Friday: November 19, 1999
Up and at em again. Up at 4:15 a.m., and in
probably around 4:40 a.m.
Somebody learned that if you close some of
the flaps and turn on heaters early, that the big top will warm up
better. The weather also moderated some; it was not as nippy as before.
Inside there was a slight change. Fewer soldiers
in uniform, more newbies enlisting. You can tell because they gathered
around the sign-in table, or seated nearby, puzzling out in the dim
light the non-union form from Axium. An old hand now, I stode confidentally
to the table, explained that I had to work only a half-day today,
and asked if that would cause any problems. None; I would be paid
only 60 for an eight-hour day, that's all. I sign in and collect my
Breakfast again: eggs, corned beef hash, cereal,
coffee. Unlike yesterday, I don't have to hold my coffee constant
to warm some part of my flesh. Then the rest of the procedure: costume,
hair, props and weapon. In the makeup and wardrobe tent, I talk with
the fellow doing my hands. He works for a spa in Charlotte as a hairdresser,
but is going to help a friend start a new spa and be in charge of
skin care. He does some movie work when it's around, but he also does
the Carolina Panther cheerleaders. I didn't think women performing
before 80,000 people needed makeup, but he assures me that people
want to see some color on them, even from a distance. While he appreciated
their beauty, he was dismissive of the Honeybees that dance at Charlotte
At the weapons trailer, I identify myself
as a shooter this time and receive a real rifle, a decent Brown Bess
with a rammer that had been freshly cleaned. I note with approval
that this time the flint had been renewed and look forward to an excellent
Inside the big top, I talk with a man who
works in the billing department for the City of Rock Hill. He's a
pleasant cove who likes to laugh, and I fill him in on how we get
paid and what to expect. The call comes, we're loaded on warm coaches,
and driven to the fork in the road where we dismount and walk to the
My companion on this trip was the man from
Alabama. He lives near Mobile, on the southeast side near the ocean,
and he's a fine hand for good old boy wit. He's done movie work as
On the field, we are formed into two ranks.
Cameras are placed: one to our right and one on a track behind us.
The scene is this: the British are to come down, the continental army
will shoot, then the militia will shoot. As the pretends to reload,
Mel will give the order for the milita to charge.
I am placed just to the left of the colors,
in the rear. The prospect that my ass may be seen by millions of people
makes me happy, until I realize that the camera will be focused on
the militia. We provide foreground color only. (One of the AD's nastily
pointed out to one of the soldiers that we are just to provide support
to Mel and the militia. Considering that it was the militia who ran
and the soldiers who won the war, I found that a bit off-putting.
No wonder soldiers end up taking over and putting the civilians up
against the wall.)
The rehearsals went well. We rehearsed our
movements so that will provide brisk fire, that the muskets come down
to the fire position at the same time, and look smart and professional.
A couple of takes, and we nail the shot.
There's a long delay for the most complicated shot of the day: an
extended charge up the hill. The camera and its track are taken up,
and the CA -- aided by auxiliaries from the high schools JROTC --
are jammed to the left side of the field (camera right as they say
in the biz). Then we wait. And wait. And wait. Sharpshooters are deployed
on the hill to our left. The cameras are placed to our right. One
is mounted on the crane and will presumably sweep along with us (more
accurately, with Mel).
Mel comes down the hill with his body double, Lance. They're dressed
identically: brown pants, white shirt with brown vests. With the militia
dressed completely in browns and black, they stand out easily from
the pack. With five stuntmen dressed as British soldiers, they rehearse
how Mel will lead the charge. In the script, he's to lead the militia
up the slope, and swinging his Brown Bess, he's to take out all five
of the soldiers with a variety of swings and thrusts, and then pistol
his enemy in front of the last camera. Getting this done right takes
quite some time, and while the soldiers will die obligingly and Mel
has a rubber musket to swing, they will be coming at him in a close
pack. He swings the musket. One soldier falls back. Another comes
up, he swings back and connects again. Two more charge. He throws
them to one side. All while running up a steep grassy slope. It takes
six rehearsals at half-speed to get it choreographed.
The rest of us are given our marching orders. The timing has to be
impeccible in order for the charge to work on camera. The Brits have
to die gloriously, but not too quickly. There has to be opposition
seen all the way up the hill. The militia have to stay behind Mel
and move to the right, toward the cameras, and pass beyond to the
top of the hill. The front two ranks of the Continentials get to charge,
but we can't run so fast that we pass the militia. The color bearers
-- three soldiers bearing the flags of the Delaware militia and the
stars and stripes -- will set the pace. We're to stay behind them
until we reach the spot where Mel kills his last enemy. Then we're
to cut loose for the top of the hill.
Next came the safety check. All steel bayonets are sheathed and ones
made of rubber are handed out. The officers on horseback are given
rubber sabers. The muskets have not been loaded, and we're told that
as we charge, we're to hold the butts up off the ground to keep from
cold-cocking the Brits on the ground.
The propmen come through, distributing dummies of dead British soldiers.
Up near the top of the hill, I spot several horses lying peacefully
on the ground. I thought it was quite a good trick for a horse to
learn, until someone pointed out that they were dummies as well.
The first rehearsal at half-speed went well, but the color bearers
bore too far to the right, behind the milita. The officer ahead of
me, armed with a spontoon (basically a bayonet on a pole), is finding
it difficult to climb the hill. Adjustments are made. We're moved
back 15 paces and told to take ten steps forward before charging.
We try again.
The slope is steep and slickened after it has been trampled by hundreds
of men. Once again up the hill, and this time we're moved forward
and told to walk six paces before running.
Like war, movie making consists of long bouts of boredom punctuated
by minutes of action. Time passes slowly between rehearsals. Water
is passed out, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We stay in
our places and talk about the filming, the other actors. They're auditioning
for extras for the "Bagger Vance" movie filming in Charleston,
with Will Smith and Robert Redford. One soldier is soliciting for
roommates to share hotel space there. Another extra talks about a
Steven Spielberg project called "Battleline" and how they'd
like to be extras on that.
Then the word comes. We're ready to film the first take. The militia
is ordered to kneel in loose order. The Continential Army's lines
are straightened. "Picture up," is heard, telling us that
the camera operators are watching through their viewfinders. The assistant
directors, propmen and everybody else clear the field, except for
one man standing in front of the militia with a smoke pot. We're ordered
to shoulder arms and we wait as the machinery of moviemaking goes
into motion. Long seconds pass, leaving us hanging while the director
waits for the right moment.
The man with the smoke pot runs to the side of the line away from
the cameras, then back. A thick curtain of white smoke trails behind
him and thins.
"Rolling!" Clacks can be heard. Before each camera, a man
is filmed slapping a clapboard that will be used in editing to synchronize
the soundtrack with the picture.
"X mark." Clack.
"Y mark." Clack.
"XB mark." Clack.
From at the bottom of the hill, we could hear more commands and instructions,
followed by the one that gets us rolling.
A roar goes up. Mel leaps and yells "Charge!. The militia starts
running. We wait for our command, clearly we're itching to go.
" Bayonet . . . charge!"
We slap our muskets down into position and shout, "Huzzah!"
We start at a walk, then after ten paces hell breaks loose. There's
no time for thought. We scream and pound up the hill. A British soldier
left standing after the milita passes engages the officer ahead of
me. He pushes to the left. I pass him. I keep an eye on the color
bearers, but also on the bodies on the ground. It's an obstacle course
and difficult to keep your footing. When we pass Mel, he's on the
ground pistoling the last man and we're free. We kick up the slope
and over the top, screaming ourselves hoarse until we hear, "Cut!
Cut! Cut! CUT!"
Everybody's happy with the scene, but still we charge up the hill
two more times before we break for lunch. Water is passed out in between
takes, then peanut butter sandwiches. The second take ended well,
but we broke formation before the command was given. By the time of
the third take, our sixth trip up the hill, I was in pain. One knee
was throbbing, and my stomach was hurting from the food. Midway up
the slope on the third take, I stepped on a soldier's leg and fall
sprawling on my face. I'm told later that Mel dropped his pistol in
the grass and couldn't find it.
But that's a wrap. Time for lunch, and time for me to check out. It
was a long walk back to camp, and I was passed by several carts, some
toting British soldiers, and vans carrying cast members. Then the
support trailers, a community within a community. More open tents
where the crew and some of the security people ate. It was a sunny
but lonely walk, but I didn't mind. I had good walks before: over
the fields by myself and in the back of one such truck at the end
of shooting, when a ride really felt good. And I would be back Saturday.
Something new will happen then.
As I was oiling my rifle prior to turning it in, I meet the man from
Alabama. The good humor he exhibited this morning was entirely gone.
He was pissed, and leaving for good. He felt he had been badly treated,
the worst he had ever experienced on a film set, and he was going
back home. Today, he had learned that the cast but not the extras
were getting stuff put on their shoes to help them keep their traction
on the slope. Otherwise -- like later when he was talking to the wardrobe
people -- he wouldn't say what else had happened. He was praiseful
of the wardrobe people, and called them the best he had ever worked
with. He was dyslexic, and was glad they didn't yell at him when he
hung his clothes wrong.
I had intended to work Saturday, but with rain threatening, shooting
on the battlefield was cancelled, and my career as an extra was over.
The blow hit me when I called the casting office at six o'clock, and
I had to tell them I won't be in on Monday. (I also had to tell them
again on Saturday, when the message didn't get through).
My four days as an extra on "The Patriot" was as intense
an experience as anything I have ever witnessed. In that brief span,
I had become extremely attached to the production, and if I could,
I would have gladly spent the next week going back. Never have I become
as wholly immersed in a single enterprise. Never have I felt wholly
passionate about my work. Even as an extra, the low man on the totem
pole of the cast, an uncredited, unheralded and generally ignored
peon, the movie still depended, in an infinitestimally small measure,
on the way I handled myself. I had to shoot, march and charge like
a trained Continental Army soldier, make it all look good for the
camera, and I don't think anything else I've done in my life would
have such an effect on so many people.