Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love movies. It’s not that I’m the type of guy who can name the cinematographer from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or anything like that. I’ve never seen Citizen Kane and I didn’t really like The Godfather. Sacrilege in some movie circles, I know, but I’m not a cinema snob. I just love being entertained by a good movie.
I don’t watch awards shows, and I have no interest in celebrity gossip. I really don’t care who’s sleeping with whom in Hollywood, and don’t understand why anybody else does, either. I will admit, however, that I like hearing that somebody whose work I love is a nice person, too. For example, on the commentary track for Aliens, Bill Paxton tells a story about what a class act Sigourney Weaver is and how hard she works. I love that movie, and that somehow makes me like it a little bit more.
I do have my favorite directors, screenwriters and actors, but only because certain people consistently create or star in movies I like. There are a number of movies I’ve seen a dozen times or more, and I get something different out of them each time. A consequence of this affinity for the silver screen is that I have an uncanny knack for remembering movie quotes, and let me assure you, that’s a useless skill. Pretty sure I’ll need some bit of information that was discarded from my brain years ago, just so I could remember what Frances McDormand said to Billy Crudup in ‘Almost Famous.’
One of my favorite movies is Legends of the Fall. Not because I particularly like the story, but because I got to work on it. While it’s true that I was only an extra, I got paid well for it, and it was a lot of fun.
In 1993, I was an instructor at the Air Reserve Training School at Canadian Forces Base Penhold. It was a full-time job teaching basic training, and I enjoyed it. At the end of one summer session, my boss mentioned to us that she had heard that a major Hollywood movie was filming in Calgary and that they needed extras with military experience. Nobody else from the training school or my unit tried out, but since I had no immediate plans, and it was a paying gig, I thought it would be pretty cool.
At the time, Calgary still had fully operational military bases and the film crew was working in conjunction with the military to ensure they got the right people. I went down for the audition at one of the hangars on the base. The audition wasn’t about acting, it was just so that the production company could find out what your military experience was so they could assign you a position in this fake WWI Canadian Army.
The next weekend, there were 60 of us learning WWI foot drill on a parade square, being yelled at, marched around and basically being treated like we were all back in basic training. Since we were all reservists or regular force members, it was more entertaining than anything else. Their full intent was to run the movie WWI army like a real army WWI army.
We were given rifle training on authentic WWI Lee Enfield rifles. Mine had a stamp from 1917 on one of the metal parts. This was the main reason they wanted people with military experience, and only the 60 from the original weekend were going to be firing weapons. For those unfamiliar with weapons and firing blanks, there is usually something called a BFA (blank firing attachment) fixed to the end of the muzzle on a rifle during training exercises. Blanks can still cause serious injury at close range, and a BFA helps prevent that. During filming, however, the BFA’s were removed as the rifles had to look authentic. This meant that everyone was VERY serious about weapons safety as there was an added element of danger. Only those with weapons training were issued blank ammunition and rifles.
The following weekend, there were 700 more men, and those of us that had been trained the week before were assigned men that WE had to train in the WWI foot drill that we had just learned. Let’s just say that we weren’t ready to go on parade, but they were trying to instill at least a little bit of discipline. They divided us into companies and that’s who we were with for the entire shoot. I’m almost positive that these added guys didn’t have to have military experience, as they were only being used on the shoot for two or three days.
The week after that, we were working full-time. I stayed with a friend in Calgary for three weeks, sleeping during the day, working all night long. We had to be at one of the Calgary colleges each day by 2:00PM, where they would take us out to a location north of the city. Each morning, after shooting, they would bus us back to Calgary at 6:00AM. I never got more than 6 hours sleep those three weeks and almost no time off. That was what we had all agreed to when signing up.
Apparently they had paid a rancher for the use of three or four of his fields for the duration, and they ripped it to shreds converting it to a WWI battlefield. The first time I saw the battlefield, it was eerie. A field full of mud, burned trees, elaborate trenches, craters full of water, and barbed wire everywhere. I found out later, that they put that field back to it’s original condition after filming, and that the rancher was paid very well.
The main tent in the staging area consisted of two large connected circus tents, one full of tables and chairs like a beer tent where everybody would gather at the beginning and end of shooting and where they would put us if they had an hour or so with nothing for us to do. The other half of the tent was wardrobe and makeup and let me tell you, it was incredibly organized. They fitted each of us for authentic WWI uniforms that they got from a prop house in London. These were real WWI woolen uniforms. We were shown how to put them on, complete with puttees. It was a factory of efficiency, and everyone was incredibly professional.
They treated everyone fairly, but tolerated absolutely no screwing around, especially in the beginning. Because they were issuing working firearms, there was ample security on set and they double checked everything when it came to signing weapons in and out. The first day, about 20 of the 700 were kicked off the set for not following the rules. It wasn’t open for debate and they gave no second chances.
Each day, we’d be briefed on what was going to happen that night along with constant safety briefings. We would then march in formation, according to company, down to the battlefield. They really ran it by the book.
For those first three nights, the ‘army’ just basically ran across a muddy field, back and forth all night long. It was very well lit, but it was tough. Most of those runs were rehearsals. We were to pick our own path, know where we going to run, so that when filming began, nobody was running into each other, we all knew where we were going. We knew where the explosions were going to happen, and there were tech guys sitting in holes all over the field. From the camera side, they couldn’t be seen, but from our point of view, it was a bunch of guys in bright jackets in plain sight with control boards in front of them. Their job was to detonate the squibs (movie explosives) on the field. With 700 guys running across, these guys were pros. NOBODY was hurt by an explosive during the whole shoot, to my knowledge.
In the beginning, somebody would come up the line, I think it might have been one of the assistant directors and just start pointing at every third or fourth person before every rehearsal. “You’re dead, you’re dead, dead, dead, dead…” and this just meant that somewhere in your run, you fell down, and we were told specifically not to ACT. You just fell, and then stayed still. When they started shooting, a couple of guys were kicked off set for being ‘theatrical’ when they died, mugging for the cameras.
It was cold and rainy some of the time, but they had constructed the trenches with shelters in them that the cameras couldn’t see, and they would get us back to the circus tent to get warm regularly. Lots of coffee and tea, plenty of food for everybody, ample time to rest up for the next scene.
Once the first three days were over, that’s when the real fun began. Initially we had to go through metal detectors going through to wardrobe in our underwear and t-shirts, just so you couldn’t bring in cameras or recording devices. Anything like cigarettes, lighter, stuff like that, you could just hold in your hand so they could see it.
Interesting side note about cigarettes. They’d let the smokers smoke during filming of the daylight trench scenes to add to the authenticity, but they’d give out hand rolled cigarettes that looked like they’d been run through a washing machine and then rolled in mud. I tried one, and it was horrible.
With just the 60 of us, and the cast and crew, they slacked off on the security a little because we’d earned a certain degree of trust. They started to allow us to bring in cameras, with the understanding that they could only be used at certain times and never be pulled out during filming. While I didn’t take these photos, they were taken with permission. Unfortunately, all of these you see here are scans of small prints, and my scanner sucks. Still, you can click on any of them to see them a bit larger.
Our company went from about 50 guys down to 10 after the first three days, and we all got along really well. With no women on the set aside from crew, it was just a bunch of overgrown boys playing army in an amazing playground, and what could be more fun than that. The cast and crew were fantastic, and I don’t recall one personal bad experience the whole time.
Some memorable moments:
The first night the actors came into the trench, everybody was a little nervous. Close quarters in the trench, so they had to squeeze between us. One guy in my company got a tap on the shoulder and when he turned around, Brad Pitt was trying to get by. He kind of stammered, “Oh excuse me, Mr. Pitt,” to which Mr. Pitt replied, “F**k off, call me Brad.”
One morning, when we were all getting ready to board the buses back to Calgary, the crew needed one company to stay behind to film some daylight stuff. Turned out that whoever stayed wasn’t going to get to go back to Calgary at all that day. The 10 of us were asked, and we said, ‘sure.’ We were having fun, although we were exhausted. The scene was with Aidan Quinn and he felt bad that we had to stay behind. After the scene was shot, we were told to get back to wardrobe and they’d give us a clean change of uniform, and then we could find a place to nap.
While we’re getting changed, Aidan Quinn walks in with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, carrying a flat of Labatt Genuine Draft and said, “where do you want it?” He sat and had beers with us for about an hour, posed for photos with some of the guys, and said thanks for sticking around.
One night, had to be about two in the morning, they kept having technical trouble with something. Could have been a camera, lights, I don’t know, but it was a very cold night. They kept debating whether or not to send us back to the tent. Finally, somebody called out for runners from each company and they brought back heavy duty coffee containers to the trenches. We all had our own cups in the kit they gave us, so while they didn’t want us to leave the set, they still wanted us to be warm. This happened once in awhile, and there were strategic holes in the trenches for modern items to be hidden when shooting started, including those coffee containers.
Thinking they had the problem solved, they brought Brad Pitt and Henry Thomas into the trench, and by this time, we were fairly comfortable around them. They were nice to us, kidding around, that sort of thing. The problem, whatever it was, persisted, so they were going to pull the actors back to their trailers until it was solved. Brad Pitt said, “we got coffee, we can wait here.”
He and Henry Thomas sat and chatted with us for over an hour, answering questions, telling stories, laughing a lot, just hanging out in the cold like the rest of the guys.
Taken Care Of
One very telling experience about how well we were treated. One night, near the end of the third week, our company was running across the battlefield in some scene, explosions going off everywhere, firing our weapons, and a squib exploded very near me. I wasn’t in any danger because I knew that whoever set it off knew exactly where I was, but we had been told that if an explosion went off near us, even if we hadn’t been told to die, we were to fall down. So, myself and the guy nearest to me both collapsed, right into a crater full of water. We managed to keep our heads out of the water, as well as our rifles when we fell, but just laid there until we heard CUT. It was a good two minutes in that cold water and I was soaked. As soon as the director yelled cut, he sent in a crew to get us out of the water. They got us out of the field quick, into a van, drove us to the circus tent and into fresh dry uniforms very quickly. They gave us coffee and wouldn’t let us leave until we assured them we were warm enough to keep going. Best of all, we didn’t ruin the shot.
There are plenty of other things that happened on the set, but what I remember most is that the actors in that movie were genuinely nice guys and treated everybody with respect. The crew treated us well and on the last day of filming, the director, Edward Zwick, told us all that we had performed beyond his expectations. He said that it was like working with stunt men, not extras, which was nice to hear.
The experience of Legends of the Fall reinforced my love for movies. It didn’t make me want to be an actor. Hell, it didn’t even make me want to be an extra again, but working on that one movie just reinforced my love of the art form. It even changed how I watch movies, because sometimes I’ll see a certain camera shot in a movie, and I’ll remember that I know how they do that. It’s probably one of the reasons I enjoy Director’s Commentary on DVD’s so much, too. That’s where all the stories are told.
I’ve still got photocopies of the script and some storyboards, some photos I took and others took for me. I’ve even got some videotape that somebody from the crew sent to one of the guys in my company weeks after filming, showing unedited dailies, including some with the actors.
There are a number of scenes that I can pick myself out in the movie, just because I recognize myself or guys in my company. But for the most part, there’s only one place you can definitely see me in the movie, and that’s this one below, that I copied from a YouTube clip. I haven’t seen it in awhile. When I showed it to my wife, she said, “you look like a baby!” It was, after all, 18 years ago.
Incidentally, this was a breakfast scene in the WWI camp, filmed at sunset. We were told that Brad Pitt’s character Tristan was riding into camp with scalps around his neck, and we were supposed to part the way. They wanted us to look shocked at what we were seeing but not to exaggerate it too much. While Brad Pitt did come through on the horse and we did get to see that, what we’re actually looking at in this photo is an ATV coming through with a camera on it.
If you’d like to see the actual clip, here’s a link to one somebody posted on YouTube. You can see me on the left of the screen from 2:56-3:00.
I’d like to work in movies again someday, but in an artistic capacity, maybe as a digital painter or a character designer. But for now, I’m happy with the memory that I got to do it once, and it was great. If you ever get the chance to be an extra in a movie, paid or otherwise, I would advise you to do it, just for the fun of it. It really was one of the best experiences of my life.