Behind the Scenes as an Extra in Historical Costume Movies

Frock Flicks note: Here we’re featuring a guest post by Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, who ran this on her blog recently and suggested that our readers might be interested in a behind-the-scenes look at filming historical costume movies and TV shows like Bessie. You can see more of her excellent taste in vintage clothing in her shop!

 

Last June, my friend Kat suggested I join her in applying to be a movie extra. She instructed me to submit, or respond as instructed to the casting call. This meant providing the casting company with an array of photos and rather personal tidbits, including my age, height, weight, bra size, and location of any tattoos.

Here we are, a few weeks later, primping before our scene in the HBO biopic Bessie starring Queen Latifah. We’re both wearing our own clothes, although most everyone else did not. My cream satin floral gown is a 1930s original.

Kat and Liza (rt), before filming Bessie at the Fabulous Fox.

We spent 18 hours on that unusually beautiful set. I returned to different locations for 2 more days of filming, dressed in an original 30s ensemble from wardrobe. Below, I’m outside a more typically unglamorous venue. The hair and makeup professionals were incredible. This may have been the most fabulous hairstyle I’ve ever had.

On day 2 or 3 at Bessie shoot.
Hairstyle on day 2 of Bessie shoot.

Alas, it was never seen. We many extras were on screen for maybe 3 seconds. Below is a screen grab. The red arrow points to me (get out your magnifying glass).

Me among many, in Bessie.

Referred to on set as background (BG), extras are living props. We’re furniture that moves on its own. We mustn’t pull attention from the foreground. So we pantomime our talking, eating, and drinking. We dance without music. We clap silently and walk softly as possible. A tickle in your throat when the director calls “picture’s up” (on your mark), “rolling” (get set), “background” (go!) is a panic-inducing horror. Don’t even think about sneezing.

We do the same thing again and again, trying to be as enthusiastic and natural on the tenth or twentieth take as we were on the first. As my friend Sarah said last week, while we cooled our heels in holding, being an extra is much like being on a long-haul flight. It’s very exciting and very boring. It’s exhilarating and exhausting. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of mindless waiting around. It’s often wildly uncomfortable despite lavish surroundings. Get up at 4am to fake dance in real heels, and after 6 or 12 hours your feet (and head and back and hair) are going to hurt. There are far less grueling ways to earn minimum wage. So why do we always look forward to doing it again?

Here’s why:

In my red 1950s Gigi Young dress.

I’ve never aspired to a career in acting. Nope. I’m in it for the clothes! And whenever possible, the dancing. Above, I’m working on a Mad Men-era party scene in a TV series set in modern day. That’s my own original ’50s Gigi Young dress.

And here I am with Sarah on a still-in-production period film, wearing my other Gigi Young:

Although I wear all of my vintage clothes IRL, I rarely get a chance to wear them fully accessorized, made up, and coiffed in period style. Head to toe vintage, unless you’re a performance artist, works best for theme parties and in the movies:

In my late 50s/early 60s ensemble at a recent shoot.

Although Atlanta’s burgeoning film industry is rife with opportunities to portray zombies, vampires, prison guards, and business types, I have no desire to be anything resembling my real-life self (and yes, all of those ring true, depending on the time of day and month). So I only submit for historic or formal scenes.

Sometimes it’s a dream-come-true scenario. How about four days of one-stepping to a live ragtime band in a pastoral setting, wearing original Edwardian clothing? Been there, done that, wore my own corset! That movie isn’t out yet, so no names or on-set photos. But here’s a glimpse of my hairstyle, makeup (check out those turn-of-the-century brows), and antique ensemble.

In turn-of-the-20th-century costume.

It was hot, it was painful (dancing for hours in granny boots and corset in Atlanta’s summer heat is no picnic, even if you’re pretending to attend one), it went on forever. The food was awful and the facilities minimal. But OMG, to wear those clothes, and dance! I was in heaven. I didn’t want it to end. And when I returned the dress to wardrobe for the last time, I pinned a little note inside asking Western Costume to please consider selling it to me. No reply. But at least I tried.

In the past year I’ve been in an assortment of scenes depicting dressy events. They’re often referred to in casting calls as a “gala.” But more often than not, what they’re really talking about is a cocktail party. Nowadays, apparently, anything beyond polyester fleece and denim counts as formal wear.

In fact, only one of those gigs required an actual gown (I wore modern). For the others, I wore my own vintage cocktail dresses. Here, I am in ’50s blue on MTV’s Finding Carter. I wore it again for TV One’s To Hell and Back, a retelling of the biblical Job story.

Screen shot from "To Hell and Back" on TV One.

I wore this raspberry satin for an upcoming episode of Devious Maids and my peacock silk for an episode of The Red Road.

In my raspberry cocktail dress for Devious Maids.

I’ve worked without pay more than once for a chance to dress up and dance or to help with hair, makeup, and especially costuming.

Here are Kat and I, working for the opportunity to work some more, on the set of a TV series pilot. She and I were two of just four featured dancers, doing a whole lot of Charleston. My fringed flapper dress is an ’80s does ’20s find with the gigantic shoulder pads removed.

On the set of "Confetti" with Kat.

And here I am in one of my mid-Victorian ensembles, volunteering for my friend Mickey Banyas’s short film Hearts of Dust — a gig that landed me (to my happy amusement) in the IMDB!

Filming "Hearts of Dust"

Yes, I’ve been in it for the clothes. But more and more, I’m an extra for the behind-the-scenes glimpse it offers into an industry that influences my daily life. Considering how much time I’ve invested watching TV and movies, and the impact they’ve had, it’s hard not to be fascinated by their production and excited to be part of it.

I’ve had the opportunity to interact with directors, production assistants, boom operators (I’ve held the boom, and yes, it’s heavy), camera operators (one let me look through the eyepiece to better understand the image he was trying to capture), hair and makeup artists, and of course, wardrobe and costume experts. I’ve learned from each of them. And I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s involved. I’m hopeful that Atlanta’s film industry will continue to flourish, and that I can become involved on a deeper level.

I’m also hopeful that our current obsession with supernatural creatures and prison inmates will give way to a fascination with historical dramas involving waltzing in bustle dresses. That’s a wrap on zombies and vampires, picture’s up on Edith Wharton novel adaptations. Have corset, will travel. That’s me.

 

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Three historical costumers who decided the world needed a podcast and blog dedicated to historical costume movies and everything right and wrong with them.

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