Explosions shake the air and fire erupts at a large park in Northeast Albuquerque. A peaceful afternoon concert suddenly becomes a tumult.
The chaos begins as fireworks explode prematurely with small bangs and soaring colors. Then larger blasts pierce the afternoon silence. Then big booms. Small fires singe the grass. After the largest explosion of all, a blaze erupts in a wooden kiosk.
The band on stage stops playing. The singer, with a stunned look on her face, freezes. Musicians quickly abandon the podium.
Three thousand men, women and children, families and couples, have been picnicking on the grass, lounging on blankets, relaxing, perhaps dozing. They panic. The fires and explosions are everywhere. They don’t know which way to go. They are disoriented. They crisscross the bright green sward. They race in every direction, behind the stage, over a small hill, down the hill and back onto the field, to the fringes of the field and back again to the middle.
Smoke fills the air, obscures their vision. A couple, a man and a woman, who have been picnicking, scream for a child. “Riley! Riley! Riley!” They last saw the girl just before the explosions when she was running toward the stage. That’s where the fireworks first erupted. The man and woman race toward the stage, crying the child’s name again and again and again. Finally they find her, her face smudged with soot. They hug her with joy.
Others in the audience have not been so lucky. Some bodies lie on the ground. Some faces and arms are covered with red streaks and red splotches, blackened bruises and scratches, and worse. Some move. Some do not.
None of it is real.
This is a movie set. Some 200 actors, cameramen, technicians and extras are filming the seventh episode in the third season of an NBC television series called “The Night Shift,” which will hit the airwaves June 1.
Stars Brendan Fehr and Jennifer Beals (playing Drew and Syd, doctors in a San Antonio hospital) are also on the set. As is the young Jillian Estell, who does a rather extraordinary job of performing as Riley.
Also on the set are director Louis Milito and executive producer Gabe Sachs, who is in charge. Unlike director-centric big screen movies and live stage shows, producers tend to run TV programs. Sachs is good humored and approachable but instructs the extras, “Don’t talk to the actors. They have work go do.” I am one of the 150 extras. I don’t have work to do.
This is a relatively minor TV show. It has only three cameras, two in some scenes. The 150 extras are repeatedly filmed from different angles. “You’ll look like 3,000 people,” Sachs tells the extras. A staff member explains that “The Night Shift” is a filler show, used during the slow summer months or to substitute when another show is canceled.
Still, the episodes require a lot of agonizingly slow and careful work. It takes eight long days, ranging from 12 to 17 hours, to shoot a 47-minute episode, Sachs tells me during a break in shooting. This is his third day of shooting for this episode. On average, it takes him two hours of production to create one minute of “The Night Shift.” His contract is only for eight episodes. After that? he shrugs. “I live in Los Angeles, but I’d like to move to New Mexico if I can find work here.” Few of the scenes are filmed on location. Most of the production is inside, at the facilities of Albuquerque Studios.
There is a lot of work in New Mexico. Another member of the staff tells me 17 productions—TV programs, movies and commercials—are currently filming in the state. Last week Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry told a crowd of local enthusiasts at the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience, “We’re becoming known as one of the most film-friendly cities in the world,” but added, “We need to do more in bringing together all types of artists to work together.” The city reaps a harvest of $1 million for each week of TV filming, according to the Albuquerque Film Office.
When I was traveling in Southeast Asia last winter, almost everybody I met knew that Albuquerque was the scene for “Breaking Bad.” The series seems to have done for Albuquerque what “The Wire” did for Baltimore—which, depending on your point of view, may not be an unqualified blessing. (The only other thing most people associated with New Mexico was Billy the Kid. )
“Better Call Saul,” which seems to be even more popular than “Breaking Bad” (for which it is a prequel), just completed its second season and is scheduled for a third. “Preacher,” a much publicized AMC drama, is now filming. And Netflix is filming the fifth season in northern New Mexico of the western “Longmire.”
With all of this activity there seems to be plenty of work for extras. My wife and I signed up with three hiring agencies on a Friday. The following Monday, one of them called back with work for both of us.
It was the first time on a set for either of us. I found the 12 hours of standing around and doing nothing excruciatingly boring, but my wife, with a hardier stomach, returned for a second day of shooting.
However, I discovered the details of how movies are made to be fascinating. Everything is organized around the world’s most rigid class system. The only thing I’ve ever seen remotely comparable is the way passengers on ocean liners were separated by class during the 1950s. The extras, the staff and the actors have separate facilities, a snack wagon only for staff, separate lunch and breakfast buffets with separate seating areas, and in at least one case separate portable toilets. There’s nothing quite like a movie set to put you in your place, and keep you there.
Another aspect that struck me is how nothing that seems real is real. The 150 members of an audience were to become 3,000 on film. “It’s easy,” Sachs reassured everyone. “Movie fireworks” become the real thing. Small flames become a roaring fire.
Silence becomes noise. “Pantomime! Pantomime” Sachs repeatedly instructs the extras. Pretend to clap. Pretend to talk. Even the band is told to pretend to play and the singer to pretend to sing. Real background sound would be dubbed later, at a volume that would not obscure the voices of the actors talking quietly to each other.
The final point that fascinated me was the logistical complexity of film making and the meticulousness with which it is managed.
“What is the most important thing?” Sachs over and over and over again asks the crowd of extras.
“Safety!” they yell back.
“Again. What is most important?”
When the fires were set in the park, a Fire Department tanker truck stood by with a heavy hose charged and ready to put out any flames that got out of control. Several men waited with portable fire extinguishers. Only professional stuntmen were allowed anywhere near the burning kiosk. During rehearsals, one of the stuntmen enthusiastically hurled himself along the ground in front of the fire. Sachs cautioned him, “Don’t bust a gut, this is just practice.”
The action of the film was broken up into segments lasting a few seconds or at most a minute and 20 seconds. Each segment was rehearsed over and over again, then filmed over and over again—from the same angle, from different angles, with the same camera, with other cameras. “That was very good,” Sachs would say. “But it wasn’t great. Let’s do it again.”
And all this was for a television filler film that has a relatively small budget, that has received mediocre-to-bad reviews, that will run only in off times and that will be viewed by a relatively small audience.
I’ve spent my professional life in the worlds of newspapers and magazines and as a theater critic. This is a different world.