A weary day on the set of 'West Wing'
It seems that producing a television show is more about endurance than glamour.
By MARY GRZEBIENIAK
VOLANT, Pa. -- I wasn't sure what to expect in my day working as an extra for the filming of the fall premiere episode of "The West Wing" television series. But I don't think I will ever again view acting as a glamorous profession.
I arrived at 12:15 p.m. Sunday at the Lawrence County Fairgrounds along with the other extras. Our group filled three buses, which took us on the 15-minute drive to the Kemland Farms in Volant. On the way, a man who seemed to be in charge drilled us on "The West Wing" trivia.
My fellow passengers, who ranged from their late teens to elderly people with canes, seemed evenly divided between the curious, who knew little about the television series, and devoted fans. But by the time we got there, we all had reviewed the names of the cast, knew Warner Brothers produces the show and were informed that we were Hoosiers for the afternoon.
Once at the farm, our buses drove down a long lane and parked on both sides of a cornfield. We knew we would be in a scene in which fictional President Josiah Bartlet, played by actor Martin Sheen, campaigned for re-election at an Indiana farm. In the distance, we could see a barn and silos festooned and decorated with flags, balloons and campaign signs.
We did not know that it would be more than two hours before we would get anywhere near the set and that by day's end we would have learned that filming a television show is a wearying, exacting process, more about endurance than glamour.
In the beginning
But as we arrived, excitement was evident in the bus. We saw the Wilmington Area Schools marching band and majorettes who were recruited to play "Hail to the Chief" in the scene and all sorts of filmmaking machinery and production crew members hurrying around.
Just beyond a row of parked buses and other vehicles, filming was already taking place for scenes that did not involve us.
Almost immediately, a young blond man came aboard, said the crew wasn't ready for us and advised us to stay in the air-conditioned bus where we would be more comfortable. A little later, another man came and told us that delays are typical of the film industry and informed us we would not be needed until 2 or 2:30 p.m.
Still, our excitement was undiminished. After all, we were about to be part of the filming of one of the most popular television shows in America! Smokers left the bus to puff away, and others set up their lawn chairs along the farm lane.
Others pulled out books or magazines or snacks and chatted or suntanned. At 2:40 p.m., we were unexpectedly invited to come to the front lawn of the farmhouse for lunch. Tables with sandwiches and bottled water had been set up.
Then we returned to our bus, for more waiting.
"I thought this would be more fun," I remarked to my fellow extras. A young man leaned forward. "I think we all did," he said.
Called to work
Finally, at 3:05 p.m., word came that we were needed on the set! We hurried down the lane, allowed for the first time into the filming area, which consisted of a stage platform with about 300 chairs lined up in front of it. Many of the chairs were filled by other extras who had been on hand since daybreak. We were instructed to find a chair and sit down. Though our group was just told to wear casual clothes suitable for fall, there were other extras dressed as state troopers, Secret Service officers and local dignitaries.
We were told that Sheen would come out and give a talk and we were to clap, cheer and laugh in appropriate places. But first, his stand-in read his speech in a monotone. Then, Sheen bounced onto the stage, in a long-sleeved blue shirt and a red striped tie. The crowd went wild. He was shorter than I expected and had teeth so white I could see their gleam, though I was 11 rows back.
He bantered a little with the crowd, waiting for filming to begin.
Our entire scene consisted of a speech Sheen gives which is no more than 10 sentences long. The first time he read it, we extras enthusiastically laughed, clapped and cheered. This is easy, I thought, expecting the filming to go quickly.
But the director said we cheered too much at one point where a more subtle reaction was called for. Then too little. Then our clapping wasn't quite right. So we did it again. And again. And again. Though I could not figure out what we were doing wrong, we went through about 30 takes, only one of these due to Sheen's forgetting his line.
Amazingly, the star tells the same joke about a farmer over and over, as fresh and funny as the first time. And we don't have to force ourselves to laugh -- it's easy because of the way he delivers it.
The cameras move around, filming us from the front, then the back, then the sides.
In between takes, Sheen tells jokes, recites poetry and even sings a few bars of "Love Me Tender."
Filming was interrupted by numerous breaks. For restrooms, we extras had to walk back to the bus lane where vans picked us up and drove us to a clearing where there were portable toilets and drinks.
By 6 p.m., I noticed a few of the extras had left. The others were quieter, many of them yawning and sunburned. Yet, there were more and more takes until finally, Sheen for the last time, concluded his speech, "This is the time for American heroes, time to reach for the stars!" And we clapped and cheered and waved signs again. And finally, it was time to go home.
A man on stage said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Martin Sheen, done for the day!" and everybody applauded, and then we were told to wait while the cast left so we didn't all spill into the farm lane at once. At about 7:15 p.m., we trooped tiredly to the bus. And as we rode out of the farm, the limousines and ambulances and police cars were driving back in with their lights flashing, as the motorcade is being filmed.
And though the day was a lot longer and less exciting and more wearying than I expected, like everybody else I asked, I'm glad I was there.