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The Comeback?
  By Stewart Hume


Editor’s Note: Protocol is also found in the movie business, as reported by multi-lingual and multi-talented PPI Consultant, Stewart Hume, who is featured in the hot new film Milk, starring Sean Penn.


Sean Penn at the Hollywood Premiere of Into the Wild.
© Richard Chavez


Was my late blooming career in Show Biz over? Hadn’t done a commercial in three years; hadn’t done any movie or TV work since Nash Bridges left town. Almost no SAG work had come to San Francisco in months. Non-union projects were mostly student films that paid nothing (you get lunch and a copy of the tape or disc) – ok for the young novices but not for the old pros.

Suddenly, along came Milk, the film about Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first gay supervisor. It stars Sean Penn and is being filmed in San Francisco of course. My agent called me about an audition for a small speaking part as a City Hall security person. The scene was about a fumbled effort to stop Supervisor Dan White from entering where he wasn’t supposed to be and where he eventually assassinated Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk. I didn’t get the part but later was called about doing “extra work” as an “opera patron” in the film. I had to go for a fitting and was eventually checked out in a dark brown Givenchy suit (not that I didn’t have several good suits of my own, but wardrobe people are hired to put you in the clothes they think will look best in the particular scene you are hired to be in).

A week later the “shoot date” arrived and we were advised the day before that our call time would be 10:30 am – somewhat later than usual for this kind of work. Designated parking was at the Masonic Auditorium on Nob Hill. From there, the actors and crew people were shuttled to the set. That turned out to be the historic St. Francis Hotel where in the past I had worked for five years as Director of Community Relations. What goes around comes around? Anyway, I certainly knew the territory and where all the restrooms were – important knowledge when doing film work!

Suddenly I heard my name being called. It was Sheri, one of my favorite colleagues from earlier times. We had worked together on other projects and she expressed the hope that we would be paired up in the opera scene. I agreed that would be perfect casting, but of course you can’t make these things happen. You have to be discovered by the people in charge.

We checked in with the very friendly Jennifer who gave us our union vouchers to fill out (very important if you expect to get paid). After that we went to the wardrobe people to receive our outfits. Then it was off to the changing rooms (Borgia for the ladies, Georgian for the men). Then back to “holding” which was in the Grand Ballroom. Filming was already going on in the Colonial Ballroom, but the opera scene wasn’t going to happen until after lunch, and so we had plenty of time to chat with old friends and some new ones too. Lunch was called at about 1:15 pm and took place in a musty old theater around the corner from the hotel. SAG members went through the line after the crew and before “non-union” people. That was always the pecking order for lunch or dinner. Jennifer rounded up the troops shouting ”all those who paid for the privilege to the head of the line now!” Yes, our SAG dues had been paid.

Lunch was a huge buffet with just about anything you could possibly want. Before we actors had finished eating, the crew people began to disappear – back to their cameras, grips and the set-ups for lighting and the scenes to be shot after lunch. What were they going to do for the opera? No word about that yet because they were doing take after take of a very tense scene about Dan White. All of us had to be very quiet while that was going on in the next room.

Finally someone called for the “opera group” and ten of us marched into the Colonial Ballroom where a party scene had been filmed earlier in the day. For a few moments, we sat around a couple of round tables waiting for instructions. Then it happened. A director pointed to Sheri and me and said “come this way”. We followed him up a flight of stairs and he ushered us into one of the boxes surrounding the upper level of the room. Two stand-ins were sitting in the front chairs of the box. We were told to sit behind them in the other two chairs. Then we were moved out into a hallway where we waited for further instructions.

Thelma, a “featured extra” arrived in a beautiful black chiffon dress, and she explained to us that she was playing the part of a famous Brazilian opera singer, Bidu Sayao. Apparently, she had been a friend of Harvey Milk and in this scene was his guest at the opera. Wow, I had actually met the real Bidu Sayao several years ago at a concert in Carnegie Hall in New York. A friend introduced us and I spoke briefly with her in Portuguese. She seemed happily surprised that I knew her native language and had lived and worked in Brazil. My colleagues may not have believed this story, but it was true.

Eventually Sheri and I were ushered back into the box and told again exactly where to sit. From our chairs we could see a camera was staring directly at us from an elevated platform. Technicians were bustling about measuring focus distance from the camera to the actors. A makeup woman appeared to check for shiny noses or hair out of place. She fussed over the mysterious fellow sitting in front of us and addressed him as Sean. It was then I finally realized that the star of the film was sitting two feet in front of us. Sheri and I had worked briefly with Sean Penn a couple of years ago on a movie called The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and we knew he could be sometimes tense and ill tempered. We had to be on our best behavior. Soon, we heard the words, “quiet, rolling and action”. The scene was shot about six times and on each run through the music played was from the final moments of Puccini’s Tosca with Maria Callas. I think our facial expressions were intended to reflect amazement and adoration of the artist performing at the top of her form. I guess we looked as we should have because the director didn’t complain and Sean actually thanked us as he left the box.

It was time to descend from the heights of our moment in reflected glory. Down the stairs and back to holding. The other opera extras looked rather envious as they had apparently not been used at all in our scene. Soon the announcement was made that the opera group was “wrapped”. We quickly changed into our street clothes, returned our costumes to the wardrobe people, got the ever cheerful Jennifer to sign our vouchers and caught the shuttle van back to Nob Hill. It had been a fun day, but of course the question remains: Will they use our scene in the final cut? I certainly hope so.

Copyright © 2008 Stewart Hume. All rights reserved.




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