Encounters of the Hollywood Kind
a way, I was one of the lucky ones. I only had to stand out
in the freezing rain for one night, not four, to add another
few seconds to my allotted 15 minutes of fame. And I’m pretty
sure you’ll see me when the picture comes out: I’ll be the
fat, slow one the Martians pick off first when the heat rays
start firing. And did I tell you I saw Tom Cruise?
The mania that grabbed thousands of people who stood on line
for hours in the tiny rundown village of Athens, vying for
a job as an extra in the Steven Spielberg extravaganza War
of the Worlds, isn’t limited to this area. All over the
Internet, fans are obsessively picking through the tidbits
of information gleaned from us, the chosen few, looking for
hints of how this latest incarnation of H.G. Wells’ classic
will compare to the versions that have come before. Will Spielberg
and Cruise, who is co-producing the epic, return to the original
19th- century British setting, or will they wring yet another
change out of the Americanized Howard Koch radio script that
let Orson Welles terrify a nation in the days before World
War II? Here’s my contribution; you decide.
Given that most extras wore their own clothes (by the time
I showed up late Thursday evening, a last-minute substitute
for no-shows from the night before, the wardrobe department
seemed more concerned with warmth than looks), I can confirm
that this War of the Worlds is set in the present.
In fact, there was a decidedly post-Sept. 11 feel to the stream
of “refugees” headed toward the hastily-constructed Athens
ferry to escape the oncoming invaders. Some extras were given
signs to hold up with pictures of children or spouses, and
on a fence notices and messages (“Have you seen me?” “We’re
going to Boston, try to meet us there”) were creepily similar
to the pictures of Ground Zero just after the (real) attacks.
The bank of lights that Adam, the British-accented assistant
director, instructed us to look at (with that “Oh, shit!”
expression, as our PA Patrick put it) represented the Martian
tripods, which according to some online postings are a good
sign the filmmakers are going back to Wells. (George Pal’s
1954 Oscar-winning movie used legless flying vehicles.) Those
chosen few fortunate to be assigned to the ferry reported
back that Spielberg had them looking into the Hudson for cylinders
emerging to overturn the boat. From what they said, the old
Star Trek technique of flinging themselves about the
ship was used to show the ferry as it tilted; particularly
prominent extras may see themselves CGI’d into the drink.
Everyone involved in the production was incredibly nice. I
personally saw Cruise (did I tell you I saw Cruise?) stop
when someone called out, “Like the rain, Tom?” and grin back,
“I don’t mind getting wet,” before reaching across the respectful
distance the extras accorded him to shake hands and say hello.
One woman said he talked to her about her kids and his for
10 minutes. I wasn’t there when the action hero leaped across
a car on the ferry to reach an extra who’d passed out on the
deck, although I hung on every word of the breathless description
immediately afterward. And I never saw Spielberg, though I
did see an amazing number of baseball-capped, bearded, spectacle-wearing
look-alikes. However, one of the people I was hanging with
that night, Vonnie, said she saw Spielberg and he was nice.
Ten-year-old Dakota Fanning plays Cruise’s daughter. I saw
her doing homework in the Extras Holding Area, a drafty warehouse
filled with tables that, when full of dirty, blood-streaked
extras wearing ripped jackets and carrying beat-up backpacks,
resembled a cross between a bus station during a snowstorm
and a summer camp. I also saw the middle-aged adult, dressed
in identical striped purple tights and cute mini, who served
as Fanning’s double. When the time came to film, I saw the
real Dakota skipping up the ferry ramp to the nightmare that
awaited her. Apparently, child actors are not scarred by being
in scary movies, unlike some of the children who watch them.
Being an extra can be scary though. When it got really late—filming
for my group broke at 5 AM—and I’d been waiting for the foghorn
signal to look up and begin running in panic, it all started
to get to me. Uniformed emergency workers who’d been lounging
around looking lost a few minutes earlier began frantically
waving me and the rest of the crowd toward the ferry ramp,
but too late, too late. They’re behind us! Aaaaarrgghhh!
Be sure to watch for me next summer.