I Spent a Day as an Extra for The Purge: The Island
The next movie in the Purge series, a prequel called The Purge: The Island, filmed here in Buffalo throughout autumn of 2017. When I heard they were looking for extras (from my good friend @lotofsnow) I had to find a way to get involved. With his help I found an email for the company handling casting and, to my astonishment, got an email a few weeks later inviting me to be an extra!
My love for the Purge movies is no secret. Despite their reputation as gratuitous festivals of violence, I think they’re some of the most cutting, insightful dystopian sci-fi/horror being made right now. So I made my way to Buffalo’s waterfront on a chilly, rainy October day with a fair amount of excitement. My first time on a real movie set, and a movie I was genuinely excited about!
There were around 300 extras on set that day, so we were all herded efficiently through sign-ins, costuming (I was told to put on my blue rain parka), hair (we were there to play a crowd of schmoes standing outside in the rain, so they didn’t do much), and onto the set. Our main scene was waiting in line, a crowd of psyched up contestants desperate for a chance to be included in the first “season” of the Purge, which presumably is being televised by an exploitative media corporation. Mostly we milled around, got to know the extras nearby, and waited for each take to begin. On our first take, we all just kind of stood there, so the assistant director directed. “Less like a funeral, more like you’re in line for a concert.” The next take was a little too exuberant, but we dialed it in. Occasional shouts of excitement, people making finger guns at each other in anticipation of the violent event we were all so excited about, mocking the cops standing nearby.
Overall, that scene was pretty boring, and even in my blue parka I was probably lost in the crowd. The weirdest part was when they shot the scene with newscasters giving their stand-up reports about the Purge line, with the crowd in the background. Because they were recording the newscasters’ dialog, the crowd had to be utterly silent. So all 300 of us mimicked being excited and talking while not making any noise at all. It’s harder than it sounds!
We all filed off to the catered lunch, thankful to be out of the rain. All the other extras were really friendly, some of them seasoned veterans of the film extra biz, lots of local newbies like me. One of the ADs was going around selecting certain people, but I didn’t know what for. A little while later she picked me. “Would you like to be a protestor?” Hell yeah. I was sent directly to the set. I left off my parka, so I was in my olive drab military style jacket. We were positioned behind a parked car across from the Purge line and given hand-written protest signs. “NO PURGE.” “STOP THE PURGE.” That sort of thing. Mine was a gray sign that said, “RISE UP.”
We were all angry about the exploitation of the Purge and not gonna take it anymore. We did a bunch of takes of us yelling and chanting and waving our signs. Then one of the leads came on set, Lex Scott Davis, the anti-Purge firebrand leading the protest. Now I’m not the “dazzled by fame,” starstruck kind of person, and obviously she had the benefit of proper hair and makeup, but her charisma and presence on set completely set her apart from everyone else. It was really incredible to see. Her talent and skill leading the protest was also remarkable. This was also the first time director Gerard McMurray appeared (the ADs handled direction for all the scenes with only extras).
We again had to do some “silent” protest scenes while the newscasters did dialog, which was even harder. It is bizarrely exhausting to fake yell silently for two or three minutes. Then we did some takes to record our protest dialog, and the fake unrest in the crowd blurred into the real unrest among us, most of whom were working-class people, and almost all of whom were people of color. Me and a handful of other white guys were a distinct minority — the film has a black director and a mostly black cast, which I think is going to give us a great new angle on the effect of the Purge on American society. But anyway, before long our “DO NOT PURGE” chants were joined by shouts of “Fuck the police!” and “Fuck Trump!” Then someone reminded us that these movies are generally PG-13, so we toned it down some. There was a long wait while they set up a drone for one last shot of the protest, during which the cold rain fell even harder. They’d handed out umbrellas to the extras for use in the scene, and soon the protest group formed a little umbrella city to keep everyone dry. It was very communal.
The thing I loved most about being on set was the set dressing, the level of detail. All the light poles had signs for nightclubs, roommates wanted, and other typical city signs, designed to look like they belonged in the Purgeverse and weathered to look natural and real. There was a woman going around with a pail of paints and pastes, making sure no one with a backpack or bicycle looked too “new.” She’d brush on a little fake mud or some rust. And it was clear that she was an old hand at this, that she’d made an entire career out of weathering film sets and knew exactly what to do. There was a bodega in the background of a scene that had been carefully altered to fit the movie as well. That kind of massive dedication to playing make-believe for a little while was weirdly inspiring.
All told, I was on set for about 12 hours and made about $100. Plus one Taft-Hartley voucher! I was actually called back to the set twice more in November, but unfortunately couldn’t make it, though I’d have loved to. I’m hoping that the protest scene has a good chance of making it into the movie. When it comes out, watch for me!