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Close Encounters of the Hollywood Kind

In 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.

—Kathy Ceceri


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