Written by Jonathan Aryeh Wayne, July 4 & August 8, 2018
Let’s face it: Being an extra on a movie or TV set is time-consuming. However, being an extra on a production that is being directed by a man named David Fincher is more than just time-consuming, its life-consuming. You see, back in 2006 while on the set of Fincher’s “Zodiac”, actor Robert Downey Jr. purportedy left jars of his own urine for David Fincher because he couldn’t stand having to deal with working overtime shooting excessive takes. On the flip side, actor Ben Affleck was so deeply inspired by Fincher’s meticulous work, he waited several years to direct his first film because he wanted to learn more from him. Prior to being called up to the set as an extra on the Netflix TV series Mindhunter back in early July, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into for the next 48 or so hours. I was pretty excited to be an extra on the very first episode of Season 2 that Fincher himself was directing, but I hadn’t realized just how obsessive this director was going to be. How I dealt with the endless monotony is something I will probably never forget.
I showed up to the sound stages with my buddy John (our call time was 8:30 AM on that Tuesday after a more tolerable 8 hour day on Monday) and a few hours later, I found myself on the set playing one of the “bar townies” in a scene shot in a “smoky bar” full of marines and townspeople set in the late 1970s. I saw director David Fincher standing behind an array of many ADs, camera operators and RED cameras. I watched him walk over to the bar to direct this modelesque actress playing the bartender. I heard him barking out orders to his assistant directors and camera operators. His thick black plastic glasses with polycarbonate lenses were not enough to shield his cold, piercing blue eyes from flattening down the most resolute of background actors that afternoon. By day’s end, he had shot over 125 takes of the same scene with the same dialogue, with just 3 or 4 different camera angles! I was in a zombie state as I sat upstairs shivering in the ice cold sound stage on the second floor. If Fincher’s aim was to destroy any sort of enthusiasm and excitement of an extra, he had accomplished that by around 5:55 PM. However, not everything was as bad as it turned out to be, for I was featured heavily in the scene in the smoky bar. When I say “heavily”, I am referring to the fact that I was directly in the path of the A camera lens while standing in the background amongst other extras playing bar patrons. One of the ADs (or Assistant Directors) pulled out a roll of white tape, stuck it on the floor next to my shoe and told me to stand there where I would “hit my mark” as I would be prominently visible in the shot. There I was, holding a a vintage bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon filled with some non-alcoholic beverage along with two other men (one being John who was playing another bar hippie as well as a much older fella with a white beard named “Rik” who I discovered was an actor who had starred in a bunch of B horror films for the last few decades). We had to pantomime our made-up lines most of the time as the main actors were being filmed in the foreground. By about the 57th take that day, Rik was starting to lose his mind. He stopped whispering the same lines to me regarding the bartender’s attractive body. He stopped tapping his glass of fake whiskey with my bottle of beer. He stopped standing upright and started slouching to his side. I was afraid the old man would pass out from exhaustion. No doubt this was a dirty old man who’s had his fill, but I didn’t want to see any tragedies on the set either. Aside from the smoke luckily being fake, there was also one background actor lighting a real cigarette and smoking it at the bar for each of the 125 takes. I’d imagine her lungs were coated in black soot after that day, and if I were her, I’d have scheduled a biopsy immediately. One saving grace was the set itself: The set decorator, Jennifer, whom I know in real life did an incredible job helping recreate a bar set in 1977. The props were all authentic and it probably took months or years, if not centuries, making that set look and seem so real.
Being an extra or background actor can be boring however. You’re sitting around a lot for hours upon hours waiting until you’re called into the set. The crew nearly locks you up in a gigantic holding room too. I felt like both a student back in elementary school as well as an inmate in a prison at times, rounded up and told to stand in line and wait until we get “looked at”. One of the makeup people smudged some brown hypoallergenic powder on my tanktop to simulate dirt. My 1970s period clothing the wardrobe gave me was hideous, as my super tight-fitting brown/beige shirt was worn out and my ugly blue pants had holes and stains in them, not to mention the decrepit black boots were almost falling apart. I showed up to the sound stages with a little beard and they said it was okay to keep it which was great, because back in the late 1970s a lot of men had beards too apparently. Sadly however, I was told I couldn’t wear my tinted glasses as they appeared to look “too modern”. One of the funniest things I did while standing in line for an hour or so was give lead actor Holt McCallany (played by Bill Tench) a handshake when I saw him walking out of the sound stages towards the catering section and bathrooms. Half consciously, I blurted out “Hey Holt!”. He immediately gave me a handshake saying: “Hello! Is your day going well?” like he knew me. I wasn’t expecting that so I froze and said: “Oh, I’m good!”. It amazes me sometimes how these actors are able to get out of character (or maybe stay in it) and treat strangers like people they know in real life.
Despite the tediousness of those 2 days, I have to say that it was a thrill having a chance to be in a scene directed by David Fincher, even as a background actor with no dialogue. But, man, that guy was a damn perfectionist if I ever saw one. After 5 hours on the set on the final day, a lot of the extras, about 60 or 70 in all, were exhausted. Many were a bit upset over how many times Fincher had reshot the same take over and over and over AND OVER again. I felt like an idiot that I didn’t realize that he averages 50 takes a scene on his films and productions as opposed to a typical director shooting 5-10 takes of a scene. I spent hours in the holding room reading articles about Fincher’s directing methods while waiting for our final call that never came. There is no doubt that David Fincher is a perfectionist much like directors Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock were, or how directors Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese are these days. Fincher’s films are cold and clinical and have a dark, visual palette all their own. Fincher makes “dank and dirty” walls seem glamorous in my opinion. I still admire his films ranging from Se7en to Fight Club to The Game to The Social Network. But let me tell you, if you ever want to work on a David Fincher film or TV series like Mindhunter, be prepared for a massive amount of repetition on his set (ie. hearing the same dialogue from the actors being just one factor). To be honest, Fincher heavily prioritizes style over substance. I’d attribute that method to the fact that he’s a dense Virgo (earth sign). Virgos tend to be all about the aesthetic elements, as well as details, structure, rigidity, perfectionism, neuroticism, and form. From my research that I read, Fincher is miraculously able to marry technology and visual art to being an actor’s director too (something Kubrick wasn’t known for – being an “actor’s director”).
A lot of the background actors agreed with me that the dialogue in that particular bar scene we were in for those 2 days was rather obtuse and brainless. Some asked “Why would he reshoot over 75 or 80 takes of that same scene with such stupid dialogue?” (ie. “I’m a red blooded American patriot” and “Eyes forward, Maggots!”). As for the scene Fincher shot over 125 takes throughout those 2 days, it was about 90 seconds long from what I recall. The whole experience of being an extra was more exhausting than exciting. The first time I’d been an extra was 20 years ago when I was an extra on an NBC miniseries called “The Temptations”, and I’ll never forget that 17 hour day. The pay for being an extra on Mindhunter was $10 an hour for 8 hours and $15 an hour for overtime work. We spent 12 hours on the sound stages on our second day so I got paid $140 that day and $80 the previous day (not to mention $40 for wardrobe fitting). When the checks finally arrived in my mailbox 3 weeks later, about 1 quarter of fees and other expenses were deducted from the total. However, it wasn’t about the money that made me interested in participating in this whole experience, but the fact that I’d be featured for a few seconds in an episode directed by Mr. Fincher. I wanted to see him work and experience what it was like being on set with him. Having said that, I’ll probably never sign up for another David Fincher production again, because I’d still like to keep my sanity intact as long as possible.