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Thursday, April 27, 2006

My day as an extra on the set of "We Are Marshall" (part two)

by Jennifer Squires Biller

The big news from my day as an extra on We Are Marshall is that I actually got a line that may or may not be heard in the final version of the film. (Don’t worry. My bribe is en route to Warner Bros.) My line is delivered to Matthew McConaughey during the press-conference scene and goes a little like this, “Coach, Coach, over here, Coach...” I had about 60 takes to perfect it, so I’m pretty sure I nailed it at least once. How did I get such a delicious piece of dialogue you ask? Well, let me start from the beginning.

(Above photo: Spectators line up against the yellow tape on Fourth Avenue in Huntington, W.Va., to watch filming on April 19, 2006. The Keith-Albee Theater marquee helped transform the downtown area into 1970, by advertising the Clint Eastwood movie "Kelly's Heroes."

Thank you, Mr. P!
After finishing the morning scene and returning to the extras holding area, I was ready to turn in the now-famous gold jacket, call my day as an extra a slamming success, and head to the hotel for a nap. (I hadn’t been to bed the night before. The sponge-roller ordeal and the thought of being an extra had me too wired to sleep.) But when we got back to the holding area, the people in charge divided the 300 extras into two groups. On the right side of the room, they lined up the extras that were supposed to be in the afternoon press-conference scene. On the left side, was everyone else. (Also known as me, and the other envious extras that really wanted to be on the right side of the room.) They called roll for the extras that were supposed to be in the afternoon scene, and unbeknownst to Scarlett, Trina and Gina, they were on the list to be “towns people.” I, however, was not.

At that point, fate intervened. (Well, actually Mr. P, but it could have been fate.) The hair/makeup team was asked to look through the hundreds of extras and choose four people to join the press conference scene for the afternoon. Mr. P walked through the group and pointed in my direction. I assumed he was pointing to the tall, gorgeous gal next to me, but apparently, my pageboy fluff had a special place in his heart. So, I joined my pals on the other side of the room. I was told I would be a professor. (OK, not a stretch. I did teach one semester of English composition at Marshall University as a teaching assistant. Method acting, Mr. DeNiro. Check.)

I was told to go back to wardrobe and get a different outfit. It was here I had my only unpleasant experience of the day. When I told “wardrobe lady,” – and I use that term loosely – that I was there for an outfit for the press conference scene, she didn’t take the news well. She asked why I hadn’t been fitted already. I told her I had just been chosen for the scene, which sent her flying out of the wardrobe trailer barking that “Now they’re sending people over here that they’re just picking out of the crowd!” She returned a little calmer, but still not offering me an outfit. So, I stood waiting, and waiting, and waiting, as she gave clothes to everyone else around me. I finally stopped a guy who was also working in the trailer and asked him for an outfit. I was trying to hurry and change, as everyone else seemed to be boarding the bus to head downtown. In my haste to get ready, I put a run in my stockings and didn’t have time to get a decent look at the dress I was given. Big mistake. It was long-sleeved, blue wool, with a brown belt, and it showed every curve, and not in a good way. The dress can only be described as the most unflattering frock to ever be manufactured. But off I went for my close-up anyway, in a dress no woman should ever be caught dead in, let alone immortalized in, with ruined stockings, no makeup and pink shoes. Yes, I said pink. Yeah, I’m gonna be pretty. Feel free to laugh hysterically at my misfortune and the wardrobe guy’s obvious lack of style. Maybe I should bribe Warner Bros. to keep me and that blue dress out of the movie.

Scarlett, Tube Talk Girl, Trina and Gina (l-r) strike a pose between takes. Jennifer is sporting the infamous blue dress and pink shoes.

We were taken to Fourth Avenue to our new holding area, also known as the C.R. Thomas building. The press conference scene was being shot at the old Frederick Hotel, directly across the street. People had lined up along the street, with cameras, and stood the entire day watching us go back and forth from holding to The Frederick, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars. They shot pictures of me, too, throughout the day. I’m not sure if the “fans” thought I was someone famous (apparently I look like Judie Aronson from Weird Science, according to one of my readers) or if they were so mesmerized by the blue dress that they wanted a photo to take to their seamstresses to have it recreated. (You know I’m kidding, right?) The “fans” were kept at bay by a huge amount of yellow tape, roping off the area, which made the set look like a crime scene and made me chuckle at the absurdity.

As we all gathered inside The Frederick, an architecturally gorgeous building with elaborate staircases, a stained glass dome in the rotunda and a rounded balcony, the extras playing the press were seated in the front of the room. The rest of us were positioned to stand behind them all throughout the room and up the stairs. I ended up in the very back of the room, near Gina and Scarlett. But, at 5’4", I couldn’t see anything in front of me, except the other really tall extras. I was standing on my tippy toes, trying to hear the director, when Mr. P grabbed me and said, “Come with me.” He took me to the front of the room and put me in the press section. I was now a member of the press. (OK, not a stretch, having worked as a news reporter for the past five years. Method, baby!)

Lights, camera, action!
The director, McG – perhaps the coolest guy on the set – gave us instructions for the scene. It was called “press conference one,” and it introduced the new coach, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) to the public, the staff and the press. The first coach the school had hired didn’t last long, and Lengyel was the new replacement. We were supposed to be wary of the guy, but welcoming, McG said. We were supposed to look the new guy over, head-to-toe, and take in his long hair, sideburns and wacky fashion sense (neon green socks,) while applauding his entrance. Then, we were supposed to unleash our questions, aggressively, on the poor guy. McConaughey was to look around the room at the shouting reporters and finally take a question from the reporter seated to the left of me, Ernie Salvatore (portrayed by actor Mark Oliver). Then, Lengyel would field questions from Salvatore, as he also would get the follow up, too. The rest of us were directed to react to his answers.

Extras film a press conference scene for "We Are Marshall." Photo credit: Cindy Cannon

I was only one of four women in the press corps. The group of mostly men included the real mayor of Huntington and a couple other reporters from local news affiliates. Some of us were given notepads, others cameras. McG directed us to “be reporters” and that “everyone should have a question for this guy.” I was about 15 feet from where the “coach” would be, to his left. We rehearsed our actions for almost an hour and finally we were ready to roll. I channeled my inner aggressive-reporter-girl persona and was ready to go.

McConaughey’s scene and my big moment
McConaughey entered on my right to thunderous applause. He was no longer “Matthew McConaughey, sexiest man alive.” This guy walked with a hunched back and had a strange gait – mannerisms McConaughey maintained for the entire day, as he seldom broke character. He looked in awe at the press corps, and we looked him over, too. Per our instructions, I ad-libbed some comments about his fashion sense to the female reporter to my right: “Look at those neon green socks” and “Interesting wardrobe choice” were my signature lines for the day. (Yes, this coming from the chick in the revolting blue frock.)

Matthew McConaughey, as coach Jack Lengyel, greets the press while filming a scene in "We Are Marshall." He is wearing neon green socks as smoke fills the room for "atmosphere." Photo credit: a fellow extra who shall remain nameless

McConaughey took a seat, but he never really got comfortable or scooted all the way back in the chair, which I think was a brilliant acting choice to depict Lengyel’s reaction to an uncomfortable press conference. He greeted the press and the town’s people, thanking us for our hospitality. He told us he and his wife had driven in from Wooster the previous night to their new house in Huntington. He made a joke about having electricity and good water pressure, and we laughed in response. Then, he asked for questions.

Like a pack of wolves, the press corps started in. Here was my big line to McConaughey, “Coach, Coach, over here, Coach,” I yelled, waving my arm wildly trying to get his attention, along with the 20-plus other members of the press. He scanned the room a little in shock at such a reaction, and finally leveled a look in my direction, but pointed at Salvatore. His question was about what the coach expected from the team. McConaughey responded that he expected to put a team on the field that “plays hard, plays smart and plays until the whistle blows.” Salvatore followed up that question by pressing him for details/predictions on wins and losses. We responded with our ad-libs of “Good question, Ernie” and “Yes, that’s what everyone wants to know.”

It was at this point that Lengyel gave an answer that began to unsettle the press. It went something like this. “Well if it’s a miracle you’re wanting, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed, and I’m going to be out a job.” We were then instructed to immediately jump back in with follow up questions, so again, I yell, “Coach, Coach, question over here, Coach,” waving my arm wildly. But, once again, he called on Salvatore, as scripted. I decided to do my own little bit of ad-libbing here and angrily put down my hand in disgust as if to say, “Geesh, this guy again?” Yeah, I’m a drama queen.

This time, Salvatore asked an even tougher question about what Lengyel wanted to say to the families and critics who thought that putting a team back on the field so soon after the crash was disrespectful. I won’t spoil the great dialogue here, but I will tell you that the press did not respond well to his answer and began to turn on the coach. In fact, McG instructed us that at that point, the air should be sucked out of the room into an awkward silence. The coach then told us he had a lot of work to do and that he would see us on the field. He thanked us and left, while doing a strange finger-hand-snap gesture into his palm.

The press was left shaking our heads and ad-libbing lines like “I give him two weeks,” “No inspirational words for the community?” “What’s with this guy?” and “He’s not going to make it as long as the last coach did.” Then, the director yelled “cut.”

We did this scene more than 50 times, I’m guessing. In between takes, McConaughey went off to the side, but seemed to stay in character for most the part. We were not allowed to speak to any of the actors. (A rule I broke on the last take when I commended Mark Oliver, who had sat next to me, on a job well done. Seriously, he said the same lines over and over, as Salvatore, and didn’t mess up once. Impressive. He sincerely thanked me and told me how much he appreciated the comment, and we chatted for a little bit. He seemed like a really nice guy. I found out later, after a quick IMDB search, that he was also in Sweet Home Alabama with my Dr. McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey.) Gulp.

(Above:) Ian McShane chats outside The Frederick Hotel during a break in filming. Photo credit: Valeri J. O'Field

Ian McShane joins the scene
In several takes, Ian McShane, the British actor from Deadwood, was positioned in the crowd. (He plays the father of one of the football players who was killed.) He stood behind me and seemed to have a great sense of humor. It was extremely hot under the lights, and the hair and makeup team had given McShane a battery operated hand-held fan. Between one take he was generous enough to share the fan with the young lady next to him, “Let me fan you darling," he said with that fantastic accent. We all giggled like schoolgirls. He seemed like a lot of fun and was very respectful to all of us.

The next scene filmed was “press conference two.” Throughout the day, McG would interchange the press conference scenes. So, for several takes we would film press conference one, then we would switch positions to press conference two. For two, I was seated in the second row of chairs, instead of standing. In this scene, we were to meet the very first coach, not Lengyel, who took the job after the plane crash. I don’t know the actor’s name, but he was also very nice to the extras. We basically did the same thing as in press conference one, but McG instructed this coach to be completely unnerved at our thunderous applause and aggressive quest for answers.

Between takes, the extras were sometimes dismissed to go across the street to drink water to stay hydrated. The lights made the room smoldering, and the directors had turned off the air conditioning, so they could use a smoke machine. So, obviously, we were a little steamy. I’m not sure what the smoke was supposed to depict. Perhaps it was to make the scene look grainy, or perhaps everyone smoked back then, I’m still not sure. All I know was that the air conditioning kept sucking up the smoke, so they turned off the AC.

The rest of the extras, except the press, were sent back to holding in the early evening. So, my pals waited for hours there, munching on cheesy puffs, nuts and fruit, while I and the rest of the press kept doing the scene with McConaughey over and over, sans snacks. The director was shooting close-ups and different camera angles of McConaughey, and it took a while. From time to time, McConaughey would look directly at me in the scene. I sometimes nodded my head at his response and other times listened intently, as all good reporters do. In between takes, he would head out to the hallway, sometimes pacing back and forth, other times sitting and mentally concentrating on his dialogue. As I said, I rarely saw him break character, unless it was to look at the scene on camera with McG or to discuss a certain acting choice.

Director McG at the kickoff press conference.

McG, the best director ever?
never lost his energy, which in turn invigorated us for every take. McG, the other assistant directors and other set folks were so gracious. They constantly thanked us. Between takes it was “thanks guys, that was great” over and over again. At one point, McG made an impromptu speech about how pleased he was to use local folks as extras and how much it meant to the production. Then, he brought in the real Ernie Salvatore, who had been a reporter during the crash for the Herald-Dispatch newspaper. We all gave Ernie a standing ovation. I truly believe that McG is one of the nicest guys in Hollywood and best directors. No, I don’t have anyone else to compare him to, but if greatness is measured by his attitude on the set and his ability to get the job done well and efficiently, then he wins. He was so respectful to all of us and paid close attention to detail. Throughout the day, he would so easily communicate through words what he wanted from the actors and the extras that it was easy to give it to him. I never once heard him speak harshly to anyone, despite the organized chaos that went on around him. Besides, he’s also the executive producer for The O.C. so I have to like him by default. (You know I have great love for Seth Cohen, Ryan Atwood and Julie Cooper Nichol.)

By about 8 p.m., we were all dragging. Having been limited the entire day to tepid bottled water, I was ready to sell my soul for a Diet Pepsi or any other caffeinated beverage. It was then that “press conference one” took a dramatic turn, thus temporarily eliminating my need for caffeine. McConaughey had just answered Salvatore’s question for the 50th time, when McG, apparently acting as a member of the public, shouted out in a quiet moment, “What the Hell kind of answer was that?” Then, he went on to heckle the coach about his comments and antagonized the coach further, requesting the coach give the community some answers. We were all shocked, as this wasn’t how we had rehearsed the scene. I’m not sure if McG’s voice will make it into the movie, or if he simply staged that scene to elicit an incredible response from McConaughey. And I don’t know for sure if this was ad-libbed or if McG and McConaughey had worked it out beforehand, but it felt ad-libbed. I won’t spoil the fantastic dialogue that McConaughey delivered as his retort, but when McG threw down the gauntlet, something sparked in McConaughey. He gave what seemed like a five-minute speech in response to the question/criticism, and it gave me chills. It was a beautiful moment, and I whispered to my reporter pal that we’d just witnessed Hollywood magic. Yeah. It was that cool and perked us up better than a shot of Red Bull.

For the final scene, the town’s people and MU staff were brought back to The Frederick. We filmed “press conference one” a couple more times. Then, someone yelled, “Check the gate!” I had no idea what it meant, but I knew the day was about to be over, as this was the first time in 60-some takes I’d ever heard that phrase. And finally, at about 9:15 p.m., the director said, “That’s a wrap.” We all made a mad rush to the holding area across the street to turn in our wardrobe and our vouchers so we could get paid. On the way across the street this time, I noticed that the crowd outside with cameras had grown considerably. I resisted the urge to strike a Paris Hilton pose, as I remembered my attire.

A chance meeting with the "Sexiest Man Alive"

My fellow extra Scarlett got a photo with McConaughey on the MU campus the day after we filmed our scenes.

So, what was my reward for a long day of filming, with no caffeine? A chance run-in with the sexiest man alive and his puppy at the hotel. When I got back to my room, I was in desperate need of caffeine. My head was throbbing, and I’d been up for more than 50 hours with no sleep. I needed change for the soda machine, so I went to the front desk. McConaughey was standing at the desk talking to another man and the lady on duty. He looked as tired as I felt. His dog immediately jumped up on me, wagging her tail energetically and giving me those adorable eyes. I was smitten. (With the puppy, you pervs, not the owner.)

McConaughey seemed a little uncomfortable that the dog was jumping on me. I wasn’t sure if I was breaking some kind of canine-training rule or not by playing with the pooch, so I asked him, “Am I not supposed to pet her?” He said that it was fine, but glanced around at the front desk lady and said, “I’m supposed to keep her down.” I received my change and headed toward the elevator. McConaughey said goodnight to the front desk lady, calling her by name, which I thought was very cool. On the elevator ride upstairs, the puppy was still playful. I asked him what breed she was, and he told me she was a dingo and that her name was “Moxy.” (I resisted my urge to chuckle, as this was the nickname I had tagged McConaughey and Matthew Fox with in a recent Tube Talk story.) McConaughey joked that Moxy was “fierce,” as I continued to pet her. I said goodnight and got off the elevator. The next morning, I ran into him in the lobby, sans Moxy. He was dressed in his gym clothes and was obviously heading for a work out. I didn’t bother him for an autograph or a picture.

So, how do I sum up my time in “Hollywood?” Well, someone call VH1 because it was was without a doubt the “best week ever.” Thank you to the production company and actors for such a fabulous experience. I hope to get to do it again sometime. As for the movie, it’s supposed to be released this winter, and I hope you’ll buy a ticket and go see it. It truly is an inspirational story about rebuilding a community’s spirit in the face of tragedy. Oh, and did I mention I might be in it?

Thanks to everyone who contributed photos! Tube Talk Girl can be reached by e-mail at jennifer@tube-talk.com. Have a comment about this story? Then, drop me a note here in the comments section or send an e-mail.


Lydia said...

What are you talking about? You look great in the blue dress!

tube talk girl said...

Awww, thanks Lydia! I think it looks better far away. LOL. Up close, not so much!

Ron said...

Great story....and don't worry about the dress....it was the 70s...EVERYONE was a walking fashion nightmare ;)

tube talk girl said...

Yeah, it was crazy. Matthew in those socks and that loud jacket and tie was interesting.

Anonymous said...

You are just to funny, loved your reports. bkizzee

Becky said...

Jenny! You are so lucky! I laughed through the whole story. The drama queen part was great. Can't wait to see you in the movie. (Hopefully!)

tube talk girl said...

Beck! Thanks so much for stopping by. I just saw the trailer for the movie. It looks so good! (And no, I'm not being a drama queen.)

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