It was about twenty-one years ago that Sue and I were extras in a movie that was being made in Minneapolis. That weird little flick came out on March 8, 1996. It was called Fargo. In honor of the black comedy’s 20th anniversary, here’s my account of my day as a big-screen extra…
In the fall of 1994, Sue and I trekked over to Concordia College in St. Paul to sign up to be extras in the new Coen brothers’ film, tentatively titled Fargo. Which seemed odd, considering that it was to be set mainly in Brainerd, Minnesota.
Sue’s gig took place early one February morning in ’95. Dressed up in evening wear, she made the long drive out to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater—filling in for the defunct Carlton Celebrity Room—where she spent several hours sitting at a table with her “boyfriend,” while José Feliciano sang and joked on the stage before them. She has no recollection of seeing Steve Buscemi, who was sitting with the two “hookers” in the same room.
When the shoot was over, Sue found a pay phone and decided to call me. Before she dropped her quarter in the slot, Ethan Coen sidled up behind her and said, “It’s a prop.” She was a runner-up to be Frances McDormand’s double—a dubious honor, considering all the snow that had to be stood in for lengthy stretches while the star was warm and cozy in her trailer.
Sunday morning, 3-5-95, was my movie debut. Decked out in my blue blazer, khaki trousers, blue shirt and tie, I would be pretending for a few hours that I was a Minneapolis police detective. Sandy, the “extra wrangler,” had called me up a couple of weeks prior with the news of my new gig as a police dick. She had a southern twang, and everyone was “darlin’” to her.
The day before my big performance, I had phoned her and found out my call was at the old FMC Building, near downtown Minneapolis. 9 a.m sharp. My car might also be needed, as it was of the proper vintage—an ’86 Chev Celebrity. Have a full tank, I was told.
After breakfast, I mushed off through the four inches of snow that had arrived overnight. When I arrived, a grip directed me into the “holding room” where they kept the untamed extras.
Sandy was forty-something and cigarette/coffee skinny. She had on tight jeans, a sweatshirt, and Sorels, which she clumped around in nervously—dispensing and receiving vouchers and forms of various kinds, the better to distribute our munificent wages (minimum). At one point, as she squatted down to scribble something on a form, she muttered, “I’m too damned old for this.” She may have been right, but I figured the “glamour” of showbiz gets in your blood. Every extra felt they had a pal in Sandy.
Everyone’s clothing had to be approved by the wardrobe mistress, who rooted out ’90s fashion with a hard, merciless eye. Most people did all right, especially those with suits. “Great. Super. I love it!” she proclaimed. She came up to me, looked me over dispassionately, and said, “I can live with that.”
We “police detectives” ranged from gray-haired gents in charcoal gray suits to young MBA types; also a few youngish women in dress-for-success suits. The busboys for the Minneapolis Police Cafeteria scene were a pair of barely-post-college-age guys. Their uniforms were of a light gray fabric. Why light gray? Because the white uniforms that busboys might normally wear would be too bright for the film being used.
While we sat around for two hours in the holding area, some of us chatted, some read the newspapers, others read books. I began The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Sitting ahead of me was a new retiree. He had finished his career two days before as a government bureaucrat, and then heard from Sandy on Saturday. He’d lived all over the U.S., and said he’d never seen taxes as high as Minnesota’s. I was at a loss to explain it. He looked just like a cop—perfect for the role.
Next to me was a fellow who resembled an ex-boxer, with interestingly blunt features. His job was to be a “walker,” going from one table to another during the shot. Behind me sat a gray-haired, middle-aged woman who’d taken a screenwriting course and really wanted to sell one. Thee and me, I told her.
After a while they herded all the extras from the holding area to the outside, and into the “cafeteria.” I have no idea if it really was a cafeteria. The food line was up on wooden boxes, presumably because it didn’t look right at its proper height. The camera stood behind it, on rails. There were various lights and softboxes and reflectors up all over the room. The sound gear was off to one side, and that’s where all the techie types fled during each take, including the Coens.
The brothers were two skinny guys who had grown up in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park (also the hometown of Al Franken). Joel was tall, lanky, dark, with a ponytail. He flipped his yo-yo constantly. Ethan was shorter, fairer, and he seemed to interact with people more. The assistant director was a guy with a bowl cut and a German accent. The second assistant director dealt with the extras, dispensing them around tables in the room. He told me to lose my glasses because they were too new-looking.
Some of the extras sat, like yours truly. Others walked from one point to another, said hello to someone, then moved on, sometimes off camera. About fifteen uniformed “cops” were scattered about.
The trickiest bit was that none of the extras could speak during a take. We had to mime our conversations, not having a clue about what our tablemates were saying. Which resulted in spasms of head shaking, head nodding, and gesturing, with our lips flapping away. At one point, the 2nd assistant told us to calm the heck down, and try to look more natural.
The filming began. The assistant would yell, “Roll sound.” The guy with the clapboard would clap it in front of the camera and say the scene and take number. Then the assistant would yell “Background action,” meaning we extras were to start our faux conversations. Finally he’d say, “Action,” and the real actors—a black female detective and Frances McDormand, playing the Brainerd police chief—would begin moving down the cafeteria line.
During the takes—about five complete ones, and five botched ones—the Coens huddled in front of a video monitor that showed each take from the lens’s point of view. The shooting took maybe one hour altogether, and by the end of it I and the two guys I was seated with were getting pretty lively with our miming. We all enjoyed the absurdity of it.
I had read that William Macy was the co-star with McDormand, so I kept my eye open for Maude’s husband, Bill Macy. In fact, William H. Macy was there all the time, though—being the hapless murderous husband Jerry Lundegaard—he was not in the scene. I didn’t even know who he was then, but I’ve become a big fan. Especially of his hapless “superhero,” the Shoveler, in Mystery Men.
After the cafeteria scene wrapped, some of us were asked if we would be willing to drive out to a suburban office high-rise, where they were to shoot the scene of Jerry scraping ice and whacking his windshield. I volunteered, but only spent the time keeping warm in the building’s lobby. It turned out my car wasn’t needed. Jerry’s car was the only one in the shot. I had no problem with that, as I was being paid minimum wage to be there. Anyway, I would get my 15 seconds of fame in the cafeteria scene.
Fargo fans will no doubt wonder: What cafeteria scene?
Alas, my single film appearance was left on the cutting room floor. It soured me on a Hollywood acting career forever. Better to write stories, I figure, than to not appear in them.