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Tell a friend Making ‘Milk’: being an extra in the crowd scenes

Making Milk: crowd of extras in the Castro
photo: Eric Nielson (TroublePup, Observd)

[previous: Making ‘Milk’]

When a big crowd amasses on the street in the Castro District of San Francisco, it’s often to protest something. But last night, instead of actually protesting, a big crowd pretended to protest. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing more fun than pretending, especially when a professional film crew is there to capture the make believe.

Because it’s so difficult to assemble and manage a large crowd of enthusiastic, costumed extras, directors and crew will often reuse the same crowd, albeit with a few position and prop changes, to create and film different scenes. Last night’s crowd was used to film a rally, a march, and a riot for the Harvey Milk biopic, currently in production.

The Castro Theatre, perhaps in gratitude for refurbishing its decrepit sign and marquee, loaned "Milk Productions" (the working name for filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s production company) the use of its space for the day. In the afternoon, the production company hosted a free screening of The Times of Harvey Milk, which was introduced by documentary filmmaker Rob Epstein and attended by local gay politicos and key members of Milk cast and crew.

After the documentary, Gus Van Sant introduced Cleve Jones — longtime gay activist and founder of the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt — who asked the audience, "So who was there back then?" A surprising number of middle-aged men and seniors raised their hands and cheered. Cleve led us in practicing various gay liberation slogans of the 1970s: "When they attack, we’ve got to . . . fight back!" and "Hey hey, ho ho: Anita Bryant has got to go!" Then assistant director David Webb outlined the scenes to be filmed and technical instructions for the extras.

Hundreds of extras squeezed into the mezzanine of the Castro Theatre for the catered dinner: heaping bowls of pastas and Caesar salad, gigantic pizza pies, toasted garlic bread, and, for dessert, gourmet carrot cake with thick cream cheese frosting. In the food line, I chatted with Huffington Post blogger Lane Hudson and his boyfriend Jeff — both wearing vintage ’70s outfits they’d bought for the scenes — who’d flown from their home in Washington, D.C. to participate in the movie.

One of two dozen production assistants stood on a chair and announced that filming would soon commence, so we scarfed down our meal and rushed out to Castro Street, which was lit with huge white spotlights. Hundreds of volunteer extras amassed at the southwest corner of Castro and Market Streets where a plywood wall covered with vintage political posters had been constructed to block the view of the modern underground MUNI station, an area now known as Harvey Milk Plaza. A giant camera facing the crowd and a boom mic were positioned on top of a platform in front of the plywood wall. An unimaginably bright spotlight, right next to a second camera, shone from atop the Twin Peaks Tavern building across the intersection, and a third camera captured wide shots of the street scenes from the balcony above the Castro Theatre marquee.

I was surrounded by folks of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, all in a variety of ’70s garb: tan leather and suede jackets, sport coats and wide neckties, Levis and corduroy pants, plaid flannel button-downs, long cotton skirts, bandannas and wool caps. For my part, I was wearing an earthy wool sweater with a wide collar, a plain pair of brown pants, gray hiking boots, and a navy bandanna as a kerchief. Some extras were given hand-painted demonstration signs:

  • "Gay Rights Now"
  • "I’d rather fight than change"
  • "Human rights abroad, human rights at home"
  • "Save our human rights"
  • "We are your children"
  • "Gay Veteran: I defended your rights, now defend mine"
  • "Freakin Fag Revolution"
  • "Separate Church and State"
  • "Love who you want"
  • "Have a Gay Day" (with a yellow smiley face)
  • various anti-Anita Bryant signs

The props department had made more signs than were needed, and one of the directors announced over the loudspeaker that there were "too many signs" and instructed a production assistant to remove 35 percent of them (which seemed like an unusual, and therefore precise, number to me). One of the extras asked, "Hey, where’s Frank Chu?" Locally famous for showing up at events with big crowds, Frank Chu usually carries a sign that features the non sequitur 12 Galaxies. The number of "galaxies" displayed on the sign has inexplicably increased over the years, so another extra quipped, "Back in the ’70s, there must have only been, like, three galaxies."

After the surplus signs were collected, Cleve Jones explained over the loudspeaker that in the years between 1976 and 1978, there were antidiscrimination laws enacted in various parts of the country. This wave of progressivism inspired a massive backlash by social conservatives, who sponsored, and often passed, laws hampering the civil rights of homosexuals, especially openly gay teachers, civil servants, and adoptive parents. We, acting as our 1970s counterparts, were thus gathering in protest of these regressive laws. This particular demonstration that we were recreating was in response to the June 7, 1977, vote in Wichita, Kansas, that repealed a seven-month-old local gay rights ordinance that barred discrimination in housing and employment.

Gus Van Sant and David Webb took turns announcing instructions over the loudspeaker. Soft-spoken Van Sant provided general feedback, and Webb gave most of the actual direction. One of them announced over the loudspeaker that cameras were rolling. "Action!" Webb yelled, as we all faced the platform, eager to perform.

[next: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk]

Posted February 5, 2008 by Mariva in city, community, fashion, movies, social

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