Last March 29, I stood in faded work clothes, my body dabbed with fake sweat and grime, pretending to smoke a cigarette while, a few yards away, Spiderman stood trying to find the right emotion just as the sun went down.
Such is life in the glamorous, exciting career of a movie extra.
But that was my experience on “The Devil All the Time,” the new Netflix movie that premiered Wednesday. A story of interconnected Gothic Appalachian characters mixed up in murder, sex and religion, the film stars Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Bill Skarsgård and Riley Keough.
And me, though you’d never recognize me on screen unless I pointed myself out to you. “Devil” began shooting in Alabama last February in locations such as Montevallo, Jacksonville, Birmingham, Helena, Anniston and Riverside. My contribution came in Deatsville, near the Pine Flat Presbyterian Church that figures prominently in the film.
On an impulse, I responded to a casting call with a selfie and within a few hours, I received a text message asking if I could be in Birmingham for a costume fitting. The next day, I was on the road for a 1 p.m. arrival. They assembled us all in a tent village not far from the church. There was a portable restroom trailer nearby, with the sign saying “extras,” to avoid any awkward bathroom encounters with movie stars, I supposed.
Working on a movie is an odd mix of fantasy and boredom, the hyperreal and the banal. You are engaged in a lot of tedious, seemingly ridiculous activity to produce an intensified version of reality. So a lot of the movie business is hurry up and wait. It took four hours to get a group of us made up for the scene that lasted, on screen, barely a minute. A makeup artist sprayed something from a bottle marked “grime” on my arms and face, then left it to dry. It would take two days of showers before I was completely clean of the stuff.
After makeup, it was lunch time. Grilled Greek chicken, grilled tenderloin, salmon, salad bar, your choice of dessert, all the best. As I stood trying to figure out whether I wanted tea, I motioned Robert Pattinson ahead of me so he could get some lemonade. He hadn’t been announced as Batman yet, but it seemed the right thing to do.
After our food had settled, we put on the costumes. A costumer very methodically began daubing our clothes with fake dirt. She checked to make sure we weren’t wearing ankle socks. Now, keep in mind, we might never appear on screen, and if we did, it might only be for a second at a distance. But everything had to look authentic, right down to placing water bottles in our prop lunchboxes for heft. When she was finished, I realized that for the first time in my life, I looked like I had done an honest day’s work. And it was all a lie.
As dusk approached, they told us to be ready to head to the set. We stood by the roadside. A car slowed down, probably thinking we were actors, and the people inside began taking pictures with their phones. Were they in for a letdown…
The pulse quickened on the way over. Hey, we’re actually going to make a movie! They deposited us on an old two-lane off the main highway near a large pasture where about a half-dozen vintage cars were parked. When they asked for “background,” we walked up and they explained what we were to do.
A flatbed truck would pull up into the shot. We were road workers finishing up our shift with “Arvin,” and once off the truck, we would walk to our cars in the pasture, handing off our hardhats to the guys on the next shift waiting to get on. Arvin would see a deputy waiting to deliver some very important news to him. “Any of you guys smoke?” they asked, telling us to act like we were hanging back out of curiosity to see what was going on with him.
After we ran through our directions, along walks “Arvin” – Tom Holland. I had to remind myself – you’re here to do a job. Of course, its easy to do that. There are 50 people standing around at any given time – prop masters, stand-ins, actors’ assistants, production assistants, wardrobe people, makeup artists to touch you up, a still photographer to record everything, the old car wranglers, not to mention the camera and technical people. And into the middle of it, they’ve deposited you, just a career moviegoer to fill the frame with an interesting background blur.
The pace quickly picks up. Tom, whose accent when not on camera hovers between Brit and pseudo-Blount County, flubs a line, so we go back to the beginning. I get the impression of someone who is trying hard to remember a dozen different things, technical and emotional, all while being the center of attention. Yet he wears it all well, hopping between grim and joshing.
In-between shots, he spots a guy toting an armful of Little Caesar’s Pizza boxes. “Is that the third meal of the day?” he asks loudly, before grabbing a slice of pepperoni and scarfing it down. Just before the call of “action,” he turns to ask anyone nearby, “Have I got pizza on my face?”
With each take of the scene, we as background actors start trying to make sure we’ll stand out. Gestures to each other. The side eye as we walk out. We have no idea if any of this will work. As our group of three pauses at the cars giving background action, I whisper to my two “co-stars,” “You realize, there’s no way they’re cutting this out of the movie. This scene is too important.” A childish thrill passes over us.
So now it’s time to film the truck pulling up, as the sun was going down. “Good day, lads!” Tom shouts to us, getting onto the truck, and sits right next to me as we head down the road to turn around. I’m reminded that this man was the star of a movie my daughter went to see six times.
“Long day?” we ask.
“No, just about eight hours,” he said. “When we did ‘Spiderman,’ it was 15 or 16 hours.”
Then we have to turn this huge flatbed truck around on a broken-down, two-lane Alabama road. And Spiderman, as though his Spidey sense wouldn’t go off, stands up in the truck bed. I instantly had a vision of telling the story of “How I was there when Tom Holland died filming his last movie.” He’s telling the driver that he can keep backing up, but there’s no way the driver can hear him over the sound of the engine. If we go over the side of the hill, he’s going to be catapulted up against Southern Pine.
But thankfully, nothing to worry about. The truck makes it to the mark, we jump off, and the scene is in the can.
Everybody claps, as the day is over. My fellow extras and I are off with a slice of pizza and back to the real world, content to wait for more than a year to see if anyone will be able to recognize us on screen.
It’s a fickle game, this motion picture business.