Commentaries

A Prairie Home Companion Movie Filming: My Life as a Spare Part
July 27, 2005

Well, it�s been a quiet week on the PHC movie set. Or at least it has been quiet in the extras� holding tank. A couple of nights, armed with snacks for the 2pm � 11pm shift I arrive and they say, �It�s a wrap.� So I get to go home early. Other days it�s back in the airport lounge again with people nodding off, devouring best sellers, and chatting with neighbors a little longer than they had planned.

There was one big, action-packed session though a few days ago. Plied with stale popcorn and fake soda pop we filled the Fitz to the rafters in imitation of a packed house. Just my luck to be seated in the gods, high up in the second balcony. At least they are shooting in high definition so I can still get the DVD when it comes out and zoom right into my seat, I bet. Actually the set is surprisingly dimly lit (lighted?), not much more than the level of quaint yellow candlelight. Apparently that�s what high definition cameras need and the days of Hollywood bright face-melting lights are rapidly fading.

We do a pretty good impression of an audience arriving. We should after the sixth time of doing it. Some kind of action on (and under the) stage precedes the curtain going up and revealing the waiting audience; we can�t see it, just hear a few mumbles, but I guess we�ll find out what the story is when the movie comes out.

Time to get some laughter and reaction shots to cut in at various points. This is actually difficult to fake. GK draws on his store of pretty good jokes while the cameras and mics try to catch the responses from his stimulus. Turns out we need dirtier jokes to make us laugh than those that will eventually make it on screen.

Then another guy, probably another star sous-director, conducts the audience in waves and ripples of laughter. This activity, if anything, provides the ultimate proof that there can be no God. It is really unconvincing when one entity is in control of a crowd of individual laughers; the starts, stops and crescendos are too uniform. The real world has stragglers and premature gigglers, and a random bell curve in the middle. Likewise, if God really is up there controlling everything the world would seem more like a simplistic and unconvincing army of robots. No, laughter comes from the bottom up not the top down; an aggregate of many individuals, just like evolution, and the complexities of that kind of organization can never be faked.

Being in the top balcony turns out not to be so bad after all (despite the risk of nose bleeds at such altitudes). None other than Virginia Madsen has the climactic scene of the movie, entering dressed as a ghost, from the rear door, right behind me. Eat your heart out, front row main floor thespian extras, I�m on camera for a whole hour and they can�t cut out that whole scene, can they?

I can�t enjoy watching movies any more after this experience. I start paying attention to the background extras in any scene, the ones who are bored silly but excitedly playing themselves. The stars in the foreground may carry the narrative forward, but the real story for me now is the everyday folk that gave their free time to be decoration. Besides background always covers more real estate on the screen than foreground, you just have to look at life a bit more from the edge.

Philip Blackburn
St. Paul, MN, Somewhere near the Fitzgerald Theater





July 14, 2005

The main requirement, it seems, for being an extra on A Prairie Home Companion, The Movie, apart from being over 18 and underemployed this month, is that you promise not to hassle, perturb, vex, bullyrag or gawk at the stars - the only reasons, they suppose, that anyone would want to be an extra. No recording or storage devices, no cell phones with cameras, no talking to a star until spoken to first (I thought only the Queen did that), and a lot of other no-nos. These cautions would be easier for me if I actually recognized who most of these alleged stars were; I have TV phobia (I've never knowingly watched an episode of Cheers or Saturday Night Live) and perfect suspension of disbelief when watching a screen. I possess a complete willingness to believe the actors in any movie really are who they say they are and have never appeared in other movies as other characters before. OK, Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt I can spot, but Brad isn't in this one.

A fellow extra, a 20-year-old film fan, had the opposite problem. He could recite the lineage of everyone there except for this guy, Garrison Keillor, of whom he had never heard. Video really did kill this radio star.

Having signed up a few weeks ago I got the call from casting; the call everyone loves to receive, tantamount to "You're going to Hollywood!" My first evening donating my warm body to the Tinseltown cause was mostly waiting for my number to be called while lounging around the extras holding tank; a room full of patient Caucasians. Some were knitting, some reading, some chatting about other movies they have done (I never knew there was such a devoted underground of spare people). My only brush with fame was some time ago auditioning for "Zadar, Cow from Hell," a Dr. Science/Duck's Breath Mystery Theater epic filmed in Iowa City. I was rejected. The film was, consequently, of course, a flop. They even had to change the cow's name to "Zarda" because of some dairy copyright fiasco.

In short, I am really here to see how Robert Altman makes it all happen. How do you choreograph a crowd of overlapping, improvising people into a coherent whole without wasting a lot of time and film stock?

The answer is to get good help. It takes a boatload of folk to make a scene (that's why the credits take so long). The Normandy Landing took fewer people and simpler instructions.

Inside the Fitz, where visitors might be accustomed to seats, now rigging and gaffing, ladders and booms are reign supreme. And cameras the size of those new Minis, float silently through space. I am seated dead center and the first couple of rehearsals of the cowboy scene have the robot camera skimming inches above the crowd threatening to bash my forehead if I don't duck at just the right time.

The Altman trick seems to be mostly a way of gathering enough think-on-the-feet talent and waving a script somewhere near them. Then film the scene enough times, letting the actors get bored and try it different way each time. By the fifth iteration, the audience is listening to the slightest change in nuance and making fine judgments about the best take. No surprise, as it turns out, the guy who departs furthest from the established lines each time, making them progressively funnier, the guy whose brain is furthest from his tennis-shoed feet, is Mr. Keillor himself.

Philip Blackburn
St. Paul, MN, Somewhere near the Fitzgerald Theater



For more about the filmmaking, visit Tracking the Prairie Home Companion Movie

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