In For a Penny: The Fine Art of Wasting Time

Charles Lewis III, filling the hours.

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“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”
– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Two Sundays ago, I was an extra for a film shoot here in SF. Due to non-disclosure agreements we were all required to sign, I’m actually not yet allowed to say which film it is. And yet I’m willing to bet many Bay Area performers – stage and screen – probably got notices to work on it as well. Maybe some of you have even worked a few days on it. In any case, it’s a project I’m certain everyone has heard about, a subject whose work reached far and wide, and I watched a dramatic interpretation of a major pop culture milestone from my late-teens. It wasn’t such a bad day.

Well, I mean, unless you count the fact that I had to spend the night before at a friend’s house because the call time was 5am – meaning I had to be awake and out the door by about 4am. I don’t think cameras started rolling until maybe 11 or 12-noon. Lunch was a lot later. And, as I see from my payment voucher, I didn’t wind up officially checking out until 8pm. Fifteen hours watching Hollywood “magic” move slower than a snail racing a tortoise. After nearly a decade, you think I’d be used to it by now.

“Hurry up and wait.” It’s a common phrase in film-making. I’ve heard it’s also supposed to apply to theatre, but that’s never really been the case for me. In theatre, when my character isn’t in the scene being rehearsed or performed, I’m usually busy going over my lines, reading a book, checking, my e-mail, or (quietly) chatting up one of my fellow castmembers backstage. All of these things are done with the awareness of whether or not my scene is coming up next. Even working as an opera supernumerary (a topic I plan to cover in a future column) I’m made aware of the breakdown of the production so as to prepare myself for when I’m most useful.

Film is a different beast all together. You’re never expected to do the whole production in a single day, so the whole thing is assembled piecemeal. You’d think that would mean getting the most out of every moment production is in motion. And yet, if you’ve ever studied to be a film-maker (as I have) or taken part in a film production, you’ll know that the unspoken rule of the medium is to “Waste as much time as you want; it’ll all look a lot faster when it’s put together.”

Theatre is a performance medium first, a technological medium… well, not even second. All one needs on a fundamental level is a performance space and something to do; both of which are limited only by the minds of the performers. Film is a technology first and foremost. Storytelling will always be an afterthought compared to the functionality of the equipment. As such, the crewmembers ability to have things in working order trumps most concerns about preparedness on the part of the actors or stunt performers. As such, the performers will build up their energy only to lose it as they wait for lights to be placed and lenses to be cleaned.

But that’s all to be expected, knowing that film is a technology first. Where the time-wasting is most apparent (to me, anyway) is the lack of rehearsal done with the performers ahead of time. In theatre, you rehearse ad nauseum so as to know exactly what the hell you’re doing during a performance. Things may change during the run and a sudden burst of inspiration may make you approach your performance differently, but you’ll always have your rehearsal work on which to fall back. For film, the actors are expected to simply show up with their lines learned, to go through a quick run-through of how the scene could go, and then just perform multiple takes until everyone is satisfied (and then once more after that “just for safety”). You’d think that an industry known for its “time is money” reputation would strive to be more frugal in its use of both. Instead, everyone on set watches the hours draft away as everyone wonders what could happen, rather than knowing what should happen.

And it’s a problem adopted early. Film schools don’t teach aspiring film-makers to make decisions, they teach them to shoot as much as possible and let the editor decide what the final product will look like. “We’ll fix it in post” is the unfortunate motto every would-be Kurosawa learns their first day of class. They aren’t taught how to find the right angle, they’re taught to shoot from every angle – master shot, medium, single, close-up, extreme close-up – just to have options.
They aren’t taught how to be familiar with as many aspects as possible, just to find one area of the job that might work for you and focus only on that. They’re never taught to think of actors as anything more than props with dialogue, so they don’t understand why an actor needs character motivation and an understanding on a human level.

Now before someone sends me comments with the hashtag #NotAllFilmmakers, believe me, I know. When I work with folks who really have their shit together and the confidence to see it through, it’s a joy to behold. Hell, Will’s column is all about contemplating what separates the masters of the craft from the hacks – in both theatre and film. But it works both ways: if you ever wonder why every single movie, tv show, and web series starts to look the same, it’s because they’re all products of an art form whose educational basis teaches people to never distinguish themselves.

But how do you teach someone to be his/herself? I guess you can’t. I will say that I’ve always been more drawn to those who took the time to try to make something unique rather than just repeating what everyone else is doing. Perhaps they aren’t flamboyant attention-seekers, but someone who knows that there are some techniques that are only useful in the classroom and just waste time in the real world. I find myself thinking about this more and more as this year I’ve found myself directing more than I expected to (and will do more before the year is over). I’d like to think that every moment I spent with my actors was put to the best of use, that they and the technical folks were genuine collaborators in our production, and that I distinguished myself in a way that they’ll speak well of me when it’s all said and done.

Until then, I recommend showing up on film shoots with a fully-charged smartphone set to silent. You’d be surprised how easy it is to hide in period costume.

Charles Lewis III’s favorite memory of working as an extra is when he saw a former castmember of a much-beloved Aaron Spelling show have a complete meltdown begin shouting obscenities at the director. Good times.