My friend Judi Voye works as a production coordinator for Hollywood film crews working in Utah, and not too long ago she offered me a part as an extra in "A Midnight Clear."
She showed me the shooting script. A main character would die in the scene I would be in, but it didn't even mention my part, which was an Army nurse in a flashback following one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. There would be no dialogue in the scene, and the voice-over narration would be added later. What would I have to do, I asked, besides fit into the vintage uniform the part called for? Not much, Judi said. Maybe put a glass of water on a table and walk away, maybe just stand there like a statue. The director would decide."It'll be fun," she told me.
The night my scene was shot - the last scene of a grueling day that didn't end until 2 a.m. - I told a couple of people on the set what Judi had said. They guffawed and rolled their eyes and asked if we were still friends.
We are, and I learned why people love the movie business.
Much of "A Midnight Clear," which takes place on the German front during Christmas of 1944, was filmed in White Pine Canyon near Park City. There, major battle scenes were replayed and a huge "chateau" - a three
sided bit of movie magic - was built. The interior shots were filmed on sets constructed inside the old Park City High School, a condemned and water-damaged building that has stood empty and vandalized for years.
The crews transformed classrooms into an Army barracks, a hotel room with adjoining bath, a cramped attic. The chateau's main room took up most of the space in the high school gym, and the field hospital tent where my scene was shot was erected inside the chateau.
When we finally were called to the set, three or four makeup people set to work. They splashed the four soldier extras and one principal actor with "blood" after bandaging their horrible wounds, but left the orderly and me - and our precious vintage costumes - free of gore.
Director Keith Gordon and his two assistant directors gave all seven of us detailed instructions on what to do during the scene. The wardrobe mistress and hairdresser fussed over us. The set crew worked out the difficult choreography, which involved yanking three cots and one wounded soldier out of the way of the camera as it rolled across the floor before coming to a stop practically pressed against the face of the principal actor. It was 35 seconds of controlled frenzy, and it took 15 takes to get it right.
A lot of people were watching, waiting for the day to finally end. The cast and crew had been working 12-hour days, six days a week through one of the coldest Utah winters on record, and in two more days they would be done. They were tired, grousing a little, but when the first assistant director said the words: "Rolling, and action!" everyone got very quiet. Concentration was palpable, a group effort. A little flicker of joy ran the perimeter every time we made it all the way to the end of the scene before we heard "Cut!"
As it turned out, my three seconds on screen consist of walking away from a wounded soldier and crossing in front of the camera as it travels across the set. My biggest acting challenge was not limping on my bad knee and not tripping over the rails laid on the floor for the camera dolly.
Even if I end up on the cutting room floor, it will have been more than worth it. Movies will never look the same to me, now that I have an inkling of what happens when the cameras roll.