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.
“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!