Standin' Around With Suspect Zero

The Glitz And Glamor Of Background Extra Work

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Suspect Zero, the serial killer thriller shot in Albuquerque and the surrounding area two summers ago, finally made its way onto movie screens last weekend. The film struggled into 10th place at the box office, clearing a meager $3.4 million. Although the film didn't exactly cover its small $27 million budget ($7.5 of which was provided as an interest-free loan by the state of New Mexico), it did scrape together a few thousand more dollars than Baby Geniuses 2. At this point, it's clear that New Mexico will see none of the promised 2.5 percent of the film's profits, but at least the production employed a handful of New Mexicans for a few weeks. The following is a brief diary excerpt from two New Mexicans who worked as extras during the film's shoot.

Shoot Day 12

Working background in New Mexico's semi-revitalized film industry can be a multi-textured adventure–both goofy and exhilarating. True, pay is lousy but the catering is gourmet and you don't always wind up on the cutting room floor. Suspect Zero was a typical example.

Take Shoot Day 12, for instance. Seventeen sleazily wardrobed extras approach the closed doors of Moriarty's Longhorn Bar. Of all the gin joints in all of the world, we have to walk into this one.

Production assistant J.J. Dalton arrives and delivers his favorite line: “OK people, listen up!” Dalton is highly skilled at wrangling extras so everyone pays attention. Second assistant director Randol Perelman-Taylor now delivers his monologue, which begins with the classic line, “We're going to have a lot of fun today.”

In a whisper, Jack says, “For sure. I worked in movies in the '70s. Spent most of my time drinkin' beer in the commissary.”

Times have changed, though. Randol continues. “This is a bar scene and you are bar patrons getting plastered in the background. But, due to liability, no alcohol will be served. You'll be drinking big glasses of O'Doul's.”

“O'Doul's,” someone groans. “We'll have the runs for a week!”

“You'll also be smoking herbal cigarettes. I know they taste nasty so, if you wish, you can just puff. I want all of you to talk animatedly like happy Saturday night New Mexico drunks.”

“Is it OK to use the F-word in this movie?” a curious extra asks.

“Of course. But not out loud. You can only pretend to talk. Just move your mouths like you're saying, ’Walla-walla-walla.'”

Everyone troops into the barroom, squints at the glaring lights and is assigned a bar stool or a duct-taped X on the floor. After endless rehearsals, the magic words are spoken: “This is camera.”

The sweetly pretty but doomed young actress Chloe Russell enters the barroom haze, goes to the jukebox and plays a song. The SteadiCam tracks her as she walks to the bar and orders a 7 & 7. When the bartender asks for ID, she says she left it in her car. “Well,” says the bartender sarcastically, “if you hurry, you can be back before the end of your song.”

Dejectedly, Chloe heads for the door, passing by Starkey the Serial Killer, who rises from his table and follows her out.

“Perfect!' shouts the director. “Absolutely perfect! Let's do it again.”

Shoot Day 16

Alicia's Restaurant on Albuquerque's South Broadway is surrounded by vehicles of every conceivable kind. Extras and stand-ins wander onto the site carrying uniforms and personal wardrobe, eager to strut their stuff. Lights, cameras, vans and even a rainmaker are just a few visible tools marking the presence of Hollywood.

Aromas fill the air as cooks work diligently in excessive heat preparing meals, tantalizing all with a mixture of spicy scents that put most four-star restaurants to shame.

Agony of processing is short-lived due to the efficiency of extras casting director Sally Jackson. “Be sure to grab to bite to eat,” advises Sally. “It's going to be a long night.” Minimum wage suddenly becomes easier to swallow.

Dalton and set production assistant Danny Mormino round up and usher the crew into the twilight for final transformation by professional costumers. Aliases are issued and moments later police officers, photographers, paramedics, FBI agents and reporters emerge from the magic trailer leaving their true identity behind. Gallup Paramedic Bermin will be my newly assumed name for the next 10 hours.

Suddenly, attention is shifted and egos placed on hold as shiny white limousines approach the scene. Stupefied onlookers are clearly anxious to see their idols materialize before them.

Sir Ben Kingsley is rumored to be one of the celebrities. Before we know it, actress Carrie-Anne Moss and actor Aaron Eckhart grace the crowd with their presence.

As time passes, clues of individual celebrity traits are evident: release of nervous energy must be crucial. Eckhart scares the crap out of us when he lets out his first vocal warm-ups disguised as bloodcurdling wails, while Carrie-Anne Moss does a few jumping jacks just seconds before cameras begin rolling.

Around 2:30 a.m., we are called to the scene. By that time, exhaustion has replaced nervous energy. Focus means making our mark and not looking at the camera.

Two hours pass quickly. Sighs of relief fill the crisp New Mexico air as director E. Elias Merhige gives the command we all long to hear: “Cage is closed.” Our day is done.

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