I teach theology at a seminary, but for two days last summer I played a scientist in the new movie Jurassic World. (That’s me on the right side of the screen at 1:23 in this trailer.)
Louisiana was recently named the film capital of the world. Because some of the children in our neighborhood have worked as extras in movies, my children also wanted to work as extras. So, last summer my family attended an open call for extras in Jurassic World. We arrived at a local high school to complete tax forms and have our pictures taken. Two months later, I received a call from the casting agency. Fortunately, there was an opening for extras. Unfortunately, they were not calling about my kids. Instead, they asked if I would be available to be a scientist in the background for scenes in the lab. Although my kids were sad that they were not invited, they were excited for their dad.
The movie set was located in a large hangar at the nearby NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. The hangar might have housed massive space shuttle boosters; I don’t know. I assume the movie studio rented the site from NASA; again, I don’t know. After completing pages of paperwork, I stood in line with dozens of extras on the first day to be issued a NASA badge (to be admitted to the facility). We were fitted in costumes, our hair was fixed, and makeup was applied. All of this occurred before filming was to begin at 8:00 AM.
My experience in Jurassic World left me with three thoughts.
First, I entered a world of fantasy. Characters and places were created which previously existed only in the mind of an author. Although I was a poor student in my high school and college science classes, for two days I was a scientist incubating dinosaur eggs. A career can be built by pretending to be someone you are not—portraying a character in a TV show or movie. An entire industry has emerged to enable this art of visual storytelling. Writers produce scripts, carpenters and electricians build sets, and artists work to make them look authentic. Another group sprinkles props throughout the sets to make them look convincing. A crew of camera operators mark spots and shoot film (literal film, not digital on this set) to capture the action. Hair and makeup artists walk through the set to primp and fluff and comb and dab. The crew follows the lead of the director. All to tell a story. In this case, a fantasy.
Second, telling a story through film is work. I was only on the set for two days and it was a thrill, but they were long days. I left my house at 5:30 AM, was on my feet most of the day, and returned home after dark (9:00 PM the first night, 7:30 PM the second night). I watched the primary actors recite their lines without cameras rolling then discuss the scene with the director then recite the same lines again, adjust their blocking, then run through the same scene repeatedly with the cameras rolling. Everyone worked for perfect scenes. The extras were the first people to leave. I have no idea how much longer the primary actors and crew members continued to work. What I experienced for two days they experienced for several months. And when this movie “wrapped,” many of them began working immediately on their next movie project. But no complaints here; I was thankful to be on the set, only feet away from Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and B. D. Wong. It was an exciting experience, but it was work.
Third, movie production intersects with the human desire to participate in an epic story. John was a young man who flew in from California for the chance to be an extra in the film. He didn’t care that his expenses would exceed his paycheck. He wanted to be in this story. Andrew rode a bus for twelve hours and booked a hotel for the week hoping to work on the set. He made it to the set. Before one scene in the lab, Andrew whispered to me, “This is the greatest day of my life.” I was both excited for him and sad. Everyone is on a quest to play a part—even in the background—of an epic story. It’s universally true.
I am thankful for my two days on the set of Jurassic World and plan to watch the movie. And I have a greater appreciation for the effort required to create a story so compelling that people desire the chance to simply appear for a moment—even in the background.