Thursday, October 14, 2010
Every five years one of our more successful ex-patriot friends throws a spectacular birthday party to celebrate another half decade of the good life. At the most recent manifestation, while the hundred guests were seated for dinner, a young woman circulated asking for volunteers to participate in a film being shot in Rome. My wife, in her normal skeptical tone, asked why would anyone want to do that, but my American pioneer spirit jumped at the opportunity. Why not? At last, a chance to become a member of the cinematic community.
Two days later I found myself getting up at 5 AM to meet a cheerful woman in Amelia named Federica, who would drive me to the set in Rome, along with another aspiring American extra named Scott. Scott runs a bed and breakfast in one of Amelia’s historic palazzi. Federica has the effective habit of starting every sentence with the name of the person she’s addressing, as in “Scott, have you done any acting before?” thus creating a sense of familiarity among people who’d never before met and insuring recall of their names. Yes, Scott did have some acting experience. As for Federica, I’ll never have a problem with her name since I equate Italian cinema with Federico Fellini, and she’s the movie woman. Her job is to round up extras, have them sign all the releases, and pay them.
The film was to be a two-part TV movie on the Fontana sisters, who were big in the fashion world starting in the 40’s. The day’s scenes were to be at a villa in Olgiata, Rome’s gated suburb to the northwest, with the villa standing in for one in Beverly Hills. After reporting for duty we were sent directly to the wardrobe people, who, equipped with one or two racks of clothes, miraculously managed to dress up twelve extras from head to toe in slightly exaggerated 1950’s outfits. When one of the wardrobe women first saw me, she muttered “American? He looks more Russian.” Once dressed, we were sent to makeup where I was shorn of all the hair above my ears with the little that remained pomaded straight back. One fellow recruit from the party showed up, along with his partner, who proudly proclaimed himself to be a dealer in derivatives, i.e. a master of the universe, as well as a lecturer in economics at American universities in Rome. He thought he might meet young women on the set, since this was August and his wife was away at the beach, per Roman custom.
Among the other extras were some mostly retired Italo-American women from the International Club of Rome and students from American universities. The girls all seemed pretty and slightly overweight, a trait emphasized by their casual attire. In a flash they emerged from the wardrobe tent transformed into Kim Novak replicas with cinched-in waists, billowing skirts and hair piled up under silly little hats. Scott was immediately dressed up as a waiter and was so convincing in his demeanor that all day I kept wanting to ask him to bring me a gin and tonic. The box lunches filled with a nice pasta and tomato sauce, roast veal, and assorted fruits and vegetables, arrived soon after we were all costumed and made up. I managed through supreme effort and concentration to keep the sauce off my wool suit and tie, but the scheduling did seem a bit strange.
After lunch the extras were all ordered out to the street in front of the villa. This is a small street in a gated residential community but it seemed like we were on the Via Flaminia and nobody seemed able or inclined to halt or divert the traffic. Filming was done in brief spurts between the passage of cars, construction trucks, motorcycles, anything you could imagine. I found myself on the street escorting one of the costumed ladies, wondering what we were doing or where we were going when I heard a distant voice say “you, come over here”, after which another extra stepped into my place. It was all over right there, but I just didn’t know it, and I waited around all afternoon in my wool suit wondering if I’d be called for another scene. They switched to the driveway where a 1954 Oldsmobile convertible pulls up to the villa and Scott unloads the luggage from the trunk, even getting to say something, creating speculation on his part as to whether his name will appear in the credits. The masters of the universe were long gone. They’d said at the outset that they could only stay until 1:30 and the filming hadn’t gotten started until 3:00. Eventually Federica started calling the extras to be paid, the girls traded their new glamour for their baggy shorts, and I finally realized that I hadn’t even made it to the cutting room floor.
A week later Federica called to see if I was ready for another day as an extra. Of course! I spend lots of days sitting or standing around and usually I’m not paid. My overly protective wife worried “How do you know that this isn’t a disreputable film?” instantly conjuring up lascivious thoughts of my being an extra in a new Tinto Brass epic. Alas, it was the same film, but this time the filming would be done at the Alitalia Training Facility at Fiumicino. I’d been called two days ahead for all my clothing sizes and when I arrived, my costume had my name pinned to it. Today’s extras were divided into “Italians”, mostly darker haired people dressed as peasants, who would be doing a dusty bus scene at an old villa in Ostia Antica later in the day, and “Americans”, who would be passengers on two or three flights simulated at Fiumicino. There are Americans of every size, shape, color and ethnicity and by now I suspect that young Italians think of Michael Jordan as the prototypical American, but this was a 50’s film and they wanted the people to look like the ones in the movies of that period. Ironically, there was a tall, stocky red-headed (Italian) fellow working on the set who looked more like that American stereotype than anyone I’ve ever seen, but nobody thought to simply have him stop working long enough to put him in the movie. There was more confusion of nationalities in the hangar as we were getting started. They called for the “Americans” but then said we need some “real Americans”, apparently because someone might have to be seen speaking. Among the day’s extras there was one good looking woman, casually but elegantly dressed enough that I immediately assumed she must be Italian. Another young woman looked like she could be her daughter or younger sister. The first one emerged from wardrobe looking fifteen years older and very American, with her hair scrunched up under a funny little hat and clothes that completed the look. I suppose it was fair since she turned out to be a teacher from North Carolina, but she seemed a little disappointed when I told her I didn’t think they’d done her any favor. Her ”daughter” turned out to be a lovely young woman from Naples named Simona, who works in the fashion industry in Rome.
We were only in the hangar for a short time when the “real Americans” were called into the fragmented plane interior. I was told to sit next to the star, Alessandra Mastronardi. When the others were in place I was told to pretend to be asleep and I did as told. I’m not the director, and he seemed to know what he’s doing, but I wonder how many flights Ms. Mastronardi is on where men sitting next to her fall asleep. I was on another flight later but since I’d been in a close-up, I had to sit in the back row with my face behind a newspaper. Scott returned for the day’s shooting too but having been a servant at the villa, he couldn’t get too close to the camera this time either.
As we were waiting around the hangar between scenes, rather than reading a book, I pulled out my ever-present sketchbook and started drawing some of the extras. When Simona saw this, she jumped up and asked if she could draw me and vice versa. She did the sketch at the top of this piece in a few minutes. It’s in ink and rather decisively done. I was impressed, as well as flattered. By then it was five o’clock and unfortunately, as I started to sketch her, she had to leave for her ride back to Rome and I had to go to Ostia Antica with Federica for the remaining scenes. While waiting for the crew to finish, I passed a little time sketching the villa. The bus scene was done expeditiously, but the filming was held up by the need to reshoot a scene with a little girl who had appeared in an earlier scene and whose parents were holding out for more money to bring her back but Federica got it resolved. Around 10 PM the corks popped, signaling the end of the production and the time to go home.
The Fontana Sisters film is due to be shown on RAI this fall or winter. The director is Riccardo Milani. I’ll be curious to see it; even more curious to see if Federica calls again.