Man Without a Country
By Jeff Berg
Knowing little about how movies are actually made has never stopped me from enjoying them. I can recall some of my earliest movie moments from childhood, which include sitting in the aisle of the Catlow Theater in Barrington, Ill., watching some Jerry Lewis film many years ago.
Through the years, my interest in the cinema grew. Weaned on Westerns, which I still love, especially those of the "spaghetti" genre, I remember watching a number of the old Westerns made in the 1950s and early 1960s through the slats on the bedroom door as they flickered in black and white on our old television late at night. Funny that my parents would be sound asleep in front of the tube, while I was wide awake and more than attentive.
It was after accidentally coming across a PBS broadcast of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast in the late 1970s that my interest in movies heightened to the point where it has become a major player in my life.
Now I watch up to 300 flickers a year (the devil invented Netflix!), I attend a few film festivals (don't miss this year's Santa Fe Film Festival, Dec. 7-11) and my freelance writing career allows me to write about "leaping shadows" (an earlier term for "the pictures" than "the pictures" is) for two regional and two northern New Mexico publications.
It never occurred to me until the late 1990s, though, that I could actually become involved in the making of a movie.
While I was living in Santa Fe, the cast and crew for a terrific made-in-New Mexico film, The Hi Lo Country, swooped into town. A casting call for extras helped me to realize my interest in taking my first step to an Academy Award, and I was selected to be a "quiet-looking cowboy" at a cattle-auction scene.
Fitted for a really cool outfit by the very nice wardrobe people, I awaited my phone call that would provide me with directions to the location of that day's shoot.
It was not to be, however, since my real employer at the time decided that my full-time presence at my "real" job was far more important than enhancing how Woody Harrelson and Penelope Cruz would look on the screen.
Career scuttled, I fell into the routine of watching, learning and writing about movies.
And then early this year, it was announced that a new film, directed by New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose first important feature was a grand piece called Whale Rider, would bring her crew and talents to film part of her new work in Silver City.
The film, which at that time was using the working title of Class Action, was to shoot for a few days south of Silver City, before returning to other locales in northern New Mexico and Minnesota.
The movie, in case you have forgotten or never knew or cared, is loosely based on the true story of the first sexual discrimination claim of a woman miner against her knuckle-dragging male co-workers. It stars the lovely and talented (Monster) Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson (there he is again) and a host of other noted actors. Silver City was chosen after the mining locales in northern Minnesota, where the actual incident took place, at first refused the company permission to shoot there, since they didn't want the film to make them "look bad"-as if they needed any help after being the subject of the first lawsuit of its kind.
With the help of the publisher of this fine publication, I was able to make contact with the casting director, who enthusiastically embraced the idea of my writing an article for Desert Exposure about my experience as an extra on the set of the film. Several casting directors and a number of phone calls later, I was instructed to report for a safety meeting one day in March, and then be ready to work on the shoot as a nondescript miner. (My mother doesn't think I'm nondescript!)
The only part of my motive that was questioned was the financial part: Since I live in Las Cruces, why would I want to spend all that money on a motel in Silver if I was only getting paid something like $75 a day? It was for the experience, man!
Arriving early for the meeting, I decided to track down the publicity person who had been so obliging on the phone. Apparently no other regional publication had thought to have a writer take part, and the film crew thought it would be a good publicity stunt to allow me to write about this.
Noting a large amount of activity at the Holiday Inn Express, I moseyed on over to see whom I could see.
The place felt a little chaotic, as the crew had indeed settled in at the inn, and were setting up this and that to prepare for the shoot. A kind young production assistant was charging up a number of portable radios, and he directed me to the PR person, a petite young woman in a black leather jacket.
I approached, introduced myself, and was immediately but gently rebuffed.
"Don't tell me who you are," I recall her saying in a quiet voice. "You shouldn't be here."
Surprised, I walked her out to the parking lot. There I learned that apparently no one had known that the shooting was going to be a "closed" set, meaning that no press would be allowed, no matter how small-time they were/I was.
"Go ahead and go to the safety meeting, but don't tell anyone about the paper," the PR person said, skimming through the copy of Desert Exposure I'd just handed her as a sample. "They'll fire you."
I went to the meeting, wondering about my hopes of being the embedded writer on the set.
Tim Engel, the second-assistant director, gave us an overview of the film, what we needed to do, how we needed to do it, and that we should never try to talk to any of the real actors, or to the director, even if she was standing next to me, hoping for a passionate embrace from a nondescript miner.
Shooting would take place from March 10-16, at both the Cobre and Chino mines, south of Silver.
A basic safety overview by Lillian Medina from the Chino Mine, plus a video about how not to get run over by 20-ton ore trucks, set the scene for myself and the 75 or so other extras and stand-ins in the room for our big chance.
The casting person I had last spoken with recognized my name when I went to sign in, and she offered her phone number. Great, thought I, we can still do this!
A couple of weeks later, that same casting person, Elizabeth was her name, called and said, "We don't need you. We have too many extras and cannot use them all."
(Ironically, sometime previously, someone had contacted me and asked me to encourage others to come out to be used as extras, since the casting crew thought they would be short.)
As I sputtered my protest, she stood firm and coolly said, "I doubt it," when I politely asked her to call me if the situation changed. My skepticism kicked in, and from her tone and attitude, I figured that my overt honesty was too much. I should have gone underground with my notebook, as opposed to open pit.
So much for freedom of the press.
I never heard back from anyone, of course, and they probably slipped out of town late one night, thinking that I might, gasp, write a few words about my experience on a movie that will be on DVD for the whole world to see in 2006.
When Engel spoke about the film at our briefing, he had said that it would take at least a year to make it to the local cine, considering time needed for the rest of the shoot, editing and such.
So, imagine my surprise last month when I noted a poster for a film at our local lousy-popcorn multiplex, trying to conceal its true identity from me by using the moniker North Country as its release title. Coming in October, the one-sheet poster said.
North Country is indeed about to be unleashed on the world, as it premiered in mid-September at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. It received a few good reviews from critics, and is going to be at the Mill Valley (Calif.) Film Festival, where I will also be. It will screen there on Oct. 8, and I will probably go see it at that time. It is scheduled for commercial release on Oct. 14. I can't wait to review it (insert stereotypical pirate "ar-ar-ar" here).
According to Zared Goldfarb, the very helpful person I spoke with from the film's outsourced promotion company in Phoenix, no special screenings are planned in any of the cities where the film was shot. Sometimes film studios will do so to say "thank you" to the host community and of course to promote the product.
Thus ends my acting career. I will not put my nondescript, quiet-looking miner/cowboy face on the line again.
Well, at least not for any film that has the word "Country" in the title and Woody Harrelson in the cast.