Extra, Extra

The weird thing about the US/UK comedy series The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret is that initially it wasn’t that great. And with a cast including David Cross, Will Arnett, Sharon Horgan and Blake Harrison, and the fact that it was written by Cross and Shaun Pye, it really should have been. Not that it was bad, but sometime it was too cringeworthy, and the characters not particularly sympathetic.

Then everything changed during it’s fourth episode. I’ve watched an enormous amount of comedy in my life (it’s all a bit of a passion) and I’ve never seen such a swing in the quality of a series. Suddenly everything clicked together, it became hilarious stuff, and due to the ongoing plot line, each new episode was essential viewing. Unfortunately most people I know haven’t heard of it, as it was hidden away on More 4 in the UK for reasons we’ll probably never discover. But thankfully due to being a minor hit on a cable channel in the US, it was given a second series, and when David Cross posted on his Facebook wall about the need for (unpaid) extras in the second series, I signed up immediately.

Now I’m not a big fan of Ricky Gervais’ series Extras, it has it’s moments but at times is too predictable and lazy, but it did get one thing right in that a lot of the process is just standing around waiting for something to happen. But that mostly didn’t bother me, in fact I should apologise now, as the rest of this post may come across as a tad fanboy-ish – but just being stood near Will Arnett and David Cross whilst they were rehearsing made me smile more than I have in a long old time.

All of the extras were told to arrive at 7am at the Unit Base (which sounds all very exciting, but infact was just a big field where the trailers and catering vans were parked), so that we could be signed in and given a release form to sign. Rather kindly everyone was given a free meal (a reasonably decent full english breakfast, but then I knew from past experience that food on tv productions tends to be pretty good. I once worked on a show for the BBC for a day where steak was one of the items on the lunchtime menu – though funnily enough, every licence payer I’ve spoken to hasn’t been too impressed by that). And then we waited for an hour or so and certain people were asked to wear different clothes to those which they turned up in, which included myself, and is why I’m wearing a horrible blue denim jacket in the scene. After that a mini-bus arrived to take us over to the The Good Ship in Kilburn, a rather lovely bar and music and comedy venue which sadly closed down last year, which we were filming in.

I wish I could make this sound more exciting, however a further hour of waiting around followed. But it was nice to chat to the other extras, especially those who do this for a living and were being paid, a lot of them had cool stories about hanging out on the set of Eastenders or Spooks (and the Stallone film Cliffhanger, strangely enough). Then finally we were led in to the bar, and slowly placed at various points around the bar. To my dismay I was initially put right at the end, far far away from where the action was taking place, but before shooting began they decided they wanted it to look busier around the main characters, and so I was asked to stand next to Will Arnett, David Cross and Blake Harrison and given a (flat and disgusting!) glass of Corona to drink. Alas there’s an unofficial rule in tv that you don’t speak to “The Talent”, as mentioned I used to work in the industry and it’s fine if they chat to you, but not the other way around, so I didn’t get the chance to tell David or Will just how much I loved their work. But that was probably for the best as dealing with gushing fans like myself really isn’t something I imagine they enjoy doing.

One thing which did surprise me was the amount of time spent choreographing the extras. It’s something that I didn’t realise would require that much effort, but with 20 of us in the bar, all placed at various points, much work was needed. Often they wanted people to move around at certain exact times, and if it wasn’t working, they’d reshoot the scene and try different ideas out each time. I was lucky in a way in that all I had to do was pretend to have a conversation and occasionally look at and react to a football match on tv (albeit one we couldn’t see) but others had much more to do. Sure, it’s not rocket science, but it is more complicated then you might expect. Since the day’s shooting I can’t help but watch those in the background to see what they’re doing, which is more fun than you might imagine. And whilst most do a good job, every so often you do see someone incredibly out of place and unsure of what to do.

At the time I couldn’t give anything away anything about the episode itself as I signed a big form saying I could get in to legal trouble if I did. But now that it’s aired I’m able to, and it’s surprising the amount of depth to the series, as it reveals just why Blake Harrison’s character dedicated his life to torturing Todd Margaret, and was one of the last scenes of the episode. During filming the three leads clearly liked each other a lot and much banter took place (including Arnett tricking Cross in to thinking the director’s name was Kevin, and Harrison saying Arnett was good, but needed to be “less gay”) and they were really enjoying the process. As was I – at first, at least. For take after take was needed, sometimes due to a sound problem, sometimes because the camera wasn’t in focus, or in one case, simply because they liked what they’d seen but wanted to work out how they could make the scene funnier. Some improvisation was suggested (but mostly ignored) and eventually after about ten takes or so, we were done.

For fifteen minutes. As they then wanted to shoot the same scene again, but from the opposite angle. By this point it was getting a bit tiring (and drinking from the same glass of the now shockingly disgusting Corona each time was almost tortuous!) – not only for us, but Harrison and Arnett too were running out of energy, it taking a total of three hours in the end (and five since the 7am start) to shoot the two minutes of footage. Just resetting the lighting took ages, if you’re interested in all of the behind the scenes stuff it can be quite fascinating – but only initially. Either way, I have to admit to being grateful that this time around only four takes were needed until they called it a day, and thanked us for our time.

Would I recommend being an extra? If you get paid for it, then hell yes. If not, well, yeah, though I probably wouldn’t do it on a regular basis – there’s only so much standing around you can take without getting bored, and if I wasn’t such a huge fan of the performers / show it certainly wouldn’t have been as fascinating a morning as it was. But I can’t begin to say how glad I am that I had the chance to do it, if only for one time only, and whilst I only ended up on screen for about three seconds in the end (which can be seen in the main header picture), hell, if they needed to fill the role of “Man in Bar” again in the third series, I’d definitely have returned. But tragically the call never came.

Alex Finch.
https://twitter.com/comedytowatch

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