When you live in New York, you see them all the time: the trailers, equipment trucks, and “honey wagons,” the tented craft service tables, the pink “NO PARKING — FILM SHOOT” flyers posted on light poles. If you’re enough of a film fan (or a rube), it’s pretty exciting — they’re making a movie, right here! — and you can take a peek at the flyer to see what exactly that movie (or, up in my neighborhood, procedural television cop show) they’re shooting that day. Last Friday, in SoHo, the “project name” as listed on the flyer was “DT2”; that stands for Don’t Think Twice, the new low-budget indie from writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia. And your correspondent was there — as an extra.
Technically, the job title is “background,” because we’re all the people who are in the background at the school play or college football game or train station at rush hour or, in this cast, improv troupe performance. I haven’t done a lot of this; only once previously, in fact, after Louis C.K. tweeted an email address one day in 2009, asking for NYC fans to come to a taping of his upcoming pilot. I got there way too early, ended up in the front row of the Comedy Cellar, and laughed my ass off at the stand-up bits in the first episode of Louie. (You can hear me on that episode. I have a distinctive laugh.)
I came away from that feeling like a sweepstakes winner — I got to watch Louis C.K. do stand-up and answer questions for a couple of hours for free, the kind of thing I’d usually have to pay $20 and buy a couple of drinks for. This was a similar opportunity. A couple of weeks back, Birbiglia took to Facebook to make his pitch: he needed background for his new film, starring “Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, and me” as an improv troupe called “The Commune.” And, he explained, “what would really help us is real people like YOU who love improv and comedy and want to get a sneak peak at what making a film is all about. You’ll spend about 6 hours with us and we’ll give you food and candy and high fives and improvised comedy. It’ll be pretty cool.” This does not require a lot of arm-twisting — again, I’d pay good American money to watch that group of people perform — so I sent off the email to volunteer.
The next day I got a reply, offering up three possible dates; being a good citizen, I chose the one where they were “especially in need of extras,” thus making “Mike and I… so grateful!” (It was also the day that worked best with my work schedule, but I’m going to continue to feel like a real helper here.) Confirmed, I was told that my call time and location would come via email the night before, “as start times depend on the previous shooting day,” which totally makes sense. The email arrives at 1:45 AM, indicating that the previous shooting day was a bit of a bear. The next morning, I gather my changes of clothes (“neutral colors but NO white or black, solids, NO prints or logos,” etc.) and head downtown.
I arrive at 12:30 sharp and proceed to “holding,” a kind of cattle pen (but more comfortable!) for background. I go in to a small black-box theater, check in, sign a release, and am sent downstairs to a second small black-box theater — a holding area for the holding area, I suppose. I sit in the front row, not to be aggressive, but to be as close as possible to the box fan. Eventually, one of the two affable but no-nonsense wardrobe people comes by, instructs me to change out of my light-red button-up (“Reds aren’t really good for background,” she tells me) and into a mint-green button-up, with my dark-green button-up as my second costume.
“In the movie business, and sorry if you know this, the name of the game is waiting,” says Natalia, who emailed all of us and is now filling us in on logistics. She tells us, “Mike is so awesome and totally excited that you’re here,” and says they’ll be back soon with an update. While we wait, I try to get a read on my fellow background actors. The age range is roughly 20s through 40s, with a few outliers in either direction. It’s more than half men, but not much more. The guys behind me are strangers, and I eavesdrop; one is a comic and filmmaker (his act is based in storytelling — “like Birbigs, y’know”), and the other is a filmmaker only, but he did stand-up in high school (“Like, at the talent show”). They talk Wes Anderson and The Ben Stiller Show and Back to School. One likes “a lot of old movies, like The Jerk.”
Soon, another background coordinator, “Mike,” comes down to fill us in on the plot: the Commune has been together for a good long while, locally popular without really breaking out nationally. Now they’re in their mid-30s, their theater is losing its lease, and they may lose a cast member to Weekend Live, a weekly live NYC sketch comedy television show (“Completely fictional,” he grins). We’re the audiences for various performances throughout the narrative.
Not long after, we line up single file and march to a different small theater, a block away. We wait on the sidewalk for a few minutes. This being New York City, several people stop and ask what we’re in line for. (Nobody wants to miss anything.) We file in, past “video village” — the assemblage of monitors for watching playback of takes and scenes — in the lobby. Gillian Jacobs brushes past me as I go through the doorway. I try not to be one for celebrity idolatry and crushes on attractive television stars, but this nearly gives me a heart attack.
I’m initially pointed towards a seat in a front row, but then stopped, because another guy nearby is also wearing a mint-green button-up. I wind up at the end of a top row, basically in the dark. I will not be visible in this scene (which is fine), though later, an assistant director instructs me and a handful of other background players to raise our hands when Jacobs asks a question of the crowd (which will be answered by an an actor seated among us). This A.D., like most of the men on the crew, has a beard. Soon, Birbiglia, who also has a beard, bounds out, thanks us for coming, explains what’s going on, and we get started.
We then shoot a scene of what sounds like an anomaly — scripted improvisation. But there are clearly story things happening, in the interactions and beats between the players, and there are variations from take to take anyway, which helps keep our laughter genuine. (I also note that Birbiglia has the camera operator — who is shooting the entire sequence handheld, but on a Steadicam or Steadicam-like rig — shoot more towards the audience in the early takes, before we’re tired of the jokes.) After each good take, Birbiglia dashes out to the lobby to watch playback.
Adjustments are made; the actor in the audience is moved into a different position, so she doesn’t look a plant, and Birbiglia quietly chats with her during the rearrangement, giving notes. When he steps away, a makeup artist is there to touch him up. After a couple more takes, the 1st A.D. — who has the most impressive beard of all — announces they’ve got it and they’re moving on. Birbiglia gestures a thumbs-up at the actor in the crowd and mouths, “Great.” And he’s right; the later takes are better, more natural. A couple of takes in, I see something that, due to my seat and the placement of the door, only a few other background actors can: Ira Glass (who is executive producer of the film) appears in the doorway, then retreats to video village. He wisely does not enter the room; this room would fucking riot.
Over the course of the day, we get several variations of that scene, and then we’re rearranged (“Does everyone feel like they are in a significantly different place now?” asks the A.D., unintentional philosopher) and put in different clothes to shoot a handful of actual improvisations, suggested by the film’s improv coach, out in the audience. After six hours, they get what they need, send us off to eat free pizza (anyone who’s seen Sleepwalk With Me will be unsurprised by this bit of catering), and send us home. It’s a well-run set; we actually spend less time waiting around and doing nothing than I (and the book I brought) had anticipated. But it’s a relaxed, convivial atmosphere; they’re two weeks in and there are already affectionate nicknames and inside jokes.
Off to the side of the stage, there’s an upright piano, and a piano player who will, when it’s all cut together, occasionally accompany the troupe (we shoot a brief cutaway with him). But between takes, he plays a bit, to keep things light; he plays the piano outro from “Layla,” for example, so of course I talk Goodfellas with the guy next to me, like you do. Later, while the cast is hanging out as Birbiglia watches playback in the lobby, the piano player starts in on “Rocket Man,” and they gather around to sing along. Keegan-Michael Key knows every word. The piano player then segues into “Piano Man,” which I think he’s obligated to do, by law. This time, everyone knows every word. Midway though, Birbiglia returns to find his set in the midst of a singalong. He grins widely as his assistant director tells him they’re ready, and then — in mock fury, but unable to stop smiling — he bellows, “SHADDUP! WE’RE TRYIN’ TA MAKE A MOVIE!!”