By Amanda Grigg
In 2011 Michigan began offering tax incentives for movies filming in the state. Not long afterwards, The Five Year Engagement was filmed in Ann Arbor. I was living in Ann Arbor at the time and the town was abuzz with Jason Segel and John Krasinski sightings. They were rumored to have gone to a karaoke night and killed it. They filmed winter scenes in June and covered the main street with fake drifts of snow. I watched the movie when it came out on Netflix and was disappointed to find that the entire point of being in Ann Arbor was to shit on it and and joke about how miserable a place it is (a ruiner/extender of engagements). Still it was fun to see a bit of filmmaking magic. A few years later I’m living in Grand Rapids, Michigan is still throwing tax breaks at filmmakers, and now Grand Rapids is abuzz with news of a movie filming here, which happens to be a David Foster Wallace biopic featuring Jason Segel. And that’s how I became an extra.
The film, End of Tour, is based on a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. The book is a rough transcript of essentially every one of Lipsky and Wallace’s conversations during the last days of DFW’s book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky was a Rolling Stone reporter at the time and was interviewing Wallace for a piece in the magazine. The conversations are particularly interesting because they cover the period in which David Foster Wallace was realizing that Infinite Jest would make/was in the process of making him famous. Rolling Stone never ran the interview, but Lipsky published the full conversations as a book a couple of years after DFW’s death. It became a New York Times best seller and NPR’s 2010 book of the year.
I arrive just before the 6pm call time, behind three very young looking girls (who I later learned were 15). We walk past several Ryder trucks before reaching the entrance to the building, where I sign a release form behind the girls (who when questioned confirmed that yes, they are 18). The call for extras referred to the 6pm extras as “dancers” and said to dress like you’re at a party in the 90s, and that everyone should be over 35. It said to focus on classic items/shapes with muted colors and no labels. Mentioned turtlenecks. So I’m wearing a camel turtleneck, short black wool skirt and tights. I asked if it was okay that I’m under 35 and they said yes. I have no idea how these girls got in. They’re also dressed like they’re going as the 90s for Halloween/just raided Urban Outfitters exaggerated 90s throwback collection.
The two women behind me are in their early 20s. They’re super tan with perfectly straight hair and similarly look like they’re straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue. One calls a friend on the phone and whispers “Jackie and I had margaritas before we came.” The friend doesn’t hear. She repeats it again, and California-girl drawls out a joke about being a star before hanging up.
Funnily enough, the wardrobe area is in the bottom of a two story building, and the other half of the first floor is a classic Michigan blue collar bar occupied by regular patrons who are looking at everyone oddly.
After signing the waiver, I get in line for wardrobe. I brought a lot of my own things (as directed by the email) and the wardrobe people move the extras who brought their own clothes to the front of the line. I’m always pleased when reading and following directions are still rewarded in adult life, which is probably one of my more annoying traits. The charming red headed costume woman lights up when she sees me and says I know exactly what I’m going to put you in. She says please tell me you’re a size 7.5, I am! We’re both thrilled at this news. She rifles through a box of boots, labeling one pair creepy before settling on a pair that are “creepier.” She hands me the chunky black booties, a black dress and a long jacket and directs me to a changing….V? It’s two pieces of fabric stapled to wood in the shape of a V, with the open part of the V facing a wall. The dress is short, slightly flared with tee shirt sleeves and a crew neck and of course it’s ribbed. There’s a cream sleeveless turtleneck to go under it, also ribbed, and an amazing full length velvet jacket with several large embroidered flowers. I’m channeling dark Willow. The wardrobe woman really wants the jacket to be in the film, and she grabs my hand and leads me to the head wardrobe person for final approval. She lifts my hand a bit to note that she’s holding it and says sorry, I do this, I’m a mom. I love her. Next she’s telling me to smile and sell it. I smile though I’m pretty sure my character wouldn’t, but the British wardrobe woman doesn’t like the jacket. She thinks it will be too warm. She’s not a fan of the turtleneck either so I take that off and someone hands me a purple vest with mandarin clasps that looks like something out of Portlandia’s feminist bookstore. That’s roughly what the British woman says when she sees it. I end up wearing just the dress, with my own dark tights and the chunky boots. I’m kind of loving the 90s.
While I’m changing a slightly awkward looking guy (18 maybe?) walks up to wardrobe with an entire suitcase full of extra clothes. “This is the last time you’ll see me, I promise.” A wardrobe person I can’t see cheerfully responds, “I hope so.” I’m beginning to realize that some people are not doing this on a whim.
Then there’s more waiting, while other people make their way through wardrobe. A giant light shines through the window and everyone tries to avoid making eye contact with it. Finally someone important looking comes down and shushes us. He’s the assistant director and he’s going to take everyone who’s gone through wardrobe to the set. We’re told to turn our phones off and leave our things downstairs but a couple of women, including myself, take their purses with them. He guides us through the bar – more looks from patrons – to the set upstairs. It’s a large rectangular open space with a checkered dance floor in the middle and a bar along one of the shorter walls. More waiting, more shushing and we’re admonished that the actors and crew are working, and so are we – though of course no one is getting paid – and the 15 year olds are already giddy at the mere prospect of a Segel sighting. We’re told to have a character, not to think of ourselves as extras but to imagine that we’re real people here for a real reason. But they don’t tell us anything about the film or the scene. So you know, just imagine some reason for your character to be dancing in a bar with the weirdest collection of people ever and David Foster Wallace.
We wait while the crew sets things up, no sign of Jason Segel or Jesse Eisenberg yet. A woman next to me wearing what we both agree is an unfortunately frumpy floral romper says that she’s been to some of the other days of filming. She was in a scene they filmed at the local airport (based on skimming the book I assume it doubled for O’Hare) and tells me that her “character” was going to Minneapolis for a job interview. She tells me about some of the other scenes she was in, one of which went on for 20 hours straight. She says that they only had donut holes and bags of chips until the very end when they got sandwiches. The call for extras said that there would be lots of food. I’m beginning to realize that that was probably a lie. And that everyone else here might be a little insane.
Several crewmembers put plastic over the windows while others do light meter readings on a giant wearing sweatpants who can only be Jason Segel’s stand in. I make conversation with the people around me and overhear the three 15 year olds discussing their desire to “grab Jason’s butt.” A trio of Tina Belchers.
Later I meet two women who have been to almost every filming and act like old pros. One is young, early 20s and pretty. She’s wearing a dress that reads Blossom or Phoebe. The other older woman, is a mom (she announces that she’s wearing her son’s flannel shirt) with bright highlights, a serious tan and glittered eyeshadow. Their bragging is thinly veiled, they talk about how they met doing a scene where one of them looked at condoms and another ate ho hos, then high-five. They call Jason Segel “Jason” and talk about fleeting interactions with him in a way that I can only describe as really forcedly casual. The older woman says that she thinks their first scene will be in the bloopers. I’m wavering between being annoyed and sad.
Finally we dance a bit, sans Segel, to Build Me Up Buttercup, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Celebration. I’m dancing with the two extra veterans who don’t look at me at all and do a lot of over the top joke dancing with each other. After a couple of songs they tell us to pair up and another veteran extra, a guy with a simple sweater on and close cut hair swoops in to dance with the older veteran. The younger woman and I are going to dance together until two men our age ask if we want to pair up. We say fine, I make small talk with the guy who just graduated from Michigan State and is applying to med school. I tell him about my new dog because I’m that person now. He and his friend are just here “as a bucket list thing” which I can appreciate. Though after I tell him that I moved here with my boyfriend he immediately asks me if I think he’s going to propose soon. Ah, West Michigan. I downplay it more than I normally would because I’m annoyed by the question. “I don’t really care, we’ll just talk about it when we want to get married.” Take that, patriarchy. The assistant director pushes the 15 year olds to the back telling them they’re too young, they’re ruining the scene (in a joking, charming way, I can see why he’s in charge of wrangling us).
Jason finally arrives to a flurry of points and whispers and we’re filmed dancing around him. After one take we’re told not to duck when the camera approaches, and to move out of the way when we see four men barreling towards us. Oddly, the camera man is guided around by a man with his hands on his waist, followed by the director and assistant director. The cameraman wears a green patch over his non lens eye so his spooning partner guides him around the floor while the assistant director motions to Jason by enthusiastically crossing his arms to pat his shoulders a la Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.
After another couple of songs (keep in mind that by songs I mean those same three songs played over and over) the Assistant Director goes through the crowd, picking out everyone under 35ish and directing us to the bar at the side of the room (out of the shot). They pass around water bottles and position the extras who are still in the scene. I climb onto the bar and sit with the 15 year olds. At this point I find out that they’re 15 and that they’re here “for Jason” who is “amazing, right?”
Jason Segal comes off as charming and funny even though he’s just dancing around. At one point he dances towards the bar area a bit, making eye contact with the 15 year old girls and I and smiles raising his eyebrows as he shimmies. They swoon and stifle squeals. His dancing is pretty great, silly without being over the top, though I have no idea if it’s true to character. Did David Foster Wallace shimmy and grin goofily? Who’s to say.
Jesse Eisenberg walks in and sits down in a corner and the kid with the suitcase from before sidles over to him to make small talk.
There’s more dancing with some feature extras that I won’t discuss for fear of spoilers/lawsuits and then we’re moved to the other side of the room, still out of the shot. At this point I’m sort of over being an extra, it’s clear that the under 35s won’t play much of a role in the filming. The two veterans are talking again, about how they were supposed to get sweatshirts for the end of filming but didn’t, so the older woman stole Steve’s. Sorry, Steve. Also she got yelled at the other day, but she’s not venting about it so much as she is patently bragging about the fact that she’s “in” enough to get yelled at. Then she lists her set nicknames. I make my way over to some seats along the wall and surreptitiously start texting my significant other. “I’m beginning to second guess this decision.”
Jason Segel is still hamming it up dancing with the middle-aged party goers and between takes the makeup people spritz the extras with sunscreen or something to make them shiny. At one point they take off Jason Segal’s blue headbands and try a cream one. They go back to the blue.
More dancing, more secret texting, a couple of snapped photos that capture more my purse than they do of the set. Finally we’re called back for a take in which everyone dances. I don’t have a partner this time so my character is dancing on her own and at this point is relieved to have an excuse not to make eye contact while dancing with strangers. We’re spread out so that we take up the entire space. During the first take the older veteran woman and man dance across the middle of the space (halfway between Jason Segel and the wall) making a push back motion and urging everyone to move backwards. I was watching the assistant director and director before the scene and they didn’t say anything to these extras. I guess they’ve taken it upon themselves to do some staging. They do this for the next scene even though gesturing wildly and mouthing MOVE BACK as they rapidly sidestep across the floor has got to be more distracting than people not being perfectly spaced out. And of course they manage to stop wherever the camera is. Aside from that I don’t mind dancing by myself in a room full of strangers. The two girls in front of me now look 16, one looks like she’s wearing her street clothes (skinny jeans and a modern looking sweater) and her iphone is visibly hanging out of her back pocket. Earlier another extra warned her not to get caught taking pictures. I’m sure veteran extra Nurse Ratchet would have a field day with her. She takes pictures while everyone dances.
The music cuts out and someone yells that’s a wrap. Everyone claps, Jason Segel disappears like a giant messy batman and they announce one final dance with the crew. I grab my purse and head for the stairs, hoping to beat the rush at wardrobe. Jesse Eisenberg is walking up the small stairway as I walk down, wearing a very Jesse Eisenbergy black jacket (which later sleuthing reveals is wardrobe for the film) and talking into his cellphone. We smile like you smile at people you make eye contact with on the street, though I assume he thinks I’m excited to see him and that irritates me. I’m clearly really really over being an extra by this point. I walk through the bar and head for wardrobe. I’m the only one who left the crew dance early so the wardrobe people are befuddled that I’m returning my things, until someone confirms that the scene upstairs has wrapped. I change back into my clothes and turn in the dress and shoes at a folding table. Waiting for my ride, I spot a lonely variety box of chips in the corner. I treat myself to my first Dorito in seemingly forever and watch wardrobe prepare for the “flood” of extras returning clothing. The veteran extras line up to take a group photo, I grab a second bag of chips.