Sunday, July 20, 2003

Film extras share a wealth of stories



By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Crew member Dierdre Costa of Pleasant Ridge sits among the dummies in the grandstand at Keeneland.
(Universal photo)
Thousands of would-be Seabiscuit extras turned out for casting calls at the Millennium Hotel in Cincinnati last summer. Several hundred ended up working on the movie, as did a dozen or more technical crew members. Most worked at Keeneland, where the filmmakers recreated the famous Nov. 1, 1938, match race at Pimlico in Baltimore, when Seabiscuit faced off against Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

Even if they worked only for food, they came away with the most prized reward in show business - good stories, about blow-up-dolls, cross-dressing, dashed hopes or bloody noses. Here is a sample:

Darlene Guenther, a hardcore race face who handles marketing and publicity for River Downs, traveled to Keeneland with her sister Karyn DeCaro for one day to play anonymous fans in the infield.

"We were dressed as 1930s men. They dressed us in overcoats, shirt and tie, boots. What they told us was the majority of the crowd in the races back then were men. They didn't want a whole lot of women on the rail at the race."

The extras were outdoors from before 9 a.m. to as late as 7 p.m. that day, she said. "What I most remember about the day is, it was freezing! People dressed as ladies ... had their gloves on their feet inside their shoes."

Movie crew in charge of extras tried hard to keep them happy, she said. "They were talking with us through megaphones and a PA system, joking around with us. They had contests and free T-shirts. They really tried to have fun with the crowd."

Her favorite moment, she said, was watching retired jockey Gary Stevens riding a War Admiral look-alike.

"I got to scream 'Come on, Seabiscuit!' from inside the track. As the horses were coming round the final furlongs, we had to run up the hill toward the inside rails as the horses raced by us. It was amazing."

Interacting with actors

Cincinnati actor Matt Miller was elated to be cast in a speaking role as the Pimlico starter. He had one significant scene with Oscar winner Chris Cooper, who plays Seabiscuit's trainer Tom Smith.

"It was a wonderful scene and (director) Gary Ross just let us play with it. I was so excited. He added some lines that we improv'd."

A few weeks ago, things changed.

"I get a call from my agent," Miller said. "She said, 'I have good new and bad news. The good news is you still have some screen time, but the bad news is your dialogue has been cut.'

"They wanted her to relay the information to me. They said they were very pleased with the work I did and didn't want me to learn about it only when I saw the movie. I thought it was a pretty classy move."

David Phillippi, normally a fixture at Post Production Services in Cincinnati, also worked at Keeneland as an assistant director in charge of a core group of up to 600 extras; he also oversaw the 3,200 extras who showed up for the climactic match-race finale scenes.

"Some of them were there at 3:30 in the morning and stayed till 6:30 at night. They were very long days, and (the extras) were real troupers."

"When they were all dressed in period costumes, you really felt like you took a step back in history," he said. The massive costuming chores were managed by Judianna Makovsky, one of several Oscar nominees and winners working on the film.

"The people associated with Seabiscuit would be on anybody's wish list if they were putting together a dream crew," said Phillippi. "It was the all-star team of the film world."

Some things went wrong

Even so, there were moments when things went a bit wrong. One day, he recalled, "They were shooting Jeff Bridges (who plays owner Charles Howard) and Elizabeth Banks (who plays his wife Marcela) up in the grandstand reacting to the race. They were jumping up and down, waving their arms. We had extras surrounding them who were also enthusiastic. Well, somehow (Banks) was hit in the face, and it bloodied her nose.

"What really surprised me was how gracious she was about it. She was like the tomboy next door, (she said) 'Let's do it again.' "

Quincy Koenig, owner of Cincinnati-based Midwest Grip & Lighting, was hired along with his equipment and crew to work on scenes shot at Keeneland and at private farms nearby. "They brought dirt in from Keeneland just to be that realistic, so the shots would match," he said. "They spent four days dirting out the roads."

He was also on hand when the company shot the Pimlico match-race scenes. To create the look of a jam-packed grandstand, he said, "They had thousands of blow-up dolls with masks and derby hats and shirts that looked like suits. They were roped in every chair. To look out and see them bobbing in the wind, it was eerie."

But the most amazing sight he saw came one day when a pile of material had to be moved in a hurry, and producer Frank Marshall, a certified member of Hollywood's executive A-list, pitched in. "He's a hands-on guy," said Koenig. "To see the executive producer moving apple boxes and sandbags, that's amazing."

Location manager Dierdre Costa, a veteran of the local film and video industry, was equally impressed with the blow-up dolls, which were developed by a junior member of the production staff. She said they were such a hit that producer Kathleen Kennedy gave the staffer a loan to start up a company that already has orders from two other movies.

Costa was among the crew who had to cope when a ferocious windstorm destroyed an elaborate infield tent that had taken three weeks to assemble. But she said her sharpest memory will be of her first up-close look at the horse farms where thoroughbreds are raised.

"I'm a city girl," she said. "So it was all very new to me. These places were just beautiful."




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Film extras share a wealth of stories
Seabiscuit raced at River Downs in its heyday

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