|Making Milk: retro storefronts
photo: Steve Rhodes
[previous: friends, Anita Bryant, Carrie Fisher]
During another shot of the Wichita protest march, I walked past the giant cameras set on a rig in the middle of the street — and tried desperately not to look at it, which is notoriously challenging for non-actors. I walked right past, within inches of, the boom operator — and, again, tried not to look at his microphone overhead.
When the crew had turned around the camera, the assistant director announced that they’d be lighting a flare for the riot scene (to mimic the unique look of raw electricity). "Don’t look at the flare," he instructed. I was getting used the challenge of not looking at something that most humans, under ordinary circumstances, would find themselves staring at.
We marched up to a vintage streetcar — (the kind that the San Francisco transit system only started running again several years ago after its long absence) — where protesters tore down the electrical cables connected to the trolley. Fortunately, I wasn’t even close enough to see the flare (and conspicuously look away from it).
The next scene required the dwindling number of extras to line up against the store windows along Castro Street. The camera would be shooting us from inside Twin Peaks Tavern, and, again, the assistant director instructed us not to look at the camera. "I know it’s hard," he acknowledged.
One no-nonsense P.A. ordered women and older men — (some of whom had participated in the original Gay Rights movement in the Castro during the ’70s) — to position themselves away from glass, at least four people deep into the crowd. We were thus reminded that the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s was comprised predominantly of young gay men. Ironically, because of the severe gentrification of the Castro over the past three decades, such a sociopolitical movement may not have been possible in today’s Castro:
- Bay Area Reporter: "Priced out of the Castro, LGBTs seek housing elsewhere"
- San Francisco Bay Guardian: "Milked: Some gay people are so anxious to participate in their own cultural erasure"
- San Francisco Bay Guardian: "Is San Francisco still a gay mecca? Yeah, pretty much . . . but if someday it wasn’t, would that be so terrible?"
- GLBTQ: Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Culture: demographics
While the extras were trading places, the no-nonsense P.A. stared at my eyeglasses for a long time, deliberating over whether the frames were acceptably "retro" enough to pass as authentic ’70s-style. Making her decision, she nodded and commanded, "Take them off." Well, then.
Dismantling a rig and setting it up somewhere else, as well as getting all the equipment and key crew members into place, takes a while — sometimes even longer than the filming itself. It’s during these times when actors and extras hang out and get to know each other. While waiting, I chatted with some of the professional extras, secretly envying their custom-made ensembles. One sweet-faced young extra was transformed into a perfect gay hippie/flower child, sporting a purple shirt, long hair, and a headband. He hung around with a couple of young hippie women who snacked on candy bars stashed in their fringed prop handbags.
Ryan, a professional extra with a few acting classes and movie gigs under his belt, told us the story of working in the coffeeshop scenes when Milk was running for supervisor. To convey Milk’s frustration with losing one of his earlier races, Penn took off his hat and threw it. During one of the takes, the hat hit Ryan in the face. Another extra boasted about ad libbing with Sean Penn, pretending to be a potential constituent. [Update: After seeing the movie, it appears that neither of these scenes made it into the final print, alas — but I believe that both actors played "friends" of the young Cleve Jones, walking with him when he first met Harvey Milk. They waited patiently on the sidewalk while Jones rebuffed Milk’s flirty encouragement to get involved in local politics.] The extras compared their impressions of Penn: "He’s definitely intense," said one of them. The other described Penn’s "evil eye."
Because we were standing next to the storefront windows, we marveled at the window display props for the businesses that had been there in the late ’70s: a hair salon, replete with hair net, shower caps, and big pastel hair curlers; a real estate office that featured listings with shockingly low prices; the famous Double Rainbow ice cream parlor.
When the directors eventually commenced shooting, a few of the young P.A.s and crew members joined the crowd of extras, perhaps to add more bodies to the crowd scene. They were dressed in all black — so they wouldn’t have been noticed on screen — but, despite not being dressed in ’70s wardrobe, they added marginally to the overall body of motion.
The crowd, now noticeably more sparse than it had been several hours earlier, comprised professional actors and only the most dedicated extras. I found myself milling around with Steve Rhodes and three beautiful professional extras, one of whom advised, "Trust me, just walk around in circles. That’s all you do." Another noticed me shivering in the cold — (we weren’t allowed to wear jackets with modern textiles like Polarfleece or Gore-Tex) — and hugged me, trying to keep me warm. The pros talked shop with me about the acting classes they’d taken, San Francisco casting agencies, and working on other locally shot films like the upcoming Four Christmases (which, compared to Milk, seems lame and forgettable). Professional acting, especially in small, insignificant roles, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they told me, with its fourteen-hour days of waiting and walking around in circles.
Finally, at 11:30 PM, after a long evening of take after Sisyphean take, the director yelled, "That’s a wrap!" Gus Van Sant, sounding even more tired than we were, thanked us for our volunteer work. I was amazed to see that he would continue to work well into the night with the professional extras and P.A.s, who were all exhausted. As I left to walk home, I was grateful not to be a professional actor.
If my visage makes it even briefly onto the big screen — (instead of more likely onto the cutting room floor) — you won’t notice me, and you won’t want to: the big crowd scenes will be emotionally charged and moving. But it doesn’t matter. I am proud to have even a tiny part in making what will no doubt be a very important film.