You see them without seeing them in every movie and TV show ever made. These are their stories.
Dir. Jason Connell, 2007, 84 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
I’ve had this movie loitering in my queue for a while, but after I started working as an extra, I decided to hold off on it until I’d had some experience with its subject. Now, having been on two different movie shoots (Look for me in the background of the third episode of Grey’s Anatomy this season and Gangster Squad this January!), I can judge a little bit on how well Strictly Background captures the true essence of the craft. Or… the job. Or… the thing.
I honestly don’t know what to call extra work. It pays for crap (if you’re non-union), but then again, it requires basically no skill. It entails nothing more than sitting or standing around for hours on end, and briefly performing some very simple motion for a few minutes while cameras are rolling. Being on a movie set is pretty cool at first, but the novelty wears off around the twelfth hour of sitting around, wishing desperately that you’d brought a book. It does, though, make you appreciate the magic of filmmaking. It’s the art of transmuting thousands of hours of dull technical stuff into a few hours of transportive magic.
Even though extras are a vital part of cinema (Imagine any movie without people in the background. Seriously, think about it), their’s is not really a cinematic profession. By which I mean that there’s not much visually exciting about it. This doc follows ten people who work full-time as extras, and it certainly conveys the monotony of the job. I’m not going to say it was impossible for the film to sometimes not be stimulating, but there’s one bizarre scene where the camera follows one of the subjects as they’re lost on the way to an office. I have no idea what it was about, but it speaks to a general limpness in the movie.
When it isn’t dragging, Strictly Background is often pretty sad. These people have become lifers, industry professionals who will most likely be stuck at the level they’re at for the rest of their careers. What’s worse is that none of them seem to really recognize that fact. They all still fervently believe that their big break is just around the corner, even though some of them have been at this for decades. It’s the shadier side of the Hollywood dream, the story of the grand majority of people who shot for the stars and went down like a North Korean rocket.
What’s worse, though, is that the filmmakers either didn’t realize how sad this was, or do realize it, and are poking fun at these people. There is, of course, a third option, that it recognizes the sadness, and is treating its subjects compassionately, but stuff like the aforementioned “lost on the lot” sequence suggests otherwise. If it’s the first option, then the movie is utterly tone-deaf and misaimed. There isn’t anything inspirational about what these people do. True, they endure low pay and dull work for the love of movies, but I just see it as an industry exploiting people’s hunger for fame. If it’s the second option, then the movie is just plain mean. Either way, it doesn’t work.
It’d would have been nice if the movie had used its topic as a way to examine what really goes into a film shoot, but that’s just my preference, and it had no obligation to meet it. As it is, though, there’s astonishingly little insight on the moviemaking process to be found here. If you are at all curious about what goes into finding and corralling all those people in the backdrops of movies and television, then Strictly Background will be nicely informative (and as someone on the “inside,” I can confirm that it’s all accurate). But it’s a total tonal (Tonal total? No) mess.