Region's busy filming schedule gives locals lots of chances to be seen on screen
September 30, 2010 8:00 AM
Bill Hader, left, and Ryan Reynolds in a scene of "Adventureland" at Kennywood Park.
"She's Out of My League" starring Jay Baruchel, left, and T.J. Miller, was filmed in part in Mellon Arena.
By Kaitlynn Riely Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Look away from Taylor Lautner's abs.
Pay less attention to Jake Gyllenhaal's and Anne Hathaway's banter.
When Russell Crowe tries to break Elizabeth Banks out of jail, focus on the background.
In the movies "Abduction," "Love and Other Drugs" and "The Next Three Days," there is a good chance someone in a scene -- the teenager in the Pirates fan gear, the woman in the coffee shop, the visitor to the prison -- is a local, taking advantage of Pittsburgh's emergence as a popular location to shoot movies and an easy place to work as an extra.
In the past five years, about 50,000 local residents have been extras in the 40 movies and television shows that have shot here, according to Nancy Mosser, of Nancy Mosser Casting.
Few people are more knowledgeable about the Pittsburgh extras scene than Ms. Mosser. Close watchers of the movie "Dogma" may know her as the governor of New Jersey, from a scene shot at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in 1998. Blond and wearing a red suit, she stood next to George Carlin's cardinal character as he made a speech.
That was just a perk. For that same scene, Ms. Mosser and her agency were in charge of corralling 350 extras.
Ms. Mosser, whose background is in television and film production, landed her first freelance casting job for the 1990 HBO movie "Criminal Justice." She had to find a couple of thousand extras -- not an easy task in the days before cell phones and e-mail.
She was working 20 hours a day but loved the job. So, she continued doing freelance casting until she opened her own agency in 1996.
In her office in Lawrenceville, which doubles as a studio for her brother and another artist, Ms. Mosser and her one full-time staff member, Katie Shenot, explained the qualities needed in an extras casting director: Casting directors cannot be shy. They must be able to handle the stress of having a production crew member call at 7:30 a.m. and ask for a dozen more extras. They have to handle logistics, be prepared when something inevitably goes wrong and have an eye for what the production wants.
"We sort of design the background of human beings" is how Ms. Mosser described it.
Before computers and cell phones, it was a labor-intensive job, with Ms. Mosser keeping dozens of milk crates full of files. In 2007, Mosser Casting moved completely from paper files to a computer database. The database contains about 19,000 names, Ms. Mosser said, and the search process is so detailed that the agency can find a person to fit a description -- for example, a 3-year-old Hispanic boy in the Washington area -- in an instant.
Amanda Blair, 29, of Lawrenceville, is in the database. When a friend of hers met someone working on "Zach and Miri Make a Porno" at Whole Foods in East Liberty, she asked how she could become an extra and was told to get in touch with Ms. Mosser.
After Ms. Blair dropped off her head shot, she got a phone call and an e-mail with information telling her she was needed for a high school reunion scene that would be shot late at night in a Braddock school gymnasium.
She spent most of the 12-hour shoot waiting in a holding room with other extras, thankful she happened to have a game of Trivial Pursuit in her car. Her role during the actual shooting was to pretend to talk in the background as Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks and Justin Long acted in the foreground.
There's a moment at the beginning of the high school reunion scene, Ms. Blair said, when she is clearly visible, wearing a turquoise shirt and leaning against a locker. And so a star was born -- or at least a repeat extra.
Mosser Casting called her again for "She's Out of My League," and she went to Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville early one morning to be an extra in a birthday scene. It was another 12-hour shot, and she had to dance even though no music was playing.
When "Love and Other Drugs" came to town, Ms. Blair got another call from Mosser Casting -- to play a friend of Ms. Hathaway's character.
"In the world of extras, it was a step up," she said. She and another woman spent a day with a photographer taking Polaroid photos and wearing early 1990s clothing. She doesn't know where the pictures will be used, but she guessed they could appear as decorations in Ms. Hathaway's apartment.
Later, she was an extra in a scene in a North Side cafe, and she spent the entire day sitting near Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Hathaway. That was exciting, but the highlight, she said, was splitting a piece of cheesecake with Mr. Gyllenhaal at a meal that day for the cast and crew.
"If nothing comes of it -- if you don't even see me in the movie -- it's totally worth it to have a chance like that," she said.
A big reason so many films have been shot here is the tax credit that productions receive if they spend at least 60 percent of their total production budget in Pennsylvania. When Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, tries to sell Pittsburgh as a place to film, she mentions that a lot of people in the area jump at the chance to be extras. "Warrior," scheduled for release next year, was able to get thousands of people to fill the Petersen Events Center in Oakland.
"In southwestern Pennsylvania, we are so excited about making movies," she said. "This isn't like LA, where you see a movie every day. Although, it's getting like that."
Some locals, like Kevin Farrar, 34, of Monroeville, have capitalized on the opportunity to get on the big screen. He was an extra in "Dogma," then did a few small commercials when he lived in Kentucky. He returned to Pittsburgh and jumped back into the extras scene, playing a waiter in "She's Out Of My League," a convention goer in "Love and Other Drugs" and a visitor to the jail in "The Next Three Days." His biggest extra moment came during the filming of "Justified," an FX television pilot, when he did a stunt -- jumping out of the way as a "missile" was shot toward him.
"Doing that stunt, I actually felt like a star because I had my own trailer," he said.
Justine Hand, 28, of Squirrel Hill, also has been a frequent extra, first appearing in a club scene in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," then getting called for scenes in "Adventureland" and "Smart People."
For "Smart People," she went Downtown at 3 a.m. and, for a few hours, drove her car behind a taxi being towed by a rig. The idea was to make it appear as though the taxi was in traffic, but Ms. Hand said she couldn't see her car in the scene when watching the film.
"It's funny they pay people to do stuff, but you can't even see them," she said.
The film industry has brought Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen and Denzel Washington to town, but Ms. Keezer said the most calls she has received from people wanting to be extras was for "Abduction," starring Mr. Lautner.
Fans of Mr. Lautner who are older than 18 had many chances to be an extra this summer. At the beginning of September, dozens of people wearing Pirates fan gear sat outside of PNC Park as Mr. Lautner acted in a scene. A notice on the film office's website indicated that 600 extras were needed for a scene to be shot last Thursday. In hopes of seeing the actor, teenage girls staked out the Mt. Lebanon neighborhood where shooting took place this summer.
Band members at Hampton High School didn't have to search for opportunities to be extras in "Abduction"-- the production sought them out.
In July, 130 members of Hampton's band performed a simple routine and played the school's fight song as band director Chad Himmler directed.
Even the plants and shrubbery are local in Mr. Lautner's new movie. Crew members from "Abduction" have visited Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin Borough about 10 times, said Lori Chapon. They spent about $5,000 on petunias, annuals, shrubbery, sod, ground cover plants and some tropical plants, she said.
Extras are paid minimum wage and receive time-and-a half for every hour worked past eight hours, which generally amounts to about $100 a day.
For those who are not potted plants, it can be a difficult day, said Anthony Mahramus, who has done freelance casting of extras in Pittsburgh. He also has been an extra himself and appears briefly in the trailer for "Adventureland."
"Everyone I went to high school with thinks I've made it," he said. "They don't realize how not glamorous this is."
The typical work day for an extra is 12 to 14 hours and requires a lot of standing around and repetitive actions. It's not the way to become a star, he said, because an extra's assignment is to not stand out.
But extras are necessary and, in some film productions, the directors, assistant directors or producers come out to acknowledge that.
"I've seen them take the time out and say our movie is not complete without you," Mr. Mahramus said. "You could have Robert De Niro in a train station giving the performance of a lifetime, but if no one else is there, you're not going to believe it."
A number of casting agencies are located in the Pittsburgh area. To reach Nancy Mosser Casting: email@example.com.