splattered us with blood. As you'll see in these pictures, we did have reason to worry about having to go through the border crossing afterward!

We were there for a crane shot from overhead and had to remain still and lifeless. It was harder than that sounds because we "fell" in rather uncomfortable positions. Also, the shot was about a minute long, so I had to breathe. Worst, and perhaps most disgusting of all, was the fact that I had recently eaten a bagel that seemed to want to be regurgitated. I kept bringing up bile into my mouth while they were shooting, and I was trying to keep the motionless face, and Claire was positioned on top of my stomach.

This went on for some time. They wanted to get several takes of the shot. I kept thinking that I was twitching in the shot, and worried that I'd be "that guy" who is spotted moving by viewers and joked about on the Internet. Also, I was worried that I'd vomit on camera, which would probably ruin the scene too. Not to mention how close we all were- like a game of Twister. It could have resulted in something like the barf-o-rama scene in Stand by Me!

Luckily, I made it through and I think I looked okay for a dead guy. Overall, working on Slime City Massacre was an absolute blast. The crew was both professional and kind and it is clear that Gregory Lamberson is living a dream making this movie. I look forward to seeing the DVD and showing it to friends. As I commented to Claire, it was great to be an extra on exactly the sort of movie I'd go see.

And, for the record, the border guard coming into Canada was very amused by our story and in no way freaked out about the dried blood in my ear.


Michael O'Hear said...

As one of the crew on the movie, I just want to say how much I enjoyed your write up of your experience on SCM. Everyone who came out to be an extra on the movie was a joy to work with.

Kealan Patrick Burke said...

Glad you had a good time, man. You guys were great to tolerate that "pile-o'-corpses" scene. Kept watching the dust roll all over you when we walked past and I felt so bad.

Good job, and great write-up!


Jay Mager said...

As the guy who said, "Okay, come on Rufus." I'm glad we got to kill you on screen! Thanks for coming out and for the great write up!

Jay Mager
2nd Assistant Director - SCM!

clairev said...

Oh, hey, glad to hear from everyone. It's funny, I've now got everyone's names straight, thanks to the Youtube making of clips. So, now I can say definitively that Jay, Michael, and Kealan, you guys were super gracious and fun to work with. We're looking forward to seeing the finished product!

Anonymous said...

We're actually 2/3 through editing - we're up to the MASSACRE itself - and I'm happy to report that you're very visible, Rufus! Thanks again to you and your wife for coming out.


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