(originally published in Avenue magazine, August 2005)
By Brian Tucker
On July 9th an open casting call was held at Westfield Shopping Mall for NBC’s upcoming science fiction show Surface. People of all ages showed up at ten that morning, some with prepared headshots with the hope of making extra money getting the chance to be on television. Similar casting calls were held in Jacksonville and Myrtle Beach. Nearly 5,000 people attended throughout the day in Wilmington.
The cast of the show includes Rade Šerbedžija (Snatch, Batman Begins), Lake Bell (ER, Boston Legal) and Jay Ferguson (Judging Amy, Evening Shade). NBC is investing a lot in the series, created by Josh and Jonas Pate (The Grave) which will be filmed simultaneously in different locations to accommodate multiple storylines.
Surface is scheduled to air this fall on Monday nights.
The first full day of production took place July 20th at the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department. The call time for extras was at seven a.m. at a clear tent just beyond the firehouse. The sun began to make the morning uncomfortable inside the tent where mugginess grew. The crew worked to cool things down. A large, oversized fan was placed in the corner of the tent and an assistant director, Rudy Persico, asked about getting it powered up for the extras. Many stood outside to stay cool. Others remained inside filling out forms to get paid for the day’s work. Long tables lined the tent and breakfast food and drinks were available. A large oversized pipe, like something you see behind a common household dryer, connected to a large generator outside was positioned through the tent’s flaps and within moments there was air conditioning.
It was explained to the extras how there is a watchful eye on the production, that its important to show that this type of show can be produced here. The show is set in several locations and heavy on visual effects. Everyone applauds when it’s mentioned how good it is to have an additional series shooting in Wilmington. There were numerous stickers on equipment that read BRING BACK NC FILM.COM.
Extras milled around, waiting and talking. The hair and make up crew began, a little girl’s hair pulled up and make-up applied. Men, all of a certain height and build were shuttled out to dress in National Guard uniforms – brand new camouflage, and their hair trimmed to look authentic. Other extras were taken away to be dressed as doctors, some in blue scrubs and some in white lab coats and others were in suits to emulate national security, or, ‘men in black’ as the extras joked throughout the day.
One of the extras, whom many knew and called Billy Ray, said he’d been involved in over ninety films and remarked about a scene in The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood that he was featured prominently. Ray was proud of his time spent on movie sets. When called for throughout the day to move to different spots on the set he was quick footed and eager to please.
Remaining extras were asked by wardrobe crew members to step outside into a half circle. Each extra was looked over for their clothes. It was important to wear non-white apparel and clothing devoid of logos. Two extras had black tape placed over tiny logos on their shoes. A few were asked if they wanted to wear their bathing suits all day or go without shirts.
Around 8:30 extras were moved to the set where camouflaged Humvee’s were placed behind the fire department along with black Chevy Suburbans (Jeff Gordon Chevrolet license plates were still on the front) to simulate government vehicles. A troop transport sat at center of the set. The first shot called for the transport to enter the area as though bringing in more evacuees. The shot would require several takes, rehearsing and a few takes to get the shot correct, which necessitated the movement of several vehicles and soldiers assisting evacuees from the rear of the transport vehicle once it stopped.
Extras posing as evacuees brought items from home to emulate what people might grab in a hurry during an evacuation. Some brought pillows, sleeping bags, small suitcases and pet carriers. They were instructed to line up at tents while others were placed about the set – in the troop transport or in the background to give the sense of mild hysteria. The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department doubled as the evacuation area, a sign placed on the building that read Mount Pleasant in shiny black raised letters. Later, a set painter climbed a ladder to repaint the letters rustic grey to make them appear worn and aged.
AD’s would yell “Background!” and extras pretended to be frustrated with the evacuation, pantomiming frustration with the doctors under the tents. After a few takes, an AD would come over to coach some on their movements and to act more frustrated. After about an hour under the morning sun that was easy to do. Crew members were coming over between takes and asking extras if they needed sunscreen and offered small towels to wipe away sweat. One couple, obviously having done this type of work before, had brought their own mini battery operated fan.
The crew set up for another shot, moving cameras in closer to capture one of the show’s heroes entering the scene. They worked fast, expediting the director’s request. AD Rudy Persico helped coordinate the action and refers to the actor as ‘Hero.’ The director, Jeffrey Reiner, refers to her real name, Lake (Bell). All these takes from different angles will give the editor multiple shots to create a scene displaying a hurried evacuation with Bell’s character entering the shot with her son, played by actor Bobby Coleman.
Bell comes to the outdoor set under an umbrella to shield her from sunlight. Between every take a crew member approaches her to pat away any sweat and address make-up concerns. She too has a battery operated fan, leaning over to apply it to Bobby as well, but he is energetic and decides to sit under the high bumper of the troop transport. Coleman is only there a moment before another take is called for. The scene is played several times, Bell approaching the table as frustrated extras leave and move about the area. Reiner wants the actress to be seen between the crowd of people moving about the set. This shot will give the impression of many people as Bell moves through them.
Another take is called for and someone checks Bell’s make-up again. This almost seems unnecessary, she’s tan as a beach local. The actress sees an extra, a young boy of ten years, sitting down. His skin is pale and he wears black glasses that has garnered him Harry Potter questions and jibes all morning. Bell expresses concern for the young boy being out in the sun.
“Maybe that boy shouldn’t be in the sun so much,” she says. A crew member sprays additional sunscreen on him and asks if he’d like water. She tells the boy to stay in the shade under the tents when they aren’t filming. The boys smiles and goes back to talking with an extra he’s paired himself with.
Moments later the scene begins again. Reiner, satisfied with the shot, yells “Check the gate,” which means its time to move on to another shot. Throughout the day, as this is yelled out, conditioning set in over everyone, smiles all around because they knew the shot was complete.
Cameras and track were set up in different places to achieve separate angles of the scene, becoming more apparent as evacuees were shuffled through and introducing one of the show’s heroes, Laura Daughtery (played by Bell). She approaches a doctor’s tent with her son, questioned and becomes aggravated by the situation just like everyone else.
“Are we being arrested?” she asks. The doctor is vague but drives home that she may be needed further in case of ‘infection.’ Her son stands close by, thick long hair falling around his face. Bell runs her fingers through the young boy’s hair playfully between takes. Coleman’s elbows just reach the table where he plays with fake doctor’s items. He pretends to growl like a lion with an extra, Nancy Boldizar, whose son is the young actor’s stand in.
“Background action!” is yelled again. Extras move into line and those at tables study forms on clipboards and hand them back to doctors with frustration. A camera tracks along behind the tents capturing other extras being questioned until stopping on Bell and Coleman. She repeats the same lines again.
“Cut!” Reiner says. Reiner approaches from the monitor station near the parked troop transport, making his way to the tent where Bell still stands. Reiner moves quickly, wearing low-top red Converse, black shorts and a loose fitting white shirt. His curly black hair stands thickly above his forehead.
“Bobby, your performance was great,” Reiner says. The young boy smiles a toothy grin and says thank you.
“Hey, what about me?” Bell jokes. Reiner and Bell discuss the dialogue. The actor portraying the doctor quizzing Bell asks if he can move his chair a little, to make himself more comfortable. The camera operator okays the movement.
“Thanks, guys,” he says, wiping his brow. The heat grows heavier as the noon approaches. Crew members return with towelettes to wipe away sweat. Everyone is fanning themselves and with no clouds in the sky the sun adds pressure. You can hear it in the crew’s voices. There’s a certain amount of tension in the air but not directed at anyone in particular. Everyone just wants to get a lot of work done. A battery malfunction causes a moment of frustration between a camera operator and another crew member but it doesn’t slow the pace of production. This is the third set-up of the morning with each set-up garnering multiple takes. The director calls for the scene to begin again.
“Let’s shoot this before we all melt!” someone playfully yells yet with a hint of disdain for sun. The take begins again but has to stop and everyone resets. In the distance a car backfires, sounding eerily like a shotgun. Bell recoils.
“What was that?” she asks with concern.
“Just an old car backfiring,” an extra nearby answers. Bell’s eyes move to the person who answered, a little embarrassed at what the sound actually was. Her hazel eyes glisten a moment before flashing a wide smile, laughing. The scene is played again until Reiner is satisfied. Everyone breaks while the crew set up the cameras to capture another actor, Rade Serbedzija, seeing Bell in the melee of evacuees.
The crew has been concerned with the heat all day for everyone on set, constantly reminding them to drink plenty of fluids. A table was set up to provide water, Gatorade, fruits and crackers and other items for everyone nourished until lunch. The crew worked hard that day, it was seldom you saw them taking a break, always thanking extras and addressing them as sir or ma’am.
Heat lingered through mid-afternoon, only a few clouds crossed the sky and those that did were dark rain clouds. Timing was good for clouds because by nearly one o’clock the crew moved inside the fire department to rehearse an upcoming scene. Rehearsal and set-up for the scene takes a while and everyone outside finds a place to rest and drink water. People talk on cell phones and try to make the best of a hot day. It is said that the heat index is inching above a hundred degrees.
Inside an area normally designated for fire trucks is now set up to mimic an evacuee staging area. Cots line the concrete floor and the fire trucks were pulled forward until nothing but the rear of the vehicles is adjacent to the garage doors.
Extras moved in and happily took seats on the cots, placing belongings down and some taking it as an opportunity to rest. It wasn’t much cooler inside, but at least there was shade. Stand-ins for the lead actors come in and their positions are taped off – marks to line up properly for the cameras. After a few camera rehearsals Reiner calls for lunch. It is now three o’clock. People could wait for a shuttle to carry them to the tents where lunch is being served by Ken & Arts Movie Catering. Some wait, others just make the walk.
The food served is hearty, tasteful and plentiful. There’s not a lot of time to eat but everyone makes use of what’s available, waiting to talk afterwards. Extras and crew eat roasted chicken and pork in addition to salad, desserts and rice or mashed potatoes. But a storm is approaching, the dark clouds providing plentiful shade. Often thunder sounds off in the distance, it won’t be long before it is near the production.
Everyone returns to the set feeling a little better, stomachs full but the weight of the heat still upon them. Every few moments someone – crew or extras, raises their hand or arm to wipe sweat from their faces. The storm has grown closer and thunderbolts light up the sky. It looks remarkable from inside the fire station’s truck bay. The sky is bruised, yet pale blue, split by thick powerful thunderbolts, the fire trucks serving as black silhouettes against something dangerous approaching.
“Production is shut down,” says Ralph, who works alongside director of photography Bill Sage.
Reiner approaches and asks how long. Ralph says they must shut down when a storm is within ten miles of a production. Reiner asks again how long before they can begin shooting. Discussion centers on how far away the storm is by counting between thunder and lightning bolts. Thunder sounds off and Reiner starts counting thinking that if he counts to ten then the storm is far enough away. Ralph tells him that counting to ten accounts only for one mile, not ten.
“We’re shut down for now,” Sage says. They utilize the time to go over the shot one more time, even altering it and looking at script pages. Stand-ins, refereed to as Second Team, take their marks to line up a camera shot. The light has changed because the fire trucks have left for an emergency call. Sage asks for a garage door to be raised more.
A short time later fire trucks return and park in previous positions. Lighting is changed again. A two by three foot piece of white board is placed on the floor between the front two cots. This will be used to help illuminate the scene. Sage asks for an 18k light to be set up by the fire truck and then someone suggests using the Blackjack. This moveable light source can be hand held or placed somewhere just outside the actors to light the shot. Sage agrees and they check its movement with the camera across the room getting an additional angle. In the time it takes to make these movements and verify, the storm has moved far enough away in which to begin the first take.
“Okay, First Team,” someone yells. Stand-ins leave and lead actors Jay Ferguson and Lake Bell come in. Ferguson sits at the front cot, an extra sitting in front of him. There are script pages at the end of the second cot, the dialogue to take place between Ferguson and Bell’s characters.
Ferguson, originally from Dallas, Texas, stands and paces between the two cots, mumbling lines to himself. He wears a light brown tee-shirt, Levi’s and brown boots. He looks like an everyman – muscular, rugged, thin eyes and speaks with a deep voice. He sits down and introduces himself to the extra sitting facing him. Bell approaches, kneels and they quietly go over lines. Reiner asks if they are ready to begin the scene.
“Yes, sir,” Ferguson says. This will be his first scene of the day. It is also the first scene in the show where he meets Bell’s character. Reiner returns to behind the monitors where he can view what the cameras are filming.
Background action begins – coordinated extras get up and walk from one side to the next, carrying fruit or a bag, to give the scene activity. The camera starts from behind the parked fire truck on its track slowly, capturing the scene – a room full of cots and evacuees seemingly held captive. A boom mic is lowered and Ferguson paces again, back and forth. He sits and the extra sitting in front of him wipes his brow with a blue bandana. Ferguson improvs with the extra to fill time until Bell approaches.
“How long you been here?” Ferguson asks, in character.
“Feels like three weeks or more,” the extra says, in character.
“They aren’t keeping me here three weeks,” Ferguson replies. “That’s for sure.”
There’s a pause, the background action still taking place. Ferguson looks over the crowd.
“What did they tell you?” the extra asks Ferguson.
“Not enough,” he replies. “What did they say to you?”
“Said I might be sick or something,” the extra says.
The camera continues to move past Ferguson and Reiner says out loud “And she notices him.” Reiner’s voice will be replaced later in post-production. Ferguson nods at the extra, serious. He sees Bell approaching.
From the other end of the firehouse Bell was relaxing on a cot with her son when she eyed Ferguson’s character, Richard Owen. She stands and walks between the rows of cots to meet him. She drops to one knee and strikes up a conversation.
“I saw you from back there,” she says. “Are you okay?”
“I twisted my knee a little,” he says. “Nothing serious.”
“Did they charge you?” she asks.
“They said they would if I did it again,” he says.
There’s a short pause but Bell never takes her eyes off him.
“So, why’d you do it?” she asks further. Ferguson looks around, watchful of everyone, agitated.
“To see the big whale,” he says sarcastically. “To see the Red Tide.”
Bell pauses briefly, then intones serious about wildlife explanations for what he saw. “There is no Red Tide,” she finishes and Ferguson looks at her, happily surprised. He introduces his character to hers, shakes hands, and then stands. He retrieves something from his bag. It’s a notebook filled with pages of information that intrigues her, answering questions she’s had.
Director Reiner serves again as the sound of the intercom. “Paging Richard Owen,” he says in a monotone voice. Ferguson looks up, pretending to hear the intercom. From behind, two National Guard officers approach and take him away forcefully. Bells marvels at what she’s found in his notebook. Ferguson yells back at her.
“You saw it! Didn’t you?” he says excitedly.
Bell turns the pages until Reiner calls cut. The scene is replayed many times until everyone is happy with the rhythm. A light drizzle begins outside but doesn’t affect the shoot or the next series of close-up shots of the actors. Extras are asked to wait outside and they take refuge in the craft services area. People are happy to enjoy soft drinks, eat cookies or chew gum provided. It has been a long muggy day and everyone looks tired and in need of a shower. They need to do the scene with everyone again and the extras move inside for another take. All goes well and the day ends. People shake hands and some embrace.
The day ends for the extras but the crew will head over to a house in Forest Hills for interior shooting over the next four hours. Then, the second day of shooting begins. Extras make their way to the tents in which their day began. The air conditioning truck and its large mouth feeding tube are now gone. Trucks are pulling away. Some are being loaded for the next day’s moveable feast. It’s just after seven p.m.
Everyone get in line inside the tent to hand over paperwork to get paid. Any time worked after eight hours is considered time and a half, so the long day won’t be too bad. If an extra brought props for the day’s shoot they were also compensated. People leave and are told to call if they want to work the following Thursday. It’s not bad work if you can get it. And you might get to be on television.