Strictly Background (2007)

Partying with Drew Barrymore one day and chasing Tom Cruise the next, an extra's work is never done in Jason Connell's award-winning documentary.

Director: Jason Connell

Whether the shoot requires a man who can operate a forklift, a young man who plays a violin, a Caucasian grandmother who smokes, or a professional manicurist, chances are an extra can be found among the 45,000 active background actors currently living in the Los Angeles area.

With no questions asked as more than 1,000 new extras sign up every week, it seems as though in this economic climate, it’s easier to get work on a major Hollywood production than it is to get a job at McDonald’s, as one of the professionals featured in documentarian Jason Connell’s award-winning festival favorite Strictly Background notes.

However, despite this, we learn that most new registrants quit within the first year and others who’ve been involved in hundreds of films begin to weigh the pros and cons of forking over the nearly fifteen hundred dollar entry fee to join the Screen Actor’s Guild. While the guild leads to more respectability and a larger payday, unfortunately as one interviewee explains, it also caused 80% of their work to dry up as the guild mandates a relatively small number of their employees on any given production, as opposed to the cheap “non-union” extras who make as little as fifty dollars a day and can be hired by the hundreds.

Although most of us wouldn’t imagine voluntarily going through the endless hassles encountered by the ten endearing background actors that former extra and filmmaker Jason Connell follows around over the course of Strictly Background, it seems these folks wouldn't have it any other way. Throughout Background, their passion and sheer love of filmmaking — especially embodied via the hustle and bustle of a busy set as well as the production process itself — is incredibly inspiring to those who are fascinated by the cinematic medium, whether they're "Connell's extras" or viewers of the DVD.

Whether they’re rummaging through racks of clothing at thrift stores collecting odd ties, shirts, and ensembles by the hundreds to fit any given period or character they may be called upon to play or wearing their fingers to the bone dialing casting hotline numbers to see when another new production is scheduled, the ten professionals in Connell’s film are all unique.

In industry terms, one could say they each have a memorably "distinctive look" ranging from high end, non-speaking background work for Marvin Rouillard as he dances alongside Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith or plays a priest in Wedding Crashers, or as Cecilia Hartfeld gets a smile from Jack Nicholson while playing a regal party guest of Greg Kinnear’s in As Good as It Gets. Then there are those memorable “characters” that seem to specialize in certain types of films such as Mark Nobel having a drink a few stools away from Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa, Cary Mizobe playing one of several drunk Mongolians checking out Drew Barrymore at the beginning of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, or the pretty blonde Terry Bolo trying to get as much “face time” as possible with the camera even if it means stripping over the opening credits of Carrie for twenty dollars while the lonely Sissy Spacek sits alone brushing her hair.

Aside from a few who dreamed of film stardom from the time they were children, most relay stories of wanting to be a police officer or fireman. And interestingly, others held down solid, prestigious employment before deciding to give up corporate work after their kids left the nest which, according to casting agent Jeff Olan in the film, isn’t that uncommon.

Despite his admission that most extras eventually disappear over time, for some — such as the ones chronicled in Connell’s documentary — extra work has become a lifestyle and one confesses that he’ll only quit when he’s unable to make it to the set. Overwhelmingly patient and able to keep it all in perspective, like the average joes who moonlighted as Hollywood Boulevard "characters" in the Morgan Spurlock-produced Confessions of a Superhero, Connell's interviewees seem endlessly willing to put up with the prospect of having to get up three hours early to change buses and trains just on the off-chance they'll be chosen on “spec.” Ultimately realizing that whereas one month you could be given countless jobs as the next finds you struggling to make ends meet, and while at times it becomes overwhelmingly stressful (including a heartbreaking confession by one character who hit rock bottom after too many failures), overall they seem endlessly driven to their craft.

And although they’re resigned to the set’s morally questionable “extra’s holding” area for hours on end and liken the chaotic “cattle calls” to appear in large groups such as needed in battle scenes to “Nightmare City,” mostly the film’s featured performers are eager to contribute in any way to the bigger picture whether it’s pantomiming conversation, dancing in the crowd, chasing Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, or watching a baseball game in the same crowd as The Fan’s Robert De Niro.

Considering their role as a legitimate part of acting, as Cary Mizobe astutely argues, “We’re not just… a bunch of lumps just walking around in the background all blurred out,” as frequently they must improvise background action or rely on skills required in playing a sushi chef one day and a mournful funeral attendee the next while staying in character for six hours as the latter. Despite some of the seemingly classist rules of set etiquette such as the universal understanding never to speak to or make eye contact with a celebrity unless they initiate it or the extras are directed to do so, a few have some touching stories about celebrities who showed their true colors by respecting them for the needed collaborators they are since without extras, as those in Strictly Background repeatedly state, film and television couldn’t exist.

To prove this point in a rather unique way, the deft filmmaker employs a terrific technique of playing clips from the actors’ work, sometimes either letting the scene run once without calling our attention to the extra first, or else just highlighting the extra by changing the color scheme to black and white to illustrate where they are and what an integral part they play in the finished product, especially in a powerful Shawshank Redemption prison sequence or in a memorable fight from Million Dollar Baby.

And humorously, as the film begins, Connell shows a clip from Airplane! featuring one of the actors and shows the principal lead walking down the aisle after deleting everyone from the seats of the plane. Imagine how many fewer laughs we would’ve had, had we not gotten the full reaction of the chaotic goings-on without a packed plane full of onlookers all privy to Leslie Nielsen, Julie Hagerty, and Robert Hays’ antics!

While it’s a fiercely competitive market and age discrimination does enter into the availability of jobs as the clients — especially the women — grow older and, as one male notes, filmmakers use inflatable extras to steal their jobs in crowd scenes, Connell does an admirable job of putting the previously neglected “extras in the spotlight” as the film’s tagline reads.

Recently released on DVD, the film, which has so far earned six awards including Best Documentary while being featured as an official selection at festivals across the globe, is a must-see for those who share — much like the stars of Connell’s film — a sheer passion for moviemaking and the idea of that a star can still be born in pursuit of the American dream.

With terrific music throughout the film by musician Frank Lenz, the disc includes twenty-five additional features including extra clips divided up by the cast as a group and then additional scenes with each individual cast member, offering further insight into the people we’ve grown attached to over the brief 84 minute running time. All of these ingredients add up to ensuring you'll never look at a major film the same way again, without beginning to wonder just what the lives are like for those near the edges of the frame.

Granted, one of the questions raised in the film’s publicity asks, “What would you do for three seconds of fame?” and I’m sure it’s safe to say that most of us couldn’t even begin to fathom the voluntary lifestyles of cattle calls and 4:30 a.m. alarm buzzers. However, by presenting the extras with such integrity and honesty and giving them the close-up they richly deserve, Connell has ensured that all ten are sure to live on in our hearts for much, much longer.