Back in August, my youngest daughter called. “Hey, Dad, I have something you need to do.” That usually means she needs something repaired at her house, or for us to watch the grand-critters for a while.

“Collin can’t do it?”

“No, I don’t mean work, though I wish you’d come over and tighten up the kids’ playset in the back yard, but this is for you. I saw on TV last night they’re making a movie in Ft. Worth and there’s an open call for extras. It’s a western with Sam Elliott in it and I think you need to see if you can get a part. With that big white mustache, they’ll have to make you a cowboy.”

I wasn’t sure whether to give her grief about referring to my age and white handlebars, or to thank her. I went online and found they were filming 1883, a TV series written by one of my favorite producers and directors, Taylor Sheridan. When I discovered he also wrote the screenplay, I wanted in.

I’ve written a screenplay myself, and found it was one of the hardest writing assignments I’ve ever undertaken. But the real reason I wanted to be on set was to see how the sausage is made. You see, I’m working on a manuscript in which two young men travel from Texas to Arizona in 1971, to meet Steve McQueen and be in a movie that ultimately became Junior Bonner.

I filled out all the requested info, sent in a photo of said mustache with the rest of me somewhat attached, and waited. Two days later the casting director sent an email saying they had two places for me as an extra, but the sad news I wasn’t selected to be a cowboy, which I really, really wanted. Instead they had a place for me as a city dude.


After a barrage of emails, Covid tests, and wardrobe fittings, I found myself in Ft. Worth one morning at 2:00 AM. They tested us yet again, put us on a bus and we arrived on set just as the sun rose on a hot September day. It was my first experience as an extra and moviemaking and I found it was fun at first, then boring…hot and boring.

Texas in early September is a sauna and that day the temperature reached 110 degrees…more inside the a three piece wool suit they had me wearing, not to mention the wool bowler. Now I know why those old folks looked so serious in photos from that time, they were miserable and melting under all those clothes.

But because I took the opportunity that arose at just the right time, I saw behind the scenes at how directors operated on a movie set. Terms I doubt I could find online will find themselves into my manuscript. The boredom, monotony, dirt, dust, and constant resetting of cast and cameras will hopefully give my readers a sense of really being there.

It was research, but on a different level from what I’ve done in the past. This interactive exploration allowed me to brush shoulders with Tim McGraw, say howdy to Sam Elliott (more of a nod, grin, and his comment, “Nice ‘stach,” to which I replied, “Right back atcha.”), and to watch Taylor Sheridan work.

For example, assistant directors and camera operators were there before daylight, setting up equipment, framing shots, and placing wagons, horses, barrels, thousands of props and hundreds of extras. When Sheridan arrived after tweaking that day’s script, he called “roll cameras,” “action,” and watched the scene unfold. Then he went about resetting a couple of cameras, calling for more dust and dirt in the air (more!!!???), re-blocking the scene while issuing orders to both cast and crew.

“Cut! Reset!”

“Original positions!”

“Too many wagons in the way. Reposition the cameras!”

That was our day that ended at 10:00 PM and everyone was back at two the next morning for the next day’s shoot.

Then the months passed until the first episode streamed and I wore the Bride out that night, stopping the program and pointing out where the other cameras were positioned, where I was, regaling her with anecdotes, and telling her that at the end of that street scene there was a sixty-foot blue screen to hide the modern buildings.

We waited for my big moment on screen and missed it. I rewound to the scene I knew I should be in, and we watched it again…and rewound again and again without result until my niece called and said she saw me! Now knowing where to look, I was successful and found I was on for one whole second. If you concentrate on that first scene when McGraw’s character rides into town on his wagon, you’ll find my head popping up over the mule’s rear end just before the scene cuts.


But that wasn’t why I was there. It was research, and that’s what writers need to do. I wrote several weeks back about going on location to find out what a particular place looks, sounds, and smells like, instead of simply Googling information. But this is different.

It was hands-on like the time a few years ago when John Gilstrap and I trained with the Florida State SWAT team for several days, even riding along on an arrest warrant and later acting as the “bad guys” in live action shoots. It was invaluable and what I learned that week made its way into some of my novels.

I also learned that you will lose if you go up against any SWAT team.

It might not be possible for authors to immerse themselves in all the scenes or situations they write about, however you can take courses on wilderness survival, or sailing for example. Learn to fly, travel to those places in your manuscript, or ride along with police officers.

Time machines aren’t here yet, so I couldn’t go back to the year 1883, but I experienced a fictional version of what it was like to live in that time. Despite the artificial nature of my experience, I had no idea how dusty and gritty a real old west street could be. I dug dirt out of my ears for two days.

Though I have intimate knowledge of the odors exuded by horses, goats, and mules, I didn’t know what 700 sweaty people would smell like at the end of a two day shoot when our damp clothes couldn’t be washed.

Little details from that shoot will likely appear in a future novel. For example, did you know that oysters were common in those boom towns? Folks gulped them down by the dozens, and where did those shells go? Dumped out in the street where they turned rancid and drew flies. How did I learn that? Because the prop department did their research and brought in fresh oyster shells to rot in the sun and draw more flies to the set, thus adding to the realism they needed.

So if you have the opportunity to live in that region, or location, or to participate in activities that will add to the realism of your novel, grab onto it and hang on!

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “Immersion

  1. I was an extra on the movie Contact. The scene was a company picnic. Had a blast playing volleyball and sunning on a blanket – and getting paid for it. Good times!

  2. Hi Rev,

    Thanks for taking us along for your journey. Your vivid experience brought reeking realism to life.

    You further piqued my curiosity. In those days, how did they get raw oysters to AZ w/o refrigeration? Where did they come from? How many people died from eating oysters that had gone bad?

  3. Great post, Rev. Thanks for the story, and thanks for the reminder of the importance of research – real research, getting “immersed” in it. I’ll watch for that first scene and the “stach” right over the mule’s a–.

    Have a good weekend!

  4. I’m also a huge Taylor Sheridan fan. Hell Or High Water is one of my Top 10 favorite movies. Contemporary western noir, what’s NOT to love? And having just caught up with Yellowstone, I happened to have watched the first episode of 1883 last night. I had no idea it was filmed in the real Ft. Worth. I assumed it was some Hollywood lot.

    I love this post. Thanks for the details. By reading your post, even I can write a scene about someone being an extra. I can riff on the idea of someone expecting fun but realizing it’s a long, long day and boring.

  5. Thanks for this, Rev. My daughter was an extra in Game of Thrones (season 5, episodes 8 and 9), and she described the “reality” of the work for me when I was writing Deadly Production which was set around a movie being filmed in Mapleton. How much better to be able to experience it firsthand.
    Going back a lot further, my mom was an extra in Soylent Green.
    I don’t think I’d have the patience to deal with all the stand around and wait aspects of the job. I had more fun researching my current work, set in Croatia.
    I did know oysters were a ‘thing’ in the south and the streets were ‘paved’ with the shells. One point for me.

  6. You had me right on the set, Rev, in there seeing the mud and the blood and the beer. I can taste the dirt, smell the sweat, hear the horses and wagon creaks, and feel the searing sauna heat. Sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel. All the elements of vividly describing a scene. Good stuff, cowboy!

  7. Thanks for sharing the news and details of your star turn, Rev. I will rewatch that first episode and look for you. I am a huge fan of Sheridan and note that he tends to use a number of the same actors across the spectrum of his projects. Maybe you will get the call for a future one or several of them. Congrats!

  8. I’ve read news stories that 1883’s production has been rife with problems, and some of the major actors have threatened to quit. We now know the cause—they wanted Reavis’ awesome ‘stach on camera more.

  9. I watched Ron Howard film parts of A Beautiful Mind in Princeton, NJ. That, and standing in line with my writing partner to go through the talk and then have her be selected to be an extra and not me, and her turning it down… Well, it sticks with you and provides so many details, as you said.

    I even asked Howard where was a good place to sit to watch part of the filming, and he told me, and I did.

    So many bits and pieces came out of that, a friend who IS an actor said he felt as if he had been right there from what I wrote.

    It doesn’t take much research to be SO much better than none.

  10. Good evening, Rev, and thanks for the movie-making post. I’d love to watch a movie being made, but I don’t think I have the patience to “hurry up and wait” in costume. I haven’t watched any of the episodes of 1883, but I will now, and I’ll be looking for your cameo.

  11. What an experience! It sounds fun (and yes, boring), but how interesting. I think I might have fainted, though, in 110 heat in a wool suit or, more suitable to me, a bustled dress.

  12. I believe I hold the record for author-immersion-research: swimming around the island of Manhattan (nonstop) before writing my historical fiction novel of its earliest beginnings in 1609. Although I cheated… the swim was long before the writing. 😉

    Good post, Señor Wortham.

  13. I just found this in my mailbox, so sorry for the late comment.

    i was there, in Prescott, when Mr. McQueen and folks were shooting the film. The town was a-buzz with flies…I mean, excitement. We lived in the outskirts of Prescott–the suburbs, if you will. I don’t remember going into town during that time because of all the “foreigners.” Lord, that was a long time ago.

  14. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your vivid retelling. My husband and Ioved that series. Actors and set crew actually work for their pay. I knew it could be gruelling work but had no idea it was that rough.

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