This morning is bright, sunny, unusually warm. It’s a relief that we’re not going out to the Freeman property, as beautiful as that was. Today, they’re shooting right in Harlan—first at the Dairy Hut (the Pizza Shack in my book), then at the mini-mall/Goody’s parking lot. I arrive around 9:30; crew’s been setting up for the past thirty minutes.
Set PA Steve Koller, also known as Halloween, sees me and asks me if I want to be background.
I’d hoped for this long before the shoot started—could I be a face in a crowd?—but, honestly, since being here in Harlan and watching the production unfold, I haven’t thought much about it. So it’s a pleasant surprise. Today, the film crew needs an extra background, and here I am, the only one on set without a job. Perfect.
Set PA Jacob Costello drives me over to basecamp to the wardrobe truck, parked out behind the mini-mall. (For a sense of just how many vehicles are part of a film shoot, this site lays it out pretty well). I’m wearing a flannel shirt, and Greta Stokes, Costume Supervisor, says it’s probably fine, but maybe just a little too white. She hands me a brown plaid shirt that fits perfectly. Carisa Kelly, Costume Designer, approves. She says my jeans are probably too hipster but it’s okay, I’ll probably be sitting down anyway.
Back at set, Buck Staiger, 2nd 2nd AD (Assistant Director) directs me to a table. The other BG (background) are already here: a young waitress behind the counter; a couple ordering food; a mother and daughter at a table; and another guy sitting at a table eating alone. The Dairy Hut isn’t big—maybe a dozen tables and booths. It’s a tight squeeze for all the equipment and crew.
Prop Master Danny Dones and Props Assistant Erin Plew deliver me a basket of a fake burger and fries, as they wait for the real stuff to finish cooking. My job is to sit here, squirt ketchup on my fries, and pretend to look normal—I’m just a customer, eating my lunch (at 10 am).
But something isn’t working with the shot, and Braden moves me to a different table. I slide in the booth. My plate of play food is replaced with a real burger ( I don’t eat meat) and French Fries.
I’ve watched enough shoots now to know what not to do—don’t look at the camera, or the principal actors. Still, I’m weirdly nervous. If I actually had to speak a line, it would be a disaster (but then I’d no longer be BG—they have no speaking parts). I understand why, even for the most minor BG role, it’s much easier to hire professional actors—but budget and location (there aren’t many professional actors living in Harlan) make that difficult.
Braden asks if I have a book in my bag, and, of all the times, I don’t. So Danny gives me a crossword puzzle book and a pen. I’m crossword guy. If you were watching on the screen, you wouldn’t notice me—just a face in the background adding texture but basically invisible.
I’m sitting in the booth behind Cole and Ruby—his mother, who waits tables at the Pizza Shack. The camera moves closer, a giant eye, bearing down. I pretend it’s not there, nor are any of the crew. Don’t look up. Just casually work this crossword puzzle, dip a fry in ketchup. Don’t think about how Lili Taylor is sitting in the booth in front of me, her back to me.
Yes, the brilliant Lili Taylor plays Ruby. For those of you who know me well, you know I’m a huge fan. I first saw Lili Taylor on screen in the 1980s, in Say Anything and Mystic Pizza. She was electric in both films, and even though she wasn’t the lead, she pretty much stole the scenes. Then, during my early 20s, when I only watched art and indie films, I loved the girls-revenge movie Girls Town, and I Shot Andy Warhol, where she plays feminist Valerie Solanas. Somehow, Dogfight passed me by, but I caught it later—an underrated film starring Taylor and the haunting River Phoenix. Then, I spent years watching Taylor on one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under.
I met Lili a couple of days ago on set (!!!!). She was lovely, and I didn’t fan-boy out (too much). We shook hands, spoke briefly, and she told me she wanted to include one of my lines from the novel. The moment was like so much of this entire experience for me: quietly thrilling and surreal, but also feeling at home.