BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Imagine “Rocky” entering an empty arena to face Apollo Creed. Or Moses in “The Ten Commandments” descending Mount Sinai only to find two or three Israelites at the bottom.
It’s the extras, or background actors, who populate various scenes and bring life to a movie.
Such is the case with “Woodlawn,” an epic production about revival, football and racial reconciliation that enlisted scores of extras, from football players and cheerleaders to students on campus and fans in the stands.
I first discovered the work of Jon and Andrew Erwin when they released “October Baby” in 2011, the beautifully crafted story of a college freshman who discovers she was not only adopted but survived an abortion attempt. Then came last year’s “Moms’ Night Out,” the Erwins’ lighthearted tale of three moms who simply want to spend an evening out while their husbands watch the kids. With both films shot in Alabama, primarily in the Birmingham area, I wanted to be part of their next effort.
So, my college-aged daughter Emilee and I threw our names in the hat to be extras in Woodlawn last October. Dressed in our finest polyester — the film takes place in the early 1970s — we showed up at a Birmingham-area civic center ready to impress. We departed a few minutes later after filling out some paperwork and having our pictures taken.
Five days later I received a call to be a part of Bull’s Group, a circle of five friends who sit in the bleachers with one of the film’s antagonists, Bull, played by actor Steven Prince. The part called for no lines, just cheering and commiserating in the stands in some football game scenes.
Turns out there are two kinds of extras. The paid type, or featured extras, are hired to play a specific nonspeaking role like a policeman, a cheerleader, a football team member or, in my case, a specific group of fans. There’s also a “y’all come” category open to those who have expressed interest and sometimes to the general public to be part of a crowd, perhaps helping fill a stadium or walking around in the background on a campus. Their pay is typically pizza and soft drinks and the thrill of being part of the production.
3 days of work
For Bull’s Group, three days of shooting took place over five weeks in November and December. The first one, an outdoor shoot in a former middle school stadium, was a night event. We reported at 7 p.m., filled out some paperwork and headed to the costume department, though I was able to wear what I had brought — a pair of brown polyester pants I found at a thrift store and a long-sleeved blue polyester shirt from my closet.
After about four hours of waiting in a gymnasium, we were whisked into the stadium to be part of the crowd watching what would be several different football games in the film. The players were on the field; the coaches, played by Nic Bishop and Kevin Sizemore, were on the sidelines; and Sean Astin, playing the part of Hank the chaplain, was across the running track from us.
We were surrounded by hundreds of dummies sitting in the stands, rented from a movie supply company to help make the stadium look full. Ah, the magic of making movies. After an hour or so of cheering on cue between long periods of resetting the lights, we were let go around 1 a.m.
A few weeks later Bull’s Group was called in for two daytime shoots, with 6 a.m. call times. These were our first opportunity to meet Steven Prince, aka Bull. The scenes were shot on a section of football bleachers set up in a gymnasium, where sound and lights could be more closely controlled. The shots would focus on smaller groups of fans cheering and would be edited into the outdoor shots filmed earlier.
It was these two days of shooting that demanded the best efforts of our fledgling group of background actors — cheering for players who weren’t there, pumping a victorious fist in the air, mouthing lines like, “You’re killing us, coach!” And knowing that at any given time, one of us might be visible when close-ups of Bull were being filmed. Day one lasted around 12 hours, day two about eight hours.
Also during the filming, I opted to go to Legion Field for one of those unpaid opportunities — the movie’s pivotal candlelighting scene. It’s an emotional moment in the film when Sean Astin’s character, speaking to a large rally, recounts attending a key event in the Jesus Movement at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Largely because of the power of Sean’s (Hank’s) words in that scene, it was incredibly memorable, and I still have my candle as a reminder of the experience.
Making the cut
Once Bull’s Group was cut loose, our fate was in the hands of the film’s editors. I’ve since seen the film several times and am happy to report I made the cut. I’m visible over Bull’s shoulder in three shots, adding up to maybe six or seven seconds of screen time. But I can honestly say that even if I had ended up on the cutting room floor it would have been worth the effort, because along the way to my few seconds of fame I learned several lessons.
First, patience really is a virtue. The phrase “hurry up and wait” definitely applies to an extra. It wasn’t unusual to report at an early hour and get into your costume only to sit for several hours before being called on set. And even while you’re on set, there’s a lot of waiting as lights and cameras are set and reset. But that waiting around provided a great opportunity to soak up the experience — we’re making a movie! — and get to know people you otherwise might never have met.
Second, everyone’s job is important. It really doesn’t matter how talented the actors are if the writers haven’t provided a great script, or if the lighting crew hasn’t done its job well, or if the costumes are all wrong. And there’s all the work that goes into sound and editing, props and sets, makeup, catering and on and on. It reminds me of the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 about the body of Christ. It takes all of us using our abilities to accomplish the purposes God has for His church.
And third, on a movie set you must trust the often-invisible force behind the scenes: Even when you don’t see him, there’s a director (or two in this case) who knows the master plan and is calling the shots. It requires the same kind of faith that we must exhibit in our heavenly Father each day as we trust Him to play the part He has written for us in His master plan.
The experience also provided several unexpected blessings. A chance encounter with co-director Jon Erwin over lunch gave me the opportunity to hear firsthand about his passion for this project and his prayer for revival in our nation and world.
Being part of Bull’s Group led me to form a lasting friendship with Marc Hodges, pastor of First Baptist Church in Thorsby, Ala. Unfortunately Marc didn’t fare as well as me in the film’s final cut, although you might catch a quick glimpse of him if you know where to look.
It would be stretching it a bit to say that I’m co-starring in a film with Sean Astin and Jon Voight who plays legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. But what I can say is that Woodlawn is an amazing film about an amazing God who did an amazing thing in Birmingham in the early 1970s.
Woodlawn has the potential to impact our nation, even our world. You owe it to yourself to see this film and encourage as many others as you can to see it. And I would say that whether I was in it or not.