A Mathis Moment: Extra, extra, hear all about it

By: Jo Mathis

Michigan's exceptionally generous film incentives created some jobs and lots of industry buzz, but at a great cost to taxpayers.

So Gov. Rick Snyder is smart to tweak the Michigan film credit, which gives moviemakers a whopping 42 percent return of the money they spent here.

Let's just hope his new proposal for a $25 million cap on new film incentives leads to a sustainable solution. We need jobs, tourism, good press, and -- let's face it -- a diversion from the doom and gloom.

Economics aside, a lot of us have enjoyed watching movies being made in metropolitan Detroit.

It's even more fun being a movie extra -- even if your scenes do end up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.

In 2009, Hilary Swank shot "Conviction" in southeast Michigan. The film is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts woman who went to law school to get her wrongly convicted brother out of prison.

On a day when scenes were being shot in Ypsilanti, I was sent by The Ann Arbor News to write a story about it. After parking, I noticed a couple standing nearby in the street who told me they were extras.

As I was taking notes, a member of the crew started walking toward us. She was holding a scarf. And she was staring at my neck.

I had two choices.

I could say: "To tell you the truth, I'm actually a sneaky newspaper reporter who had no business walking onto your movie set even if it is a public street. And yes, ma'am, I will vacate the premises immediately. And how dare I -- a lowly peon -- intrude on all this movie-making magic?"

Or I could just shut up and do what I was told.

I went with option two.

The woman wrapped a scarf around my neck and told me it was now winter in Massachusetts and I would be walking down the sidewalk paying no attention to the camera or Hilary Swank or Minnie Driver.

"You're window shopping," she said as I quietly slipped my pen and notebook into my purse.

And that's how I became an accidental extra.

My scene involved walking down the sidewalk as Hilary Swank, Minnie Driver, and Peter Gallagher walked out of a notary public and talked on a cell phone.

I was a very good pedestrian, if I do say so. I only bumped into Hilary Swank once -- and that was the fault of the director's assistant, who waited a bit too long to tell me to "Go!"

After a while, I figured I'd better head back to the newsroom. So I bequeathed my prop to another extra, got in my car, and took off. Turns out sneaking off set was just as easy as sneaking on.

But my movie career didn't end there. About a week later, I returned as an extra after I was invited by the owner of the Ypsilanti bar used to film shots of Swank at work.

This time, I spent about 12 hours waiting around for my scenes, one of which was a lively New Year's Eve party complete with party hats, noisemakers and a live band on a stage the crew had built for the occasion.

I intended to see "Conviction" when it was released. But when friends told me I wasn't in it (no surprise), I decided to wait until it came out on DVD so I could check out the deleted scenes.

I rented "Conviction" last week and nodded with recognition all the way through it. I recognized the law school scenes as the University of Michigan (which was far more accommodating than Harvard was during the shooting of "The Social Network"). I saw the little Catholic Church in Dexter where a funeral was shot, and the scenes in Depot Town and downtown Ypsilanti.

What I didn't see was me.

Not only was I cut from the New Year's scene, but so was the band flown in from Massachusetts. (No wonder movies are so expensive to make.) And there were no deleted scenes -- which to me is one of the best reasons to rent a DVD.

Ever since I was an extra, I've paid attention to the background action in movies and TV shows.

I know those folks aren't really window shopping, or lunching with a friend, or standing in line at the bank. I know the ice in their glasses is actually melt-resistant plastic, and they've been told to keep their purse over the same shoulder for consistency's sake, and to lip synch.

I also know they're having a whole lot of fun. The pay's lousy (in my case, nothing), and it requires a lot of patience. But being a movie extra is quite the kick. Even if it ends up nothing more than a memory.

Published: Mon, Apr 18, 2011

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