Aziz Ansari’s dick is brown. I learn this crucial bit of plot
information during my time as an extra on the set of Observe and
Report, director Jody Hill’s follow-up to The Foot Fist Way.
is playing Saddamn, a skeezy employee at the lotions and oils kiosk at
the Forest Ridge Mall. A pervert is on the loose at the mall – he’s
been running up to women and flashing them – and Seth Rogen, who plays
Ronnie Barnhardt, the not-so-cuddly head of mall security, thinks that
Saddamn may be the flasher. Or the guy who has been breaking into the
mall at night. Maybe even the dude who blew up the Chick-Fil-A last year
(a charge Saddamn finds preposterous. ‘That shit is delicious!’ he
shouts as an alibi).
As I wander in the background of the shot
Ronnie has taken Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), a real cop, to
interrogate Saddamn. Despite Saddamn having a restraining order out on
Ronnie. The two comedic actors begin a long series of improvs, hurling
invectives and slurs back and forth. I can’t look at the camera, but I
can hear the one liners being flung.
Observe and Report is
shooting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a bit of a coincidence, I’m
writing this right now in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An ugly, dry,
unpleasant little city, Albuquerque is the go-to town for film shoots
looking to save a couple of bucks. At least Warner Bros films looking
to save a few bucks: the first time I ever came here was to visit the
set of Beerfest, and in the last year I’ve been here for Observe and
Report and Terminator Salvation. I’m back for Book of Eli, the
post-apocalyptic Hughes Brothers film starring Denzel Washington. It’s
telling that two of these films are post-apocalyptic. Observe and
Report isn’t post-apocalyptic, but it did need to find an abandoned
mall. The depressing city of Albuquerque was too happy to oblige.
hate to shit on Albuquerque so much; maybe it’s a delightful town. What
I’ve seen of it has been horrible, though, and I kind of wish it had
been left as the punchline to a Bugs Bunny non sequitur for me. Somehow
I doubt the New Mexico tourism board will be quoting much from this
Coming to the mall that’s been changed to the fictional
Forest Ridge you see the strange sight of a massive indoor mall with an
almost empty parking lot. Maybe Observe and Report is post-apocalyptic
after all. Two ‘anchor’ stores remain here, but everything else is
gone. This allows the production to not only create a real-feeling
(since it is real) and seamless mall, it also gives them areas for
other stages (like Ronnie’s house, which he shares with his grotesquely
alcoholic mother), an extras holding pen and production offices. This
is a one-stop facility; they’re even building sets here.
post-apocalyptic, Dawn of the Dead vibe continues inside the mall,
which is filled with stores that are open and bright but utterly empty.
There’s a food court, but no food to be found. And off to the side
there’s a very familiar seafood place – Captain O’Landers*. Then you
turn a corner and the facade falls and you see that the well-lit, nice
section of the mall is Hollywood magic. The operating parts of the mall
are shitty, dark and sad.
There’s a bit of confusion when we
first arrive. Nobody is sure if we’re going to be getting paid for our
day of extra work, so while we eat craft service donuts and coffee I
fill out the proper forms. Just in case. I wouldn’t be averse to making
a nickel or two today, and for once the boring accusation that I was on
the take for a movie could prove to be true. But sadly this is not to
be my day: we’re not going to be paid, and are just here to fulfill our
last wishes before we die of leukemia. Or to write about it for our
websites, whichever comes first.
Next step: wardrobe! We’ve been
told how to dress – what colors they want, no logos, etc – and some of
us** have followed these requests to the letter. Which means that when I
get out into the parking lot (where it is nigh upon one million degrees
in the baking New Mexico sun), I’m told that what I’m wearing is just
perfect. For those interested in my sartorial choices, I was wearing
more or less exactly what you would find me wearing should you run into
me on the street: jeans, a t-shirt and a blazer. It’s a uniform.
While I’m all good to go, others in the group need some work, so we
stand around in the hot sun, waiting for them to be dressed properly.
When everybody is ready we’re brought to the extras holding area.
There’s a scene that’s ready to go – the confrontation between Saddamn
(this is, according to IMDB, his character name. I had a copy of the
script at one point but can’t seem to find it now to double check. So
for the time being we are going to trust the notoriously untrustworthy
site) and Ronnie –
and they need people to be walking around in the
background, creating the illusion that this is a real working mall. And
that’s where we, fancy pants LA journalists, come into it. Each of us
gets our own separate set of directions, being told where to go and
what to do while we’re there.
It’s at this point I am stung by Hollywood’s shallowness. Of course the
pretty female reporters get put dead center, directly in front of the
camera. They may as well be getting screen credit at this rate, as the
extras wrangler has them gallivant about the oils and lotions kiosk,
admiring the many scented bottles, as Ronnie and Saddamn fight. But me,
as a husky, hairy, half-hideous man, I get stuck in the back. Way, way
in the back. I’m teamed with Tom Leupp (at the time working at Reelz
Channel, and who also has glasses and curly dark hair. Something tells
me the extras wrangler simply threw us together based on these details)
and told to walk into the Container Store. Tom and I have many chances
to do this***, and on the second or third run, we realize something:
Think about it. Why else would two dudes be going together into the
Container Store? This is just not the kind of place you and your broham
stop when you’re at the mall picking up chicks or buying manly athletic
items. This is obviously a shopping trip for people who are
cohabitating, and Tom and I come to the conclusion that the wrangler
has chosen us based on some kind of homosexual indicators we’re giving
off. Unconscious ones, as Tom and I are both, as far as we know,
straight. Except that there is a bear fetish website that contains
pictures of me, something that makes my brain go a little crazy – on
the one hand I’m enough of an egomaniac that I love the idea of someone
setting up a page celebrating my hirsute masculinity, but on the other
other hand it’s a bear fetish page. It’s weird at the exact same time
that it’s very flattering.
Anyway, Tom and I decide that we’re a couple, and so we go into the
Container Store and begin miming our way through a complicated series
of moves. Do we like these giant plastic boxes? No, but we do like
these small plastic chests. There’s a hamper I absolutely love but
which Tom finds gauche beyond words****. Each take means a new trip
into the Container Store, and each trip brings new insight into our
characters. I begin to think that maybe Tom’s not happy with me, that
maybe he’s getting ready to leave. I realize that I’ve dragged him to
the Container Store to try and contain him, to keep him with me. I
can’t afford to lose this man. He’s my life.
There are actual, ‘professional,’ extras scattered throughout. One of
them is tasked with playing the sales guy in the Container Store, and
he decides that he wants to butt in on our little psychodrama. I’m not
actually happy with this – Tom and I have a workshop-like thing going
on, you know? We’re creating a reality here – and I bristle. But soon I
realize that rather than bristle I should try to get this guy in
I know, this isn’t my most mature moment. And I imagine that, should
any Warner Bros rep actually wade this deep into this lengthy article,
they will be horrified to learn what sort of unprofessional behavior I
brought with me to New Mexico. But I’m just a man, and being on a movie
set is so fucking boring, even when you’re an extra.
That’s the big secret, you know: movie sets are dull places. And the
fact that you can spend your whole life wanting to get on a movie set
and then, once you’re there you’re bored to tears, makes you feel like
a bad person. I even got bored hanging out in the Troll Market on
Hellboy II and they had built a fucking Troll Market in a real fucking
cave! But movie making on a larger budget is slow, and tedious and
it’ll break the spirit of even the most patient man.
This is my excuse for why I begin whispering to the guy playing the
Container Store salesman. I wanted to try and crack him up. I’m sorry
to Jody Hill, who is working so hard at making a movie, and I don’t
mean anything personal by this. I just want\ to see if I could do it.
And so I begin asking the sales guy questions. ‘Which container is best
for baby parts?’ ‘I’m looking for something for my ball shavings.’ ‘I
really need something non-stick for my refrigerated semen.’ To the
dude’s eternal credit (or as a testament to how unfunny I am), he never
breaks up. He does look pretty horrified once or twice – I offered to
trade him my baby daughter for an under-bed box, but he kept it
After our scene was over, we hang out for a while. At one point a bunch
of us go with the lovely Warner rep to a local Starbucks (there’s
something disorienting about being in a mall but finding your food and
drink options limited to a very small selection at craft services. It
was, to quote Xzibit’s Twitter feed, hot as a wolf pussy that day, and
we wanted some frappachinos. Yeah, fuck you right back, that shit is, to quote Saddamn, delicious), and I get an urgent email from McG. He’s all hopped up about
the leaked ending of Terminator Salvation, which we and Aint It Cool
had reported upon. For a hot minute it looks like my trip to
Albuquerque would be getting extended for a side visit to the T4 set,
but that gets put off. I end up coming back to this stinking hot
shithole a couple weeks later.
That bit of excitement over, it’s back to the mall. There are
interviews to be done; Jody Hill seems absolutely exhausted and just
about beat up. He keeps up a good attitude, though, which is more than
I could have done in his position. Michael Pena is psyched – after so
many serious movies, he’s happy to be getting a chance to show off
his comedic chops in a bigger way. And his haircut alone is enough to
have us all in giggles. Talking to Ray Liotta is sort of
transcendent. I don’t know if he’s that into doing press – my instinct
here is ‘no’ – but he’ss nice enough, and just to be talking to Henry
Hill is enough to make my day.
The big draw, of course, was Seth Rogen. Rogen’s always a good
interview. He never comes across as scripted (which can also sometimes
means his answers are a little lacking, but they always sound like him
talking as opposed to him spitting out talking points), and he has that
infectious guffaw which I think is a big part of the secret of his
success. I think that laugh is what really sells him to people.
We chat him up for a while and then he has to get back to set. We go by to watch, and they’re getting things ready, which is what 90%
of a film shoot is – dudes getting things ready. As we hang
out, Rogen ambles over and does something pretty much unprecedented: he
hangs out with us for 40 minutes.
I have been on dozens of film sets, and sometimes you’ll get talent
hanging out with the journalists a little (or more usually one
journalist with whom they have a relationship), but it’s usually people
whose Q ratings are much lower than Rogen’s. Rogen could hang out in
his trailer, playing video games, jerking off, watching cartoons or
watching cartoons and jerking off or whatever it is that people who
make so much more money than you make that it’s almost inconceivable do
when they’re waiting to be needed back on set. Instead he came by and
shot the shit. Unfortunately tape recorders come right out, and I don’t
think that’s what Rogen was looking to do, to get on the record again.
I think he just wants to hang out and talk to some people.
The funny thing is that people quickly run out of ‘newsy’ shit to ask
him, and it does eventually turn into hanging out and talking. It’s a
lot of fun. I get plenty of static from people because I’m unabashedly
a fan of this guy, but chilling out in that New Mexico mall with him
all that time really makes me feel like my instincts about him are
right: Rogen’s the real deal, a legitimately funny and talented guy who
is also not a big asshole. And this would be the time for him to be a
big asshole; he’s famous, he’s beloved, he’s making plenty of money.
But he opts to spend his free time hanging out with a group of
internet journalists. Later on I end up hanging out with Rogen by the
monitors. We bullshit about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and movies
in general. It was really low key, very cool.
Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago. I’m at the Mann’s Chinese 6
(the multiplex next door to the big honking famous theater with the
handprints in cement) for a screening of Observe and Report. Tom Leupp is there too. ‘Do you think we made it in?’ he asks me. I’m a
little worried that I would spend the whole screening waiting for my
‘moment,’ but Hill’s film is a slice of dark genius, and I’m so
absorbed in it that when the Saddamn/Ronnie scene came up I almost
forgot to keep an eye on the background.
In the end the hard character work Tom and I put in were for naught;
you can’t even really see the Container Store in the shots, let alone
inside of it. But I do think that at one point, over one of Seth
Rogen’s shoulders, there’s a broad bellied blur in a blue blazer. That
would be me. The sheer star power is unmistakable.
* I make sure
to get my picture taken there. This is something of an
ordeal, since the presence of a camera on a movie set is,
understandably, a cause for major alarm. Because I write for the
internet my very presence on most film sets causes immense suspicion
already; while I’m routinely embargoed from writing about what I see
(and I’m not even sure it was kosher of me to mention that I’m back in
Alb. for Book of Eli, in fact) there’s a dread that I’ll just run
cackling to my computer and post my dark insights on a movie still in
progress. Possibly under a nom du dweeb. But Observe and Report is way
more laid back than something like Terminator Salvation, so it just
takes asking a couple of times and waiting around for the proper
authorization and supervision. Okay, maybe ordeal was overselling it.
** by which I mean me.
*** interesting note: While I am extremely excited to be actually in
this movie, even if it’s a spiritual as opposed to physical sense, I
realize that my main reason for being in New Mexico today is to report
on the making of Observe and Report. By being a participant in the
making of the film I’m suddenly unable to observe for my own report; I
can’t pay attention to the improv going on between Rogen and Ansari
because I’m too caught up in doing my little part, and I’m very afraid
of being that extra – you know the guy in the background of a bar scene
who is inexplicably staring at the leads the whole time, simply because
the dude can’t get into ‘character?’ I don’t want to be the guy who
ruins the scene by staring into the camera, so I’m forced to pay no
attention to what’s going on. There’s some stuff I can’t help but hear, like the brown dick exchange, but otherwise I know I’m missing out on some powerfully funny stuff.
**** All of this is beyond words, as we’re literally miming all of
these things. Like big, broad sweeping arm gesture miming, as if we’re
in a silent movie. At least for now. We’ll soon break the silence.