Quiet on the Set!

They're making a Hollywood movie in our little town. Or hadn't you noticed?

Most of the more than 100 extras on The Game of Their Lives are only called in for a single day, to fill out the crowd in the stands for a game scene or to pass in the background during a street scene. On a subsequent, unauthorized visit, away from the prying eyes of Fink, I meet Nick Oliveri. The eleven-year-old Clayton resident had been called in that day at 7 a.m., then told his call time was 9 a.m. He waited with his fifteen-year-old brother Michael until late that afternoon to get his moment on camera -- a moment that may well not make it to the final cut.

The boys' parents sat with them in shifts, based on their work schedules, reading and re-reading the Post-Dispatch. "I don't find it exciting at all," says Sheila Oliveri. "I think it's a waste of a day. But they wanted to do it, and in the end they'll write an essay when they go back to school this fall about what they did over the summer, and they'll be able to say, 'I was in a movie.'"

Huebner's role is slightly more substantial. He'll get face-time on camera, however briefly, and will appear in more than one scene. His chance to make it onto the screen is far greater than most of the other extras. But he'll also be on the set for three full days at least, much of it spent outside, sweating in his 1950s costume.

"Who invited you?" Stuart Fink, publicist extraordinaire
Jennifer Silverberg
"Who invited you?" Stuart Fink, publicist extraordinaire
Ideally, none of the big-budget maneuvers required to make a movie will make it into the finished product.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ideally, none of the big-budget maneuvers required to make a movie will make it into the finished product.

"I don't expect to be walking down the red carpet any time soon," Huebner concedes. "But when the movie comes out, my kids will be able to point to the screen and say, 'Hey, I see Dad way back there!' I'm getting $5.15 an hour. But if they said they wanted me to do it for free, I'd do it for free."

After my first day on the set, Fink agrees to let me come back one more time the following week. But he still has reservations, and a couple of days later I get another voicemail.

"Matthew, it's Stewart Fink," the recording begins. "You've got the phone number. I need to talk to your editor before I can decide whether you're invited back to the set or not. Can you call and leave his or her number?"

When we hook up that afternoon on the phone to discuss my second official visit, Fink explains that he doesn't understand what it was I hadn't been able to get on my first visit. He also frets about the precedent: If he gives me unfettered access, he says, he'll have to allow local radio and television stations the same. And he says he doesn't want the distraction of having me on the set all day long, every day.

He finally relents, saying I can visit the new location for one more day, when the shoot moves from Marquette Park the following week.

(Not that I let Fink's dictates keep me away. Access to the set is tightly controlled, but security is porous. In all, I'd spend a total of five days on several of the film's sets, only a little of that time in "disguise." I simply tell the volunteers at the barricades that I'm a reporter, then act as though I belong on the set, and steer clear of Stuart Fink.)

The day before my sanctioned visit, I go to the set on my own. The new location is at Soldan High School, near the intersection of Delmar and Union Boulevards. The crew is shooting a soccer scene set in New York on the football field, but the production has taken over much of the entire block around the school, including the West End Community Center on Union. Unlike the closed set at Marquette Park, however, here the streets and rec center remain open. The crew has set up headquarters inside the rec center, where neighborhood children and teenagers still come to play basketball, swim or just hang around.

Inside the community center, Stefan Block is sitting quietly at a folding table, eating a piece of cake. A tall, sleepy-looking redhead dressed in ripped blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, Block is outfitted with a headset he uses to communicate with the crew -- and to help drown out the distractions of helping run a film production inside a fully functioning inner-city recreation center.

"At this location, I get hundreds of questions," Block says. "Forty or fifty times a day somebody comes up to me and asks, 'Can I be in the movie? Make me a star!' I just push a button" -- he points to the headset receiver on his belt loop -- "and stare blankly and say, 'Copy that,' and they think I'm doing something important. The other day somebody came up to me and I just started writing down on a piece of paper, 'I can't take this anymore.' It made it look like I was doing something."

Block, a senior in Washington University's film- and media-studies program, has been on the crew for about six weeks, working as an unpaid intern for assistant director Chris Stoia. He's still trying to figure out exactly what his responsibilities are. Some days he's on the set at 5 a.m., checking in extras and herding them into the hairstylist's chair and then passing them on to the wardrobe department. Other times, during night shoots, he's there until 7 a.m. Often he's just wandering around on the set, probably doing something important but always looking a little lost.

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