Extra, Extra Read All About It
Cinema with a twist
By Maria Johnson
The text came shortly after 11 on a Friday night.
“Would you be up for being a yoga student extra in our film?” asked director Olivia Mungal.
FYI, I’m usually not summoned at midnight for movie work the next morning but Olivia and her Greensboro-based colleagues at Layla Films Productions had graciously agreed to include me in their entry for this year’s 48 Hour Film Project, an annual event that starts with summertime competitions in cities around the world.
Greensboro, Asheville and Charlotte host contests, which makes the Old North State look good because New York and California are the only other states with more than one 48HFP site.
The potential rewards for artists are huge: Local champs take their short works – which run from four to seven minutes — to Filmapalooza, a festival that awards the winner a $5,000 prize and a screening at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
No matter where 48HFP filmmakers live, the race to create a film in two days begins on a Friday night, when teams draw their genres and discover the three elements that every film must share: a character, line and prop.
Earlier that Friday night, 32 teams had drawn a genre in Greensboro. Olivia’s team, know for its dark humor, had the choice of making a silent movie or a thriller/suspense film. They picked thriller/suspense. The required character was Sunny or Sonny Bowles, a yoga instructor. The necessary prop: a ribbon. The mandatory line: “How many times do I have to tell you?”
A couple of hours after her initial text, as Olivia and the other writers pounded out a script for their flick, Swelter, she sent me the details: “Call time will be 8 a.m. at the Guilford Campus lake. One of our actors is a certified yoga instructor, so we’ll be having you do some real poses.”
“Got it,” went my thumbs.
“Eeeeeeek!” went my mind.
A real yoga instructor meant real yoga, which meant my Achilles tendon might go SPROING! like the last time I was in a yoga class. It’s a little-talked-about dark side of middle-age womanhood: yoga injuries sustained in the quest for inner peace.
I briefly considered hopping out of bed and stretching for a while, but decided I’d be better served by dreaming of greater flexibility.
The next morning, I spent way too much time considering my yoga outfit and whether to tie my hair back or leave it down. Ordinarily, it would not be a question. I would tie it back. But this was pictures, baby.
I left my hair down and sped toward Guilford College. It is hard for me to describe how my heart sank when I arrived to a lakeside that was completely devoid of humans.
I called Olivia in a panic.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said calmly.
First lesson in moviemaking: Hurry up and wait.
The actors and crew trickled in. They were a loose-knit group of friends, most in their 20s and 30s, who’d met through school or each other.
At the hub of the wheel were Olivia, a UNCG grad who makes a living in digital marketing; UNCG alum Ellen Ross, who works at a bookstore; Guilford College alum Kristin Wampler, a yoga instructor and photographer; Cameron Wilkin, who graduated from Guilford and programs computers at UNCG; and James Lyons, a Guilford grad who works in tech support at his alma mater.
Guilford allows James, the main cinematographer, to use the campus for shoots, which is how we ended up at the lake that Saturday morning. The script called for a peaceful outdoor yoga class.
Someone should have told the campus ducks, who have failed to absorb the Quaker school’s pacifist ways. They harassed us until Olivia chased them away with flapping arms. Score one for method acting.
Soon, the boom microphone was hovering over us, and two cameras — long-lensed digital numbers like the ones your photo-geek friends own — were recording in video mode. Over. And over. And over again. There were multiple takes for every shot. Pick a reason: a shadow, muffled sound, a forgotten line, a detail that was inconsistent with the shot taken before.
Two hours later, we were dripping with sweat, and the first scene
Time for a wardrobe change. Then we reconvened in a theater basement for another “class,” this one led by a substitute yoga teacher who had murderous intentions with hot yoga.
Fortunately for us, the thermostat in the cool basement stayed put. We spritzed ourselves with water to resemble sweat and starting doing the eagle pose, which requires you to intertwine your arms, then do the same with your legs, then squat on one foot. I’ve always suspected it was invented by a yogi who forgot to pee before class.
Naturally, our eagles fell short of our teacher’s expectations, and she became more draconian. Muscle fatigue, the real kind, set in as the afternoon wore on, and another reality of amateur filmmaking emerged. People have stuff to do on Saturday. For me, a painting project loomed at home.
A quick script change enabled me and another extra to storm out of
“This is messed up,” I ad-libbed on my way out of the scene. “Whatever happened to namaste?”
Pretty good, huh?
My son told me that, come Oscar time, I’m a shoe-in for Best Extra.
“Thanks, kid,” I told him. “I’ll remember you in my speech.”
Then he asked if I know the other meaning of “extra.”
“Yessssss,” I said. “Everyone knows . . . that.”
Just so you’ll know, too, the folks at Urban Dictionary define extra as “doing too much, being pretentious, putting on a show.”
Like they know anything about being in pictures.
At press time, the winner of Greensboro’s 48HFP had not been announced, but you can find out by going to 48hourfilm.com/greensboro-nc. OH
Maria Johnson is contributing editor of O.Henry. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.